Django Is Off The Chain

June 7th, 2012 by | Tags: , , ,

Django Is Off The Chain

Here’s the trailer to Quentin Tarantino flick, starring Jamie Foxx, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kerry Washington, Cristoph Waltz, and a bunch of other folks besides:

Here’s a few loose thoughts on the trailer & culture, which have been fought through to varying levels of coherence:

It ain’t reparations, but it’ll do

My first though on seeing this trailer was that it was the bomb. I go back and forth on Tarantino, but come down pretty steadily on the side of “he’s good.” I hated Inglourious Basterds the first time I saw it, but I got it the second time. Jackie Brown is a delight. For a long time, my biggest beef with Tarantino was that it seemed like we liked all the same things (Silver Surfer, music, blaxploitation, stylized violence, smart writing) but for entirely opposite reasons.

But here, it looks like our tastes coalesce right off the bat. The music choices are perfect and make me hope for a modern score. There’s a lot of little touches I love, like Django’s haircut, DiCaprio’s “rambunctious sort,” the blood on the cotton… anyway, I have some thoughts I’m going to attempt to crystallize. Follow along:

white man’z world

One thing that struck me while watching the trailer was how it makes a point of Django being a victim of white supremacy. It’s littered with racially-charged imagery and dialogue. Waltz refers to Django as “the one I’m looking for,” not “the man.” There’s a shot of Django seen through a noose. He’s being trained by a white man who will give him his freedom. He’s barefoot and being led by a white man on a horse. The slaves are referred to as inventory and specimens.

It’s subtle, but it very clearly paints a picture of Django being subordinate to the white man. It’s an interesting choice, and I think an honest one. It also highlights the fact that the movie is a slave revenge picture. Django’s moments of agency are explicitly about murdering slave owners and traders. He whips one man, he quips about how killing white folks is nice, kills a guy… this is a movie about an underdog, someone who isn’t considered human asserting his humanity through violence.

But it’s still really interesting to me that he doesn’t get his freedom until a white man says so. He’s being used, just like the other slaves. The only difference is that the way he’s being used and his wishes coincide.

(My buddy David Uzumeri pointed out the coincidence between Django and the bounty hunter’s wishes coinciding relates in a way to me and Tarantino’s tastes finally coinciding. He’s right. I’ve got a weakness for these kinds of stories, whether we’re talking “slave revenge” or “black folks doing cool/violent stuff.” Ha.)

don algodon

I love that shot of blood splashing on the cotton. America may have been founded on the blood of patriots, but it was fueled by the blood of slaves. It’s an obvious visual metaphor, but I can’t help but love it.

lady antebellum

I grew up in Georgia, and the south of the 1800s was positively romanticized beyond all belief. Overt stuff like the Confederate flag flying over the Georgia dome, yeah, but also smaller things like mint juleps, landed gentry, balls, and fainting couches. The antebellum south feels like the closest thing we’ve got to American nobility, and people like to cling to it to the point where criticizing it is practically verboten. It was a Golden Age, you see, and if only we could go back to it…

What I’m dancing around is that we tend to dance around when we talk about slaves, the south, and whether or not slave owners needed an axe to the face. There’s a good reason for that. Slave owners are us, meaning Americans and our great-great-great-grandfathers or whatever, in a way that Nazis are not. It’s cool to say that Nazis get what they deserve because they’re way over there across the water, and their story ended cleanly enough that we’re totally okay with using them for cheap pop. When you’re talking about Joey’s great-great-great-grandfather, though, and the source of his family’s money, things are a little different. You want to excuse the past with phrases like “oh it was just the times” or “it was an unenlightened time.”

Which makes me very happy with how Leonardo DiCaprio is playing his character. He seems like a slime ball. He feels positively decadent, and I imagine that his infatuation with black women will be depicted as aberrant behavior for landed whites, rather than something progressive. There’s also an air of condescension about him, something I associate with people who are so rich that they’re not like us. That line “He is… a rambunctious sort, ain’t he?” and that trailing laughter… there’s a lot in that. He’s not the Nice White Sympathzier Who Is So Progressive He Likes Colored Girls. He’s rich and corrupt.

You can still go on cotton-picking tours in Georgia, last I checked. Probably tour a few plantations, too. I went to Jefferson Davis Middle School in Virginia. Heritage, not hate, baby!

no pigeons

All the ladies in this are black, which is cool, but they’re all also silent and objects of lust (or love, I figure) or victims of anger. I briefly thought that Django’s wife had shacked up with DiCaprio’s character.

