(I’m bad at email. A guy emailed me with a question about Django, so I answered it in my usual format: thirty-thousand words of overkill. Then, after reading a reply from him, I finally read the subject line of the email and I realized he meant to interview me for a quote, rather than being simply curious about stuff. Whoops. But, this is me. And is more:)
The Django Unchained and Blazing Saddles comparison is, at best, a really cheap comparison. The two movies are too different to compare directly. It’s sort of the same thing that leads people to compare Amistad and Beloved to Django Unchained. They share a few surface similarities, but as soon as you step into the waters, they’re entirely different animals.
The short version is that Blazing Saddles is a comedy (or satire, or whatever — let’s go with comedy because it’s easier) set in the late 1800s and Django Unchained is a western set in the antebellum south. Django Unchained has funny moments, and a lot of them, but the way it uses humor couldn’t be more different from how Blazing Saddles does.
Saddles wants you to laugh until you cry. Brooks layers in pointed jokes like the black sheriff, goofy stuff like anachronistic gags, and goofy names because he wants to make you laugh until you cry. It has a point that’s worth saying — most good comedy does, I think — but it isn’t controversial in the same way that Django is. It’s tackling sensitive subjects, but not to the extremes that Django is.
The sticking point with Django is that it’s about slavery, something we tend to tiptoe around, and it’s an action movie. More than anything else, Django Unchained is about a dude trying to get his wife back, even if he has to kill people in the process. It’s set in 1858 and 1859, so they couldn’t avoid slavery or excise it from the narrative without being dishonest. So Tarantino made the decision to tackle it head-on, to make slavery and its issues text instead of subtext, and that’s where the sticking point is. Considering how sensitive slavery is, an action movie set in that time period runs the risk of disrespecting, or maybe not paying enough fealty, to the very real misery that slavery caused.
Now, Django Unchained is funny. It’s really funny. But where Brooks was trying to make you laugh until you cried, Tarantino is trying to make you laugh to keep you from crying. He’s dealing with one of the most painful periods in American history, and having to confront the reality of that pain when you’re just trying to have a good time at the movies is tough. If he tilts too far in one direction, he’s disrespecting the subject by not treating it seriously enough. If he tilts it too far in the other, he makes a movie that feels more like a lecture than anything else (most slavery movies are the latter, here).
So he walks down the middle. The violence against the black characters in Django Unchained is realistic, whether that means rooted in history (the chains, the masks, the whips) or treated realistically if they’re fake (the mandingo fights, which are uncomfortably brutal and not like the fistfights we see in flicks usually). The white guys get geysers of blood and exploded and so on. There’s a marked difference there.
But the thing is, realistic depictions of pain suck. It’s a HUGE bummer, to understate things, and you run the risk of losing the audience that came to see dudes get shot and damsels de-distressed. So Tarantino layers in jokes that we can appreciate from our 2013 perch, but also jokes that work just because they’re good jokes. We laugh at the reaction to Django on a horse because, guys, really, people were SO backward. We laugh at the regulators arguing over their masks because it makes what those guys eventually turned into — church-burners, child killers, and terrorists — look like buffoons. It’s an agreeable idea to us, and executed in a way that’s fantastic.
That’s the reason why comparing Django Unchained to Blazing Saddles doesn’t work. Outside of black cowboys, black dudes on horses, and laughter, they don’t share too much at all. Django’s funny because it’s needed to keep you pushing past the pain. Blazing Saddles is funny because it’s a comedy.
A brief burst of things I couldn’t fit into the jillion words I’ve written about Django Unchained since I saw it:
-Part of writing about Django Unchained is reading about Django Unchained. That was interesting, but it also sorta sucks. There’s a lot of pearl clutching over Quentin Tarantino daring to write the word nigger in a movie set during slavery times, whether it’s disrespectful… I thought this piece from io9 was particularly bad, on account of it suggested that Django Unchained was a white man’s fantasy without ever mentioning that basically every black person ever has had that conversation that goes “Boy, if I was around back then, I’da taken that whip from massa and shown him what a slave looks like.” (The point at the end about Django in the blue suit is weirdly infantilizing and emasculating, too.)
I picked up on a few things that most of the essays I hated did. The first is that they expected Django Unchained to have a moral, like it was Roots or something. Another was that they looked at Hildi and thought she was some type of passive damsel in distress, instead of somebody who was continually trying to escape from bondage, no matter the price she paid. That’s passive? Nah, son. She was having adventures elsewhere while Django was coming to get her. (I’d watch that movie.)
The biggest warning sign, and the only one that’s not me being petty and overly concerned with my own rightness, is when people start talking about the n-word. Does Quentin Tarantino use the n-word too much? Is it controversial for Leonardo DiCaprio to say the n-word?
