Surviving "Django"

An African-American’s experience of watching Tarantino’s slavery-revenge tale in a small rural town.

Certain movies are difficult for me to watch in the vicinity of white people—Rosewood and Glory, for example, and more recently, The Help and now, Django Unchained. Given how fraught black history has been, it’s hard to look at the ancestors of those who made that history, sitting quietly alongside them in a theater, watching a depiction of the injustices of the past. Suffice it to say, I was as tense about seeing Django Unchained as I was seeing The Help.

I live in a rural town, predominantly white. Some people here still refer to black people as “colored.” More than once, I’ve been told that the lot I park in at work is the faculty lot. I am a faculty member. Whenever I see a driver pulled over, for a hundred miles in any direction, it’s a young black man. This town is like most rural towns. Attending a screening of The Help, I sensed a gleeful nostalgia in the air as if all the elderly white folks around me couldn’t help but think, “Those were the days.” The people around me applauded as the movie began and while it ended. They were visibly moved. At several points throughout the movie, I heard sighs and sniffles. They clearly didn’t see what I saw in the movie, which I’ve written about elsewhere—a travesty.

As expected, I was the only black person in the audience when I attended of Django Unchained. The movie opens with five male slaves being herded, on foot, almost naked, their backs bearing the evidence of their torment. Braids of scar reach from their shoulders to their lower backs, revealing the director’s fetish for the broken bodies of slaves; as if only through such explicit visual evidence can a viewer understand the horrors of human bondage. Things only grow darker from there.

From the start the audience around me laughed, quite heartily. What was disconcerting was how often they laughed at the wrong times. Some of the laughter was nervous tittering during the first instances when the N-word was bandied about. They laughed when Stephen asked Calvin Candie if he was going to let “that nigger,” Django, sleep in the master’s house. They laughed when Django told King Schultz people were staring because, “they ain’t never seen a nigger on no horse.” The more the word was used, the funnier it seemed to become for the audience.

There was silence during the movie’s subtler moments, such as when slave turned gunslinger Django (Jamie Foxx) explains to plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) that his business partner, Dr. King Schultz, (Christopher Waltz) offered to pay to save a runaway slave because he was “not used to Americans.” When the movie’s dark humor focused on people who looked like them, the audience was quiet.

I started becoming paranoid—were the people around me gleeful because they could enjoy hearing the N-word used without consequence, or were they, like moviegoers during The Help, longing for a different time?

To be clear, any offense I take with Django Unchained is not borne of political correction. Art can and should take liberties and interpret human experiences in different ways, even if those interpretations make us uncomfortable. My offense is personal—rising from the uncomfortable reality that had I been born in a different time and place, I could have been a slave.

It’s impossible to talk about Django Unchained without talking about the N-word, used so ubiquitously in the movie. Tarantino seemingly believes the N-word to be a new conjunction. I hate the N-word, and avoid using it at all costs because the N-word has always been a pejorative, designed to remind black people of their place; a word to reinforce a perception of inferiority. There is no reclamation to be had.

There are 110 instances of the N-word in nearly three hours, something Tarantino seems to believe is historically accurate and therefore justified. During each of those 110 instances, I felt a stab of anger because it felt so needless and so gratuitous. Had Tarantino used historical accuracy to guide every aspect of Django Unchained, one might accept his explanation. But this is a movie that includes, among other oddities, a slave merrily enjoying herself on a tree swing of Big Daddy’s plantation. When Tarantino suggests he is trying to achieve verisimilitude by infusing his script with the N-word, I cannot but feel he is being selective about how and where he chooses to honor historical accuracy.

Certainly, the N-word is part of our history as much as it is part of our present. The first documented instance of the word dates back to the 1600s and since then it has appeared in nearly every aspect of American life from legal documents to music and movies to our vernacular. And still, Roots manages to depict the realities of slavery without using the N-word once and it’s nearly ten hours long.

I knew from the start that I wasn’t this movie’s target audience. Racism and slavery aren’t terribly amusing to me unless Dave Chappelle is running the show. I am exhausted by the subject. But Django isn’t really a movie about slavery but a spaghetti Western set during the 1800s. Slavery is the movie’s easily exploited backdrop. As with Inglorious Basterds, Tarantino found a traumatic cultural experience of a marginalized people, and used it.

The film is at times brilliant but mostly infuriating. It is a good movie in that masturbatory way most Tarantino films are good. The man knows his craft and clearly loves movies and loves to make movies that are about showing just how much he loves movies. Despite my qualms, I found myself enjoying pieces of the film. The sound design, for instance, was impeccable. The acting, direction and set design were solid. The script at moments can be intelligent.