It made me think about how Tarantino’s gonna approach women in the movie. Blaxploitation, and the idea of a slave rebellion or getback, is generally testosterone-fueled. Women are usually depicted as wives or conductors on the underground railroad, not the people putting bullets where they need to go.

I saw Zoe Bell on imdb, credited as a tracker, so I know there’ll be at least one protracted fight scene. I’m hoping Kerry Washington gets to get it in, too.

i can’t catch all of ya, but i can make an example out of some of you

“Kill white folks and they pay you for it? What’s there not to like?” is the sort of thing I’ve been waiting to hear in a movie for years. Not out of any deep-seated racism or anything, but because black revenge movies basically died off with the end of blaxploitation. I’ve been hoping for a movie where thinly veiled versions of Ronald Reagan and Ollie North were kidnapped and forced to smoke crack, or like Bernie Madoff getting robbed at gunpoint.

I think those kinds of stories, cultural revenge tales, are important. They’re not healing but they are… comforting? “At least THAT guy didn’t get away scot-free.” The video game industry has made billions avenging World War II over the past thirteen or fourteen years, the comics industry even longer, and we won that war.

Now imagine if a group of people destroyed your entire culture, forced you to work on pain of death, and had no problem obliterating your family structure. The country fights a war that results in your freedom, and the bad guys don’t become the victim of unending scorn. Instead, they’re celebrated in movies like Gone with the Wind and become the prototype of American nobility. Plus, instead of getting pure freedom, you’re given a half-existence, held back by state-sponsored terrorism perpetrated by the exact people who just lost a war and laws that prevent you from exercising your right as a citizen.

Nazis to slave-owners is not a 1:1 comparison, obviously, but roll with me. Can you imagine a romance flick like Gone with the Wind set in Berlin, circa 1941? A sympathetic portrayal like that? We’ve learned about good and sympathetic slave owners. (Hi, Founding Fathers!) There are no good Nazis.

I dunno, but I feel like slavery is a situation that deserves no small measure of fictional getback. It’s a way to wring some cheap joy from something that’s long past. It cannot, and will not, replace actual amends, but I think it makes for fun stories to tell and a good time at the movies. There’s some type of… I can’t find the word right now, but a pleasing feeling deep inside to see oppressors get done in. It doesn’t matter whether they’re Nazis, slum lords, slave owners, aliens, whatever. It strikes a very pleasant switch.

It’s this Malcolm X quote, in other words:

Nobody can give you freedom. Nobody can give you equality or justice or anything. If you’re a man, you take it.

This doesn’t quite stack up when faced with the horrors of realpolitik, but as a rallying cry, as something to instill a sense of right and wrong, as a self esteem boost, as something to settle deep in your heart and tell you are worthy of basic justice and equality and honor, it’s amazing.

I think Django Unchained, even down to the title, is going to be about Django taking his freedom. I hope so, anyway. I’ve got high hopes. If I can’t have Grand Theft Auto: The Nat Turner Rebellion, then I’m willing to settle for Django Unchained. Especially with that ill bit where Django shrugs off his cloak to the tune of James Brown. Perfect.

But if Tarantino shoehorns in another dead nigger storage speech, word is bond, our newfound best friends forever status is o-v-e-r like the Bridge.

Other thoughts: Ta-Nehisi Coates, raythedestroyer

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30 comments to “Django Is Off The Chain”

  1. Have you read Marra’s Lincoln Washington David? It was a weird experience being linked to that trailer not 10 minutes after reading the comic.

  2. I don’t know many other writers in or out of comics blogging who examine their reactions to a work as fearlessly and honestly as you do, David. It’s always bracing and fascinating to read. Thanks!

  3. “Grand Theft Auto: The Nat Turner Rebellion” should totally be the name of the next Fast and the Furious movie.

    Seriously though, I also liked how honest the trailer was about Django’s social status. I think this film is going to be much more palatable than Red Tails, which was a huge disappointment.

  4. Totally agreed about that last line of yours. Also, glad to hear someone say they hated Basterds the first time thay saw it.