Basically, if you are utterly incapable of saying the word nigger, you shouldn’t be talking about the word nigger. It’s dishonest to have that discussion and not treat the word as a real thing. I get the reasons why — you don’t want to offend people, it’s ugly, and so on — but if you’re having this conversation? You’re going to have to approach it on its own terms. I don’t think I liked a single essay that was n-word this or n-word that.
We’re adults, right? Adults use words, understand the history of those words, and understand that painful words can be used in certain contexts without offense.
So either do it or don’t, but don’t do it halfway. You want to have that conversation? Cool. Put on your adult clothes and have it.
Until you can do that, it’s grown folks talking. Shut your yap.
-I can’t tell you how happy I am that Tarantino got Anthony Hamilton on the soundtrack. The John Legend song is super hard — “Now, I’m not afraid to do the Lord’s work/ You say vengeance is his but I’ma do it first” YO! SON!!!!! — but Hamilton is that dude. He’s like… I keep comparing him to Curtis Mayfield, which is unfair and limiting. But Mayfield is legendary to me. I could listen — more like “have listened,” I’m not even kidding here — to Superfly or Curtis or whatever for weeks at a time. Mayfield poured so much emotion and heart into his music that I just can’t get enough of it, no matter how many times I try to sing along to “Freddie’s Dead” and can’t hit the notes.
Hamilton is that dude to me nowadays. His latest album, Back To Love, is a straight tear jerker, but on that strong black man tip. It’s real soulful, and it’s real on a level that most people just cannot match these days.
When I think of people who should be singing about the black American experience more than any other person who is currently alive, it’s Anthony Hamilton. And Django Unchained needed his voice. The result is “Freedom,” a collab with Elayna Boynton, which you should listen to as you read the rest of this joint:
I know I’m talking a lot about Hamilton and not his duet partner, but trust: Boynton is a powerhouse, too. This is my introduction to her, but come payday, I’m going to find more. Her voice is amazing, that perfect mix of weathered and hopeful. Like Macy Gray + Norah Jones? I don’t know. She’s great. She sells it. She keeps up with my favorite sanger.
-Using anachronistic music was a good choice on Tarantino’s part. Setting aside the indisputable fact that there was no good music before DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince’s He’s The DJ, I’m The Rapper, using modern music further removes Django Unchained from being a boring, depressing, sadface slavery movie. We’re meant to enjoy this film, and the music goes a long way toward opening us up to do just that.
-“I need one hundred black coffins for one hundred bad men…” The needle dropping on that song had me fanning myself in the theater like I was in church.
-I’m incapable of objectively judging that Tupac/James Brown mash-up, mostly because they took one of the hardest JB joints and merged it with a tight Pac verse. What am I supposed to do, not like it?
-I don’t know who Brother Dege is, but “Too Old To Die Young” is great, too.
-Hildi’s last name is von Shaft, or maybe von Schaft. Regardless, Tarantino has suggested that she and Django are John Shaft’s ancestors. I like this a lot, in part because it creates a lineage for Shaft that I want to know more about. I’m used to the idea that I won’t get to know much about my ancestors past I think the mid-1800s, but I can’t tell you how obsessed I am with the idea of knowing everything. Knowing about the men and women whose existence and actions led to me… I don’t expect the Shaft line to be filled with crime fighters and crusaders — I figure Django and Hildi retired after getting out — but I want to know more.
-The first time I saw Django Unchained, I was with my cousins, none of which are as into action flicks as I am, so I had no one to debate the possibility that Tarantino beat the climactic gunfight in The Killer during the massacre at Candyland. The second time I saw it, I still didn’t have anyone to debate it with, but I realized it doesn’t need debating at all. He beat it. That shot of Django discarding one gun during the fight is everything I wanted.
-I love that Tarantino weaponized Alexandre Dumas. I didn’t know Dumas was black (black-ish — black enough for the Klan to want to lynch him, at any rate) for years, and I love that that fact was used to slam racism and faux-intellectual culture. Calvin Candie doesn’t know anything. He’s a dilettante.
-As a result, the second-best line of the movie was “D’Artagnan, motherfucker!” when Django kicks in the door with his guns blazing. It’s vengeance and guilt, all wrapped up in one. Django was partially responsible for D’Artagnan’s death, he let it happen, so he comes back around to make it right. How does he do it? By striking in his name.
-I’ve seen a lot of people talk about how docile the slaves were in this movie, to the point where I wonder if folks saw the same flick I did. In the mandingo fight that introduces Calvin J Candie, only the whites are watching the battle. The negroes are looking away — Sheba is entirely turned away from it! — and the bartender is focused on something else. Lil Jody, breaker of eggs, watches Django with surprise by way of a hilariously placed mirror while she’s tied to a tree. The servants in Candyland during the dinner keep looking at Django like “Is this nigga for real, why does he think he can get away with this?” At the end, with the dudes in the cage? They don’t fail to leave their cage because they’re cowed and scared. They just saw a black dude murder like 80 white people, talk his way out of bondage, kill two more white dudes, blow up another, hop on a horse, take some dynamite, and ride away. That’s like eighty unthinkable things in a row, so it’s no wonder they stayed in the cage and just watched him. They were shocked. Shoot, I’d sit there, too.