Christoph Waltz was, as ever, a revelation. His character revealed the absurdity of slavery and gave viewers one white person who wasn’t wholly hateful. But, he was still complicit in slavery, using the system to his advantage. At the beginning of the movie, Schultz tells Django he will only free him after they successfully capture the Brittles. Schultz finds slavery abhorrent unless it suits his purposes, which is, I imagine, the dilemma many white people faced during the slavery era. Schultz only owns Django during the first fifteen or so minutes of the movie, but what matters is that when he could have made the right choice, he didn’t.

To add insult to injury, we never actually see Django receive his freedom in a movie where Tarantino offers us an interminable scene of two slaves beating each other to death while being taunted by Calvin Candie and another gentleman, and another scene where human bodies are basically used for target practice, replete with the visuals of flesh being torn open by bullets and blood arcing through the air. We see Hildy receiving her freedom at the end of the movie, the pomp and circumstance of her papers being signed, but Django’s proverbial unchaining is merely implied.

As Django, Foxx does a fine job but the character is largely one-dimensional, mumbling moderately amusing lines about killing white people. When he gets to choose his own outfit (thanks, Massa), he picks a bright blue fop of a suit, that makes the audience laugh at the simple negro. Then, toward the end of the movie, he regains his dignity, just like that. We hardly get to see a loving moment between Django and Broomhilda even though their love story is supposedly the movie’s centerpiece.

Tarantino spends an inordinate amount of time depicting the suffering of the slaves, but he is rather selective in these depictions. There is little evidence of the sexual violence slave women faced or the day-to-day suffering slaves endured. Sometimes, like on Big Daddy’s plantation, it seemed like maybe slavery wasn’t so bad, with slaves well dressed and roaming the grounds, leisurely, while nearby, a woman is about to be punished for breaking eggs. At other times, we see chained slaves headed to the slave market in Mississippi or slaves forced to fight to fight each other like animals for the white man’s amusement, or, in a particularly gruesome scene, a runaway slave is thrown to wild dogs. We see how his body is torn apart. We hear his screams.

One thing we know about slavery is that in order to survive, some black people did what they had to do. Sometimes that meant becoming a part of the slavery system so that said system wouldn’t break them all the way down. Samuel L. Jackson makes a deeply disturbing turn as Stephen, an irascible right hand to Calvin Candie—part butler, part household overseer, part world’s crankiest hype man to his master. We’re supposed to hate Stephen because he’s about as bad as the white people (and Jackson plays the role so convincingly that we do, indeed, come to hate Stephen). There’s no sign, however, of why Stephen became so cruel; no acknowledgment that he was cruel to survive and that slaves only had impossible choices, when they had choices at all. We should feel as sympathetic toward Stephen as we do toward Django or Broomhilda, or any of the other enslaved people in the movie. Unfortunately, Tarantino is too heavy handed and self-indulgent to allow us even this.

What struck me most, sitting there in that theatre, was how Django Unchained was a white man’s slavery revenge fantasy, and one in which white people figure heavily and where black people are, largely, incidental. Django is allowed to regain his dignity because he is freed by a white man. He reunites with his wife, again, with the help of a white man. Django Unchained isn’t about a black man reclaiming his freedom. It’s about a white man working through his own racial demons and white guilt.

There is no collective slavery revenge fantasy among black people but I am certain, if there were one, it would not be about white people, not at all. My slavery revenge fantasy would probably involve being able to read and write without fear of punishment or persecution or a long vacation in Paris. It would involve the reclamation of dignity on my own terms and not with the “generous” assistance of benevolent white people who were equally complicit in the ills of slavery.

In Haiti where my family is from, January 1 not only ushers in a new year, it is the day Haitians recognize as Independence Day. On that day in 1804, Jean-Jacques Dessalines declared Haiti a free nation, the first of its kind in Latin America, ending a thirteen-year slave rebellion. As a first generation American, I was raised with stories of how my ancestors fought for freedom, and how no matter what burdens we may suffer as a Haitian people, we know we set ourselves free. As I’ve thought about Django Unchained, I’ve thought about this freedom, and what it has cost and how what Django Unchained lacked, above all, was any understanding of how people can and will fight for their freedom under any circumstance.

I am Haitian, but I was raised here in the United States. You cannot know my heritage just by looking at me. I’m also black in America. Like many people who share my skin color, slavery is this terrible, looming thing—part of a distant past that also remains inescapable. Instead of offering me some new insights on this troubling reality, Django Unchained simply served as a reminder that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

All photos from Django Unchained via The Weinstein Company

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