    The thing I’m most leary about, and this probably comes from how buddy buddy Tarantino is with Eli Roth, is the potential torture porn shit. I can imagine moments in this that are motivated by a desire to show just how bad slavery was and how cruel slave owners were, that end up playing out as something exciting to watch. Hostel type shit. And given the subject matter, I’m fucking dreading even one moment of this movie that reminds me of watching Goodbye Uncle Tom, which is maybe the only film that I have true contempt for. Basterds sidestepped anything like that because Shosanna(and the film itself) never went to the concetration camps, but the slope of this premise is a whole lot more slippery.

    The women issue I’m not too worried about, since he’s shown how much he loves tough ass women who revel in some of that getback. Wouldn’t be surprised if Pam Gier makes a cameo, even.

  5. Any chance someone could tell me what the name of the James Brown song they use is? I feel like I should know, but I can’t place it in my woefully small knowledge of his work.

  6. I haven’t seen the Benjamin Marra comic yet, but I want to.

    @Rbx5: It’s James Brown’s “The Payback.” Classic song.

    I’ve been thinking more about the song and specifically that scene where it comes into play. Setting aside the obvious connection (Payback, revenge, etc), the album that song is from was supposed to be a soundtrack for Hell Up In Harlem, which is cool, but it’s a song that is specifically about a woman that’s done James Brown wrong, rather than generic revenge. I’m wondering if that isn’t an oblique hint that Tarantino’s throwing out there. The Johnny Cash song “Ain’t No Grave” is about being unwilling to die until you finish your business, another possible hint.

    What’s sticking with the most is a vaguer, stretched-ier connection, but Jamie Foxx shrugging off the shackles of slavery to a funky James Brown song is some real black power imagery. That shrugging motion also puts me in mind of superheroes and capes, mostly because of how they’re dominating the box office right now. It’s a visual rejection of that type of movie, a “We don’t need this.” That feels very familiar to me, as something I had to do as a black kid to a certain extent. It’s like choosing Muhammad Ali over Superman.

    It’s probably nothing, just a thought that came into my head as a bit of a parallel.

  7. Between you getting your Tarantino slavery revenge movie trailer and me getting my Roger Rabbit Meets Captain N movie trailer, we really need a go-to image of you and I doing a jumping high-five.

  8. Congrats. I was on the fence about this trailer, and you pushed me over the edge to actually being excited. So if it’s disappointing, I’m laying the blame squarely on you.

    A couple things. To build on your idea of ruining the myth of the Antebellum nobility, the clips they show with Django in that bright blue, ruffled suit, mowing down white people in drab, workmanlike clothes–it seems like not only is Tarantino trying to break the idea of the southern gentry but co-opting it, and conferring on Django a sense of power and class that the white nobility can’t really compare to.

    Also, I think the whole “revenge fantasy” thing is one of the reasons Malcolm X drew so many people in. Like he said, “you haven’t got a revolution that doesn’t involve bloodshed.” And while King’s nonviolent, politically-oriented push for civil rights, was ultimately more workable in an America dominated and ruled by white people, Malcolm’s attitude was so much more immediate, so much more visceral, that it makes sense that blaxploitation and hip-hop and Tarantino would sink their teeth into it and never let go.

    I hope you’re right, or at least semi-right, about DiCaprio’s character. The “you had my curiosity, now you have my attention” line is a little protagonist-one-liner-y for my liking.

  9. That *zoom* *smirk* shot of DiCaprio has been bugging me since I saw the trailer, and I finally nailed why: his face is straight off an Oda villain. The smirk, the ^ – eyebrows, the just-slightly-exaggerated prop (that weird cig holder).

    It’s Leo as Deep South Crocodile.

  10. @Ian MacEwan: That torture-porn vibe is what put me off with Basterds. That and the fact Paul Verhoeven did a better WWII revenge thriller with Black Book.

  11. @Andrew Taylor: Same here, but only at first. Like David, I came around and I like it a lot now, though it’s probably my least favorite of his films. And I have pretty good faith that Tarantino won’t go that route with this. I think he knows what’s up, and is generally pretty senstitive to it(that poor choice of line in Pulp Fiction aside). It’s just that there’s this crazy potential for it to get ugly that I can’t not think about.

  12. I have to go to work, but I like all these comments, and I wanted to mention the (also obvious) parallel between Django throwing off his cape to James Brown music and James Brown putting on a cape to get hyped up for his songs

    I’m going to think about how I rate Tarantino’s flicks on the way to work. I know Jackie Brown is tops for me.

  13. Nice piece. I know it wasn’t the focus, but your assessment of revenge re: video games and comics in relation to WWII is so true it hurts. And the “Heritage, Not Hate” line is such garbage. I hear that one a lot where I live, sadly.