Throughout the movie, the slaves pay a lot of attention to Django. They’re watching. They know how far they can push, but if they see someone else pushing? They’ll push harder.
You know the beginning of the movie, when the slaves kill that last Speck brother? They’re silent and shocked, too. They’re shocked because this ain’t the way of things, but once they’re given an option, what do they do? They choose to punish their tormentor and escape to freedom. It sets the tone for Django and Schultz’s interaction with everyone else in the movie.
Now, what do you think all those suddenly masterless slaves at the Candyland plantation and Big Daddy’s big house are doing now? Picking cotton? Nah, son.
-Django Unchained is seriously funny. “That’s not what I meant” got the biggest laughs at my first showing, back home in Georgia. It deserves it.
-Django is forced to choose between himself and his race, and that’s real interesting. His love for Hildi lets/helps him do terrible things to people. That’s a tough row to hoe.
-It’s not a slave revenge movie. It’s a movie where a slave takes revenge, yeah, but it’s not Inglourious Basterds. You can’t kill slavery as easily as killing Hitler. It was an institution that was propped up by the government, the citizens, and the culture. Hitler and his closest goons were figureheads, so you could theoretically force real change by taking them down and then taking advantage of the snake having no head. Who’re you gonna kill in 1858 to kill slavery? Everyone?
-I like that Schultz, our outsider character, loses his patience when he’s finally confronted with the real horrors of slavery. He did something to someone that they definitely deserved, but he did it at an exceedingly poor time. But, because of the bond between him and Django, he knows that if anyone can survive the aftermath of his temper tantrum, it’s Django. “Sorry. I couldn’t resist.”
And Django does. The only thing holding him back? Ammunition.
-I figure that Hamilton song is over now, yeah? Here’s Brother Dege’s “Too Old to Die Young” to wrap things up:
-Walton Goggins is one of my favorite actors, and he’s been entirely typecast as playing racists. To my recollection, the last time I saw him in a role that wasn’t a racist was in The Bourne Identity as a computer analyst, who may well have been a secret racist when not at work. But Miracle at St Anna, The Shield, Justified, Predators… this guy regularly plays one of my least favorite types of people and I love him every single time.
He’s such a good actor that the racism of his characters is beside the point. He brings a real human touch to these people we usually look at as being fairly black & white or cartoonish. And his swagger as Billy Crash — best name in the movie, by the by — is incredible. There’s this shot late in the movie where several shadowed people are walking down a path. You can’t see their faces or any details, but that dude in the middle? You can tell he’s Billy Crash by how he walks.
Goggins is stunning and a show-stealer, every single time. I’ll follow that guy just about anywhere at this point. I wish there was some link between Cletus van Damme and Billy Crash, but all I have to go on now are my daydreams.
You can’t underrate this dude. He’ll rock any role you give him.
The story of Icarus is one about obedience and hubris. “Be happy with what you have. Don’t fly too high and too close to the sun,” Daedalus said. Icarus, consumed with glee at being able to fly and escape his fate, ignores his father’s advice and pays the price.
In Dust Tracks on a Road, Zora Neale Hurston writes:
Mama exhorted her children at every opportunity to ‘jump at de sun.’ We might not land on the sun, but at least we would get off the ground.
I had to google around for the exact quote, but I knew it more or less already. “Things can only get better. Jump at the sun.”
Maybe it’s unfair to compare these two, but whatever. I like the contrast. Listen:
It’s hard for me to think of a quote that better defines the experience of being black in America. Growing up, I was taught that I’d have to work twice as hard to be heard, and deal with half the praise. Others would praise me more than my peers, simply because performing on par is exceptional when you start behind the eightball. Either way, I needed, need, to do more than my peers. I need to be better, faster, stronger, smarter, just so that I can be treated as normal instead of a niche.
America is short on black heroes. We don’t get to be the princes on white horses and princesses in high castles. When we are the king and queen, it’s in a creative work that people see as being specifically black, rather than mainstream. That’s “a black movie,” that one’s “a black comic.” It doesn’t get to be normal.
That’s how America works. White is the default. And once you begin changing up the formula — a black hero here, a spanish hero there — you move away from the default and become… niche.
What’s worse? Being invisible or being a curio?
One of my favorite aspects of Django Unchained is that it isn’t that black of a movie at all. It’s not a niche story. It’s a classic, an epic. It’s a story that we all know and love. There is a princess in a castle and there is a hero coming to save her. It’s a little different from damsel in distress tales — Hildi is thrown in the hotbox for trying to escape again, not for just trying to escape; she’s a troublemaker — but at its core? It’s the same. The difference? It stars a black man who loves a black woman, instead of a white man who loves a white woman.
