Django Unchained: “Am I wrong ’cause I wanna get it on ’til I die?”

January 13th, 2013 Posted by david brothers

(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:)

django unchained - beer

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.

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