  14. I was excited for this movie anyway, but the trailer surpassed my expectations on just about every level. Then, I see another magnificent post from you giving me even more reasons to enjoy what I’d already seen.

    I’m curious if this movie will kick up a bit of a racially charged shit-storm or not. Great analysis on the difference between a WW2 revenge flick and a slavery revenge flick. I hadn’t given it much thought and originally placed them in the same category. There is a difference. This is closer to home. These are our bad guys that we have to answer for.

    I just spent some time in Germany as part of a study abroad program and while there we spent a lot of time talking about how German students are educated about the rise of the Nazi party, WW2 and the concentration camps. It’s pretty thorough, including multiple visits to concentration camps. It left me with this horrible feeling about how much we sweep under the rug in the US. We don’t really talk about this time period all that much in high school (This is not the case in college.) Maybe it’s just where I’m located in the country. I’m about as far north as you can get (MN) and the only thing we really talked about other than broad strokes was the fact that the Fightin’ First (hailing from MN) seized South Carolina’s flag during a battle, which of course just paints our state in a heroic light and leaves out a lot of the other stuff going on during that time. Anyone else have a different experience in history class?

    Sorry for the tangent, just something your post got me thinking about. Back to the movie.

    Man, is having these actors all smashed together in one film great. Foxx, Waltz and DiCaprio have three of the biggest personalities and sport some of the most scene stealing screen presence in recent memory. This is just gonna be a fun time watching them try and one up each other.

    I guess I have to echo MacEwan’s comment about the torture porn-y angle. Really hope that’s not the case. Could make for an awful experience.

  15. “Now imagine if a group of people destroyed your entire culture, forced you to work on pain of death, and had no problem obliterating your family structure. The country fights a war that results in your freedom, and the bad guys don’t become the victim of unending scorn. Instead, they’re celebrated in movies like Gone with the Wind and become the prototype of American nobility. Plus, instead of getting pure freedom, you’re given a half-existence, held back by state-sponsored terrorism perpetrated by the exact people who just lost a war and laws that prevent you from exercising your right as a citizen.”

    I think this is one of the best single concepts you’ve ever written.

    I’m also very curious to see your Tarantino rankings; sometimes I like to pretend that the first little trilogy of Reservoir Dogs, True Romance, and Pulp Fiction are the only films that he ever did.

  16. DiCaprio a racist? sign me up lol

  17. @Ian MacEwan: ‘And I have pretty good faith that Tarantino won’t go that route with this.’

    Up until the trailer, every news I had heard about Django Unchained made me think it was going that route. What it looks like now has me pleasantly surprised. I’ve never been enamored with Tarantino, apart from Jackie Brown and Reservoir Dogs, but this I’m actually excited about. Foxx and DiCaprio (and the way they deliver Tarantino’s dialogue) definitely factor into it, and so does the combination of Johnny Cash and James Brown in the trailer which is just so…I don’t know what to call it other than inspired.

  18. There is a lot wrong with the stereotypical slaveowner/field boss that is protrayed in Hollywood, beatings were in fact few and far between and general good health of slaves were paramount to the slave owner due to work efficiency, but this isnt the place for that argument and is irrevlant because at the end of the day slavery is slavery. The reason I bring it up is because while movies like Gone with the Wind and others that glorify Old South irrate you, Django irrates me because its used to stir up racial aggresion based on fictional and inaccurate stereotypes. I’m not even saying my thinking is correct thats just what i feel and i pretty much see this movie as half “fuck yeah!” black guy movie and half white guilt pussy nonsense. A movie where scores of white men are cut down and murdered by the “black man’s vengeance” holds no interest to me but rather disdain. But whatever, fuck it

  19. @Dylan: Better white guilt pussy nonsense than “oh, is that not PC enough for you?” scaredy-cat justifications for past crimes :rolleyes:

  20. @Dylan: I don’t know, man. I’m as white as they come, and I feel no connection to these slavery-south white people. There’s no white guilt here, neither is there anything even close to approaching an idea that this movie cares about historical accuracy. It’s more about moral accuracy, if that’s the right phrase. The spirit of the thing over the letter of the thing? Anyway. Basterds was a straight up historical fantasy, and I don’t expect this to be much different in that regard.

    But also, Jamie Foxx getting the “black man’s vengeance” is something I very much want to see, so I doubt we’ll agree on much.