Dr King Schultz tells the story of Siegfried and Brunhild to an attentive and eager Django not because it’s cute, or because Tarantino wanted you to know the end of the movie before it went down. Schultz, and Tarantino, relate that story to show just how universal this movie, a movie that tells the story of a freed slave trying to rescue his wife during one of the most dismal periods in American history, actually is.
Schultz even tells the story in the oldest possible way. He and Django are outside, sitting by a fire. While they eat, Django sits and listens while Schultz tells a story. Shadows flicker on the rocks behind them while they talk.
It’s the oldest story. It’s a love story. That’s what’s at the heart of it. There are revenge elements, but that isn’t what makes the story go. It’s about a man who will do anything to protect the woman he loves. When he finds out where his wife is and what she’s being forced to do, Django says something along the lines of “Not while I’m alive. Not while I have my gun.” We know that feeling. We know love.
Hildi is Django’s everything. His love for her is the engine that keeps him going, letting him push past the misery and horrors he has to indulge in. There’s no point in getting dirty if you don’t get to wash it off at the end of the day. Hildi is his salvation.
And he’s hers. They ran away together, they paid for it together, and after they were separated, she kept trying to get away. She’s no wilting flower. She’s a soldier. She’s going to run until they finally kill her, because freedom beats death every time. She’s willing to die for him, and he’ll die for her.
You don’t see a lot of these stories between black characters in big budget movies. Just a straight-up, no-nonsense, high profile love story. What was the last one? Independence Day? Men in Black? There’s probably been once since, there has to have been, but the fact that you’re wracking your brain right now says it all, if you think about it. It’s such a little thing, but you can feel that lack if you grow up and nobody like you gets to play in the big leagues.
“I know it’s not the most feminist idea to be a woman in a tower wanting to be rescued, but for a woman of color in this country, we’ve never been afforded that fairy tale because of how the black family was ripped apart [during slavery],” Washington said. “I really saw the value of having a story that empowers the African American man to do something chivalrous for the African American woman, because that hasn’t been an idea that has held women back in the culture — it’s something we’ve never been allowed to dream about.”
She said it better than I ever could. It feels good to finally get to be the prince, and I figure it feels good to finally get to be the princess, too. Damsel in distress stories might be passé to some people, but I bet those people never grew up wishing for fundamentally different skin or hair so that they could indulge in these fantasies.
I love that Django Unchained exists. I hate that it took this long for Hollywood to sit up, pay attention, and hook up a well-done picture that’s treated on par with any other big movie, despite the presence of a willing and clearly underserved black audience. Tyler Perry is a punchline, a cheap joke for internet types, instead of a model. “Nobody’s making movies for black grandmas? Well shoot son, I got these scripts right here…” We — everyone — should be part of the spectrum, part of “normal,” rather than an exception.
Django Unchained is controversial in part due to the fact that a slave revenge story utilizes one of the most painful periods in American history for action movie thrills. The extreme Fox News types want to know why Quentin Tarantino is producing a hate tract, Spike Lee and them want to know who Tarantino thinks he is to tell this story, and it seems like everybody else is trying to figure out if Tarantino is racist and how racist he is (this one’s pretty dumb). Django Unchained is, to a certain extent and on a few different levels, something we aren’t used to seeing. It’s getting a lot of attention accordingly.
But what’s easy to miss in all the hullaballoo is the fact that Django Unchained isn’t that foreign of an object at all. In fact, Django himself is a quintessentially American hero, a type of character we already know and love. Well, to a point.
I like this bit from Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly, delivered by Brad Pitt’s Jackie Cogan:
My friend, Thomas Jefferson is an American saint because he wrote the words ‘All men are created equal,’ words he clearly didn’t believe since he allowed his own children to live in slavery. He’s a rich white snob who’s sick of paying taxes to the Brits. So, yeah, he writes some lovely words and aroused the rabble and they went and died for those words while he sat back and drank his wine and fucked his slave girl. This guy wants to tell me we’re living in a community? Don’t make me laugh. I’m living in America, and in America you’re on your own. America’s not a country. It’s just a business.
America isn’t baseball, bald eagles, apple pie, and pretty blonde cheerleaders dating sturdy quarterbacks. America is John Wayne. America loves John Wayne. I could be mean and point out how Wayne’s racism and white supremacist views are as American as apple pie, if not more so, but really, it’s his persona we love. The reputation of the dude he played in the movies. It’s the idea that one man can stride into town with not much more than a gun, a grimace, and strong sense of right and wrong, and make a difference.
We love lone gunmen out here. Men of action, not like our wishy-washy politicians or corrupt constables. Men who know how to get things done. Mavericks. We like John McClane more than just about anything. Films noir are littered with these guys. It’s one man against the world, and we love it so much because the man can win.
The lone gunmen gives us an icon to look up to, a hero to aspire to. You can see it in the rhetoric that comes after shootings. “If only one man was there with a gun to do the hard thing…” It’s stupid if you think about it for more than half a second, but it’s undeniably sexy. We don’t have a lot of control over our lives, so the idea that one man can take control, and that in the right situation, that man would be us, is wildly seductive.
