Django Is Off The Chain

June 7th, 2012 Posted by david brothers

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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