  21. @Ian MacEwan: No you’re 100% right. i guess i’ve should’ve done a better job explaining. i understand what the film is, i get its a fictional piece of work. its tough to explain because it can be easily misconstrued that i’m defending slavery which i’m not or saying that i’m offended or whatever by a slaveholder getting his come’up-ins. But not for nothing the spirit of the thing is a hyperblown over the moral justification for black audience much like bastards was for the jewish audience. and dude like i said i’m not even saying i’m right, thats just how i feel, i’m just not a fan of insanely overblown one sided things where the big bad in the film is like the ultimate evil much how Bastards was.

    @david brothers: Not even trying to start an argument on your forum here. But what you just said is irrelevant to what is being talked about. You yourself said why this movie has a draw to you was becasue slave revenge is a factor, i’m just saying thats to whom this movie is obviously pandering towards. But if you wanna use slavery as past crimes, which yeah is fair, then black people should start apologing to each other for the same past crime. Virtually every culture and absolutely every race has engaged in slavery to various degrees and length and white america isn’t at the top of that list.

  22. @Dylan: Hahahaha oh man really? REALLY???

  23. @Ian MacEwan: ? i know your not going to try to say I’m wrong because that would be asinine. Both films deal with the oppressed group lashing back ferociously at their oppressors which is attractive to people who can relate to said group. That cant even be logically debated. Its to the point however where i no longer feel sympathetic to the oppressed, which is at first what i kinda thought you were talking about when i first read your comment about the torture porn shit in tarantino movies. To use Bastards as an example yeah i get it nazis are bad. I know that you know, that i know, that i know that. Thats why the concentration camps scenes weren’t needed but do we have to see every german soldier lumped in together like they’re all SS officers and see lil jimmy schmidt get his forehead craved apart after he surrendered and cooperated fully the jewish-american commandos. Or the unarmed older german officer whom we’ve lead to believe is a pretty brave patriotic guy displaying a medal demonstrating that then only to be fucking brutally murdered by a baseball bat. why the fuck wouldn’t you use that scene on like a gestapo guy or someone more deserving. its guilty by association and its fucking bullshit and thats my point about what Django represents to me. Granted i haven’t seen the film or read much about it but its pretty evident when Django says lines like “killin’ white folk and they pay you for it, whats not to like?” in the trailer for the movie and not killing slavers or something similar but white folk which says white folk are the bad guys kinda sets the tone to where this movie is heading.

    And i’m not even trying to say don’t see this movie. Go see it, have it try to beat avengers numbers who gives a shit, its fucking fan-fiction. But call its pandering for what it actually is and i personally don’t want to see black vengeance against everyone white person who happened to be associated with 1800s America.

    David sorry this is so long…

  24. Can someone help me with the name of this black movie? I saw it late one night in 1992 (wtog 44 Tampa used to play old 80’s movies around 12am up until 430am). The movie was about a group of black men and women who called themselves “The Re-educators”. They would kidnap brothers who had big influence over the black community, but chose not to help it, or who were about to make a decision that would harm the black community.

    That unlucky person would be strapped to a chair and forced to watch historical footage of atrocities done to the black community to remind him of where his loyalty should be, then once he repents, he was let go. I think they would kill someone who they released if he didn’t change his ways. This movie was the first time I heard the phrase “We wear the mask that grins and lies”.

  25. All I can say is that I’m gettin’ a SHITLOAD of usage out of this gif:


  26. @Rhio2k:
    Fear of a Black Hat or The Drop Squad.

  27. Also being in the small minority thst thinks Jackie Browm is his best work, I’d love to see a post about it on 4th Lettter.

  28. Thanks!

  29. I don’t think it’s Fear of a Black Hat.

  30. I’m a fan of the Fred “the hammer” Williamson loose trilogy of westerns (hell, just the dude in general, he was in a lot of rad movies in the 70s), starring with the Legend of Nigger Charley, followed by the Soul of Nigger Charley and Boss Nigger. I can see a sprinkle of that influence in the trailer here, specially the shot of Django riding into town is almost a mirror of when Fred Williamson and D’urville Martin ride into the town in Boss Nigger.

    Now I wonder if there’ll be a half Indian/half Black character in the vein of Jim Kelly in “Take a Hard Ride”, which not only had him but Jim Brown, Fred Williamson AND Lee Van Cleef. Yes, I know, AWESOME.

    I also wonder if there’ll be a catchy theme song to Django like there was for a lot of blaxploitation films….