Django Unchained is an incredibly American movie, isn’t it? Django’s up against blatant evil, an evil that has been propped up by a corrupt government and culture, and that frees him to do the hard thing without being a bad man. Generally, killing someone is something to be frowned upon, but when Django does it? It’s righteous. He’s giving them what they deserve and we cheer him because he is right. Never mind the murder, or the laws, or any of that. What matters is that someone has done wrong, and they need to pay for that.
Seeing this kind of story in action, the ultra-capable lone man hero, makes us feel good inside. It suggests that there is order in the world, and that our problems can be solved in spectacular fashion. It fills a need that is hard to express in polite society. It isn’t fair or kind, but some people deserve to die. They’ve reached that point that we, as individual people or a society, say “Build his gallows high.”
We want to see Django kill those folks because they deserved to die for their crimes. Tarantino mined the history of slavery, and simply seeing it in action let us mentally justify the massacres at the end. Django is our lone man, our instrument of vengeance. We have seen evil, and we want it gone.
The lone man is a stupid and evil idea, too, of course. I assume you know that already. The idea of a lone gunman sucks for everyone who doesn’t want to play lone gunman. It’s the pretty face of imperialism and terrible, murderous aggression. Django’s just the inverse of the oppressor, a cruel answer to a cruel wound. And even then… he has to willingly take part in the exploitation of his own people. He has to stand by and let two men be murdered, just so that he can get his wife back.
It can be nice to visit, to indulge our desire to be the big man on campus, but you can’t let it stick around in the back of your head. You can’t take it to heart. A lone man is no way to be a part of a family or a community. Lone men just hold everyone back in the long run. America can be Martin Luther King Jr as well as John Wayne.
I gave up on black misery a while back. You know what I’m talking about. Movies or books or whatever about how sad it is to be black, how hard black people got it, and how messed up life is for black people. Whether it’s Precious, The Blind Side, Roots, whatever whatever — I’m through. I’m tired of being reminded of the black condition all the time. I get enough of that in real life, whether through black faces falling victim to the war on drugs or white faces going out of their way to quote whatever cool movie said “nigger” at me at parties. You know BET marathons Roots come Christmastime? I watched Monty Python & The Holy Grail with the fam instead.
It ain’t the sadness or the misery that did me in. I’m fine with either of those, really. But it’s the weight of dozens of movies and history books and conversations that did me in. The highlight reel for blacks in America goes like this: stolen from Africa, fed to sharks, sold at auction, whipped to death and back, freed from bondage and forced into even more bondage, died fighting some machine made of hammers, invented the peanut and stop light, wrote a bunch of poems, decided the front of the bus was the cool spot, got the right to vote, turned into drug dealers and thugs, decided the back of the bus was the cool spot, crackheads&fiends&geeks&junkies, Obama.
Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained is what Tarantino calls a “southern,” meaning a western set in the south. It’s the antebellum south, too, and depicts the version of life in the south at that time that you’d expect to see. People say nigger fifty-eleven times, slaves get torn apart by dogs and whipped, and there’s a big fat cotton field.
It’s also the most feel-good movie I’ve seen all year.
The American slave trade was an atrocity. It was government-sponsored genocide. It is a cultural wound, a scar that has never been atoned for and one that we’re still feeling the effects from today.
There are other scars, obviously. But we’ve avenged Pearl Harbor and World War II hundreds of times over the course of an interminable number of video games and movies. We’ve won the west even more often than we’ve won World War II… but we’ve never won slavery.
Just the opposite, in fact. Between moronic Lost Causers and well-meaning creative types, we’ve elevated the Confederate soldier — a man who fought for the right to hold another person as property, regardless of his personal politics — to a frontier hero, a symbol of American exceptionalism. We made scumbags into underdogs.
Django Unchained is a corrective. It’s not the first of its type, but it is by far the highest profile. Instead of wallowing in misery, Tarantino gives us — me — the story we’ve been waiting for: a violent, bloody revenge tale set in a time period that we have been continually dishonest about.
Why’d it take so long? I figure it’s because you can otherize the perpetrators of those other wounds. Nazis are German, the west was won over the bodies of Mexicans and natives… you can point at them and say “That’s them, not us.” You can’t do that with slavery. I mean, you can — you should — but what you’re really doing is “That’s Jody’s great-grandfather. That’s Ella Mae’s great great grandma. Nathan still spends summers between school in that house.”
It’s too close. You have to accept the fact that the people whose lives led directly to your life profited off misery. It takes the fun out of the revenge, when you realize that you’ve benefitted from the actions of the people doing the oppressing. (We all have, though. This ain’t a black or white thing.) It’s easy to feel distance and enjoy that righteous anger when our lone hero is shooting up the bad guys when they’re from some country you can’t even spell or have never visited. When it’s your people, though…
I loved it, though. I’ve been waiting for this movie for years. We treat slavery and the Holocaust and 9/11 with kid gloves a lot of the time. We act like the only proper response to misery is more po-faced misery. That’s no way to get past something, though. That’s no way to grieve. We need to be able to laugh and cheer and appreciate the fact that, despite the horror, we were here. We lived our lives, we did the best we could, and sometimes, we did something extraordinary.
I’ll probably never get my Nat Turner action movie, but Django Unchained is a nice stopgap. I needed this. A lot of things that fall under the umbrella of “the black condition” make me mad, and there’s nothing I can do it about it. I’m one dude up against the weight of centuries of oppression and billion dollar industries. I type on the internet and donate out of my meager paycheck when I can.
So yeah, I’m going to sit in a theater in smalltown Georgia, late at night with a theater full of black people and watch this movie. And we’re going to cheer and hoop and holler and revel in the fact that it’s 2012 in the United States of America and we’ve finally got the ultimate black fantasy on the silver screen, with a fat budget, great direction, and an amazing cast. And all it took was a white dude who’s really into black culture to write and direct it, which I feel like makes it the most American story of all.
John Wayne has a lot to answer for, but you can’t deny how powerful and invigorating a lone man righting wrongs can feel sometimes.
Thanks to Gone With the Wind and the desperate machinations of lost causers, the picture we have of the antebellum south is one of southern ladies in big skirts, lemonade, and stalwart men looking out for what’s right. The south, and the trappings of the south, are the closest thing us Americans have to royalty.
And people get into it, boy. You can buy all types of antique and blatantly racist trinkets and tchotchkes if you know where to look. People really dig on the Stars & Bars, too. Georgia finally managed to get it removed from the state flag, and whoops we just replaced it with a different Confederate flag sorry y’all. There’s a country music group based out of Nashville called Lady Antebellum, even. It’s real in the south.
The antebellum south, our picture of it, is built on a lie. The pastel paradise wouldn’t have, couldn’t have, existed without a grievous moral lapse on the part of all involved. It needed pain and scarred up backs to work. It ran on blood and tears and wasn’t the Disneyland you think it was.
It’s ahistorical, too. You can’t justify the slavery of Africans on any level if you know half of anything about history. You can’t argue that negroes were docile or particularly suited to slavery when you know how influential and diverse the black population of the world has been.
They could argue that back in 1858, sure, and they even brainwashed a lot of colored folk into believing that the story of Ham, Shem, and Japheth justified their toil. But it’s 2013. That kind of ignorance doesn’t play any more.
Django Unchained explodes the myth of the south, and it does so in spectacular fashion. We see two plantations — Big Daddy’s plantation and Calvin J Candie’s Candyland — and both have the appearance of the idyllic plantations of our fantasies. But once you take a closer look, you can see the rot inside them.
Big Daddy’s slaves are generally well-dressed and the women get to play on swings when they aren’t working. It sounds like the prototypical happy slave situation, and we catch a glimpse of their fun as Django storms toward two men who did him wrong in the past. They’re about to punish a slave for dropping eggs by whipping her, and that’s your contrast right there. The impeccable table-setting, good ol’ homecooked food, mint juleps… none of that was the result of singing, happy-go-lucky, jolly slaves. That was the result of people who were beaten and maimed into submission. You complied or you got the lash. And the well-dressed pretty girls playing on the lawn? They’re Big Daddy’s prostitutes. Nothing is as pretty as it seems.
Candyland, on the other hand, is a small kingdom. Candie’s father and father’s father were cotton men, and they own one of the biggest plantations in the land. Calvin, though, has expanded into something else: mandingo fights. Take two strong slaves and pit them against each other in a fight to the death. Winner takes all.
Candie himself is the very picture of a landed southern gentleman. He’s a paragon of virtue, well-mannered, educated, fashionable, and positively cosmopolitan. He’s also corrupt. Worse than that — he’s corrupt amongst the corrupted. His daddy and his daddy’s daddy were in business. They beat, raped, battered, bought, and sold flesh to secure their fortune. Their descendant, though, has added pointless violence to the family’s repertoire, expensive gladiatorial combat.
The antebellum south was nothing to be proud of, and I like how Tarantino went about showing it. The usual train of thought goes that slavery was accepted at the times, just a product of the time, but let me ask you this: accepted by who? It certainly wasn’t accepted by the slaves, or else there wouldn’t have been over two-hundred different slave uprisings. So who was it accepted by? The people who had a vested interest in enslaving other people? That’s who we’re judging the past by? Greedy cowards? It gets harder and harder to sell or believe in the pastel paradise the more you look at what it took to create that paradise.
I think Tarantino feels similarly. Whenever you see Django doing something untoward for a negro at the time, slaves look at him with a stunned expression and quickly look away. It’s a “Did he just do that? Is he crazy?” look. They know what they can and cannot do, and the surprise and admiration they watch Django with is them wanting to see if he can get away with it. They know who they are and what they are expected to be, but, given half a chance… well.
Did you notice how insistent everyone in Django Unchained was that Django wasn’t a typical nigger? Big Daddy and Candie both talk about his exceptional nature, with an emphasis on the “exception.” Like this bit that got howls from the audience:
Big Daddy: Django isn’t a slave. Django is a free man. Do you understand? You’re not to treat him like any of these other niggers around here, ’cause he ain’t like any of these other niggers around here. Ya got it?
Betina: Ya want I should treat ‘em like white folks?
Big Daddy: That’s not what I said.
Django’s exceptional, but he still ain’t a white man. But his exceptional nature is crucial, because the last thing you want to do is show these lil unexceptional niggers that they can be exceptional, too. Then the pastel paradise comes crashing down, and nobody wants that.
But if you keep positioning Django as just one man? Then you can keep control. You can keep the paradise and you can show the many that they are not, and never will be, the one. But they’re watching him anyway, aren’t they? They want a way out.
Partway through Django Unchained, Leonardo DiCaprio’s Calvin J Candie, ruler of the Candyland, talks about exceptional niggers. His idea is that one in every ten thousand negroes is exceptional, a near-equal to the white man. The other nine thousand, nine hundred and ninety-nine are unexceptional, but possessed of an enormous capability for loyalty and servitude. Thus, it follows that the natural state of the black race is beneath the white man’s boot, as the white man is possessed of mental capabilities that the black man simply cannot possess… but everyone one in ten thousand niggers is good enough to go toe-to-toe.
My first thought while Candie was explaining his theory was of WEB Du Bois’s “Talented Tenth.” The talented tenth would come into existence for the purpose of “developing the Best of this race that they may guide the Mass away from the contamination and death of the Worst, in their own and other races.” I’m of two minds about it. I like Du Bois’s emphasis on education, but I’m wary of anything that sets up one class as being meant to guide another class. I’d vastly prefer something egalitarian and logistically difficult, like making sure that everyone stands on equal ground.
Candie and Du Bois both accept that the black man is not on par with the white man. In Du Bois’s case, it was because the black American had been consistently terrorized and held back from being treated as equal. Du Bois wanted the best of us to help out the rest of us. In Candie’s case, it was because the black man was, by default, inferior, and any exceptional nigger was just that: an exception. The rest of ‘em weren’t worth much of nothing, past what you paid for ‘em.
I’m fascinated by how the oppressed interacts with the oppressor. Appeasement and collaboration, right? Why would you side with someone who hates you? Why would you adopt their mannerisms and culture? Usually, the answer to that question is “to stay alive by blending in.” Sometimes, though, you can adopt their methods in order to fight back against them. For example, Malcolm X found wisdom while in prison. Huey Newton learned how to read after escaping high school. Even your boy Tupac Shakur was well-read, and that allowed him to be politically active. Knowledge is power, baby.
Here’s Talib Kweli, off David Banner’s “Ridin”:
When they call you nigger,
They scared of you, they fearin’ you
So, actually, if crackers gon’ be fearing niggers
Then that’s what the fuck I have to be
Kweli’s idea here is to weaponize the idea of a nigger. They’re already afraid of you, so why not take that next step and demand your respect? Buy into their nonsense and use it against them.
Stephen, played by an engaged and lively Samuel L Jackson, weaponized it in the other direction. Rather than using their prejudices to fight back against them, Stephen uses those prejudices to make a power grab of his own. He’s the prototypical house nigger, the type of guy Malcolm warned you about. He’s conniving and scummy, and his position as the head nigger in charge means that he gets to boss around everyone else. When it comes to dealing with whites, he’ll shuck, jive, step, fetch, and yes massa no massa of course massa his way into being a valued member of the family. But not a real member, of course — just a fixture, someone reliable. He’s still property, but he just gets to live a little nicer than everybody else.
Stephen gets a lot of leeway thanks to his sellout status. He gets to smart off to his master — up to a point, at least, don’t forget “Keep it funny, Stephen” — and he gets to tell other slaves what to do. He plays up his shuckin and jiving when in polite company to show just how fantastic his master is, but when they’re alone, Candie gives Stephen even more leeway. Candie understands that having an inside man, a different thinker, on his side is much more valuable than ruling by fear alone. Stephen is happy to be who he is, because being the other thing is out of the question.
I like Django’s route a lot better. When the time comes for people to die in Django Unchained, they die bloody. Jamie Foxx’s Django explicitly takes on the role of that exceptional nigger. At one point, Candie wonders why blacks don’t just rise up and take over. Django is the answer to his sarcastic and absurd question. Django uses Candie’s philosophy against him. He puts an end to their reign. It’s one plantation in one territory, not a revolution… but he gives them what they deserve and sends them on their way.
M. Calvin J Candie seems himself as a homemade intellectual, a deep-thinking type of guy with a firm grasp on the future. He’s a liar. He’s a lie, like the south is a lie, and like America is a lie.
Here’s something to keep in mind while watching Django Unchained. An apocryphal origin for the word “motherfucker” is that it referred to slaves or slave-owners that did you know what with you know who. It was a term of extreme derision, the story goes, aimed at shaming slaves or expressing hatred for the overseer. Knowing Tarantino and his sometimes staggering grasp of communication, he’s more than aware of the history of “motherfucker.” That definition stuck in my head while watching Django Unchained the second time, and made me pay closer attention to what Tarantino was doing with language in his script.
People say “nigger” about fifty-eleven times in Django Unchained. It’s set in 1858 stretching into 1859, so you kinda have to expect it. What I like about the movie is how Tarantino doesn’t just stop there. He plays with language, with slurs, in a way that isn’t just a surface level treatment.
I don’t know how I missed it, but the usage of “Jimmy” in Django Unchained made something super obvious click for me. Crow as a slur for blacks, “Jimmy Crack Corn,” and those crows in Dumbo — they all come from the same place. Racial slurs go way deeper than nigger and darkie. Sometimes they take subtler forms, but when they click, things you’ve heard in the past tend to snap into alignment, and you see how this language has infested our culture.
Jimmy’s just one of the slurs in Django Unchained. Crow, black, nigger, pony, and so on… it’s fascinating. It’s easy to forget that racism isn’t as simple as somebody hating someone else over the color of their skin. It’s bigger than that. It’s a system. Language is just the first line of attack.
You can see the system at work in every single frame of Django Unchained that features a black person and a white person. Django, and the other slaves, are completely subordinate to the white people. Schultz and Django’s relationship is not just an aberration, but illegal. Django, while playacting a freed black slaver, is technically of higher social status than Walton Goggins’s Billy Crash, a simple redneck enforcer. That means he gets to smart off at Crash, to treat him like trash. But Billy Crash’s leer says everything you need to know about their power dynamic. Django can use all the words he wants, but free or not, he’s still just a nigger. If Billy Crash really wanted him, he could have him, and it’d only take a modicum of smoothing over.
The way the noose is casually hanging in Daughtrey, Texas when Django rides into town, everyone’s astonishment at seeing a black man on a horse, and the way people don’t talk to Django so much as around him all speak this truth. Django is barely out of slavery, technically freed, but he’s only one mistake away from being thrown back in chains. He isn’t a person yet, not by any white man’s measure.
Two exceptions: Sheriff Gus up in the cold snowy-snow of the north, and Dr King Schultz. Sheriff Gus has a bit part, maybe a minute of screen time, but he speaks to Django as if he were simply a man who was good at his job. He treats Django with a familiarity that no other character matches. They’re friends, or maybe something between friends and acquaintances. Sheriff Gus offers Django a slice of his own birthday cake. No leftovers, no gruel, nothing stale or spoiled. Fresh cake, meant to celebrate Gus’s birth, given as a gift to a black man. There’s a level of friendliness there that stands in sharp contrast to the rest of the film.
Dr King Schultz and Django have a relationship that’s more mentor and student than slave and owner, though Django is undeniably Schultz’s slave. Schultz is exceedingly European in demeanor and doesn’t like the idea of slavery, so he makes it a point to treat Django as, if not a peer, at least an apprentice.
Early on, Schultz refers to Django as “my boy.” It comes shortly after an innkeeper looks at Django in surprise and says something to the effect of “What do you think you’re doing, boy?” The difference between the two, though thin on paper, is interesting. “Boy,” as a term applied to negroes, was used to emphasize their less-than-human status. They couldn’t be men, because if they were men, they might be seen as being on par with white men. So they were treated as children in conversation.
Schultz’s “my boy” is different. It’s paternal, but not quite paternalistic. Schultz isn’t taking anything from Django with “my boy,” though it is explicitly more possessive than “boy.” It’s less of a slur because Schultz is using “my boy” to refer to Django as a junior partner, rather than property. It’s something a teacher would do, or a grandfather.
It’s a sign of Schultz’s faith in Django, if anything, and that trust is best shown toward the middle of the movie, when Schultz does a reckless thing, looks at Django, and says, “Sorry. I couldn’t resist.” That Schultz was willing to do something like that and throw his life away, leaving Django alone and in danger, is amazing. It’s the ultimate show of trust, in a certain way of thinking.
Language is complicated. You have to take into account who you’re talking to, what they expect, what you expect, and then construct your idea in a way that is clear in its intent and purpose. Django talking to Billy Crash is different from Django talking to a slave, which is different from Schultz talking to a slave, which is different from Schultz talking to Calvin Candie.
Language is just part of the equation, though. It’s easily the most outward-facing component of oppression, and much more obvious than the laws, lies, distorted religion, and fake science that people used to justify treating other people like property. But it’s not everything.
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