What We Talk About When We Talk About Django: A Southern White Lady’s Response to Django Unchained
On the 27th of February 1975, the New York Times published a cheekily warm review by stalwart critic Vincent Canby. The review was for a “black Western,” a genre that, at the time, held enough prominence for the critic to write, “Most black Westerns either ignore race or make it the fundamental point of the movie.” The film in question was directed by a white man who’d worked in the biz for decades, primarily on TV and genre films. However, it was written and co-produced by a black man, former American Football Leaguer and martial arts expert Fred Williamson, who also stars as the lead. Canby continues:
“Unlike most leading actors, black or white, Mr. Williamson seems to possess a genuine sense of humor that hasn’t yet been systematized—like Burt Reynolds’s—as part of a public personality. I have no idea whether Mr. Williamson is witty or not, though his movie is.... There’s a lot made of the bigotry of the small Western town in which the black sheriff operates, but the effect of Mr. Williamson’s Eastwoodesque performance has less to do with his color than with details observed and gently sent skyhigh.”
The film was called Boss Nigger. It was about a black bounty hunter and his black deputy, who invade a small Western town looking for a white outlaw, Jed Clayton. If you don’t recognize the name Fred Williamson—though you probably do—in addition to numerous exploitation films, he also appeared in M*A*S*H (1970), and, most relevant to this conversation, he was the hero of Quentin Tarantino’s pulp-horror collaboration with Robert Rodriguez, From Dusk Till Dawn (1996).
At this point, it’s more than safe to assume that Tarantino’s films are earnest syntheses of other, existing genre films. Why, even his last two movies (the first installments of his “revenge trilogy”) explicitly borrow titles from other films—the latest even graciously steals the theme song from the 1966 Sergio Corbucci Western with the same title character, not to mention its fictional and horrific “Mandingo” sport, lifted from the 1975 feature of such designation. So why is Tarantino’s Christmas gift to America, the two-hour and forty-five-minute blood-spattered romp, Django Unchained, freaking everybody out? If you saw it, or spend an hour a day roaming in the Internets, you know what I’m talking about. Critics, audiences, novice bloggers, and journalists are chasing their tails over this film—even Roger Ebert re-published his own blog entry about Django after some extensive marinating on the nuances of Samuel L. Jackson’s villainous character, Stephen.
But we must know that all of our criticisms and questions are unanswerable, right? Django Unchained, not unlike its predecessor, Inglorious Basterds, is a fantasy epic. It’s a revenge of impossible proportions that is also historically impossible. This fact alone should be enough for us to appreciate the film for what it is, but its fully realized violence (unlike the implied violence in Basterds) is just this side of historical enough to make us, as American audience members, palpably uncomfortable. This false realism—or hyper-realism—is offset by a mythology—when Christoph Waltz’s character, the German bounty hunter Dr. Schultz, discovers Django’s wife is named Broomhilda, the legend of Siegfried becomes the key driving force of the plot. It’s not “kill white men,” though there are plenty of jokes about that; it’s actually “rescue Broomhilda”—a quest of epic and unknowable danger.
The criticism levied against the flatness of Broomhilda is understandable, but misses the point. Never in a Quentin Tarantino film has there been a character that isn’t a “type”—a flat, dusty, staid, familiar archetype, who has already been written for Tarantino—someone he just sort of plucks out of a screenwriting manual and plops onto the page. Even when the characters are particularly endearing—Shosanna Dreyfus, Beatrix Kiddo, Jackie Brown (because he does—most of the time, let’s be honest—do women really fucking well), they’re easy for us to enjoy and sympathize with because they’re the proverbial “women who have nothing to lose.” Pam Grier, lest we forget, had already played that role about twenty-five times before the Jackie Brown script came along. But in Tarantino’s world, these archetypes are by no means relegated to female characters, and in Django, the protagonist takes a turn as the nothing-to-lose dude, perhaps a little aloof, in the traditional cowboy style.
This same “type”-ness applies to the devious character Stephen, as well. Stephen, possibly the best role of Samuel L. Jackson’s career, is a fusty, ensconced “house negro,” the right-hand man of vile Mississippi plantation owner Calvin Candie (a truly chilling Leonard DiCaprio). He is preoccupied with how things should be, and has earned a place in his servitude where he’s more of a co-conspirator than an attendant, and obviously, as any enterprising subservient would be, likes things the way they are. Stephen is the cunning flipside of the Uncle Tom—James Baskett’s personification in The Song of the South or Gone with the Wind’s Mammy (Hattie McDaniel), for example—combined with the blaxploitation trope of the snitch, the informant, the black guy who turns on the black protagonist by co-operating with racist white people because, for that moment, it serves him better to do so. As a combination of these types, Stephen is a stunning character, and invites a delicious complexity to the film that keeps us from tiring too quickly of the oppressive white vs. black tension.
Now, let’s talk about the “n-word.” Tarantino has never been afraid of it, if you’ll recall:
This strange and abrupt usage in a multiple award-winning film (1994’s Pulp Fiction) is most artfully broken down by prominent critic Touré:
“Tarantino’s Jimmie is not an idiot or a lowlife. He has a nice house, a black wife he loves (he desperately doesn’t want to get divorced) and black friends he values like Samuel L. Jackson’s Jules, so we can assume this character is not supposed to be racist. So why is he repeatedly saying “dead nigger”? It’s an egregiously disrespectful usage that takes full advantage of Jules being in massive trouble.... But I’m not sure what it profits the film beside pushing buttons and flouting taboos and attempting an edgy joke just to do it. I can’t quite figure out why Jimmy thinks the word’s available to him and what it says about his character that he does.”
What does it mean that Django Unchained employs this most fearsome epithet over 100 times? For starters, we’ve established that it feels eerily at home in a Tarantino film, and secondly, it’s at least pop-logically accurate, by which I mean, even the novel Gone With the Wind uses the “n-word” at least 112 times, by my count. We believe, as a culture, that’s how glibly this term was used in daily parlance, by white and black people alike. Furthermore, it seems culturally significant to experience the word, even as a majority-white audience. If it makes you uncomfortable, that’s the point.
All this being said, I didn’t really like this movie. I agree that it’s too violent—and, fascinatingly, the full impact of its violence exists almost wholly in the exquisite sound design (a fact noted among almost all critics). If you, like me, get too squeamish, just plug your ears (I did); it helps a lot. Furthermore, a lot of the jokes in Django are really bad (as one friend observed, the hood scene is an ersatz Mel Brooks knockoff). The editing feels sloppy. Django himself is perhaps less developed than he could be.
But I respect its over-the-topness, as current filmmakers don't visually and explicitly address the violence of slavery. Yeah, yeah—say Amistad all you want. Amistad is thirty percent about slaves and seventy percent about white people protecting and defending slaves. I don’t care how unfavorably Django Unchained depicts the South—I guffawed in the theater when I saw how draconian the streets of Greenville, Mississippi appeared. Perhaps you have no idea how unnerving it feels to see films like The Help rake in piles of money from white ladies who dab their eyes and feel righteous—never mind that figures like Aibileen and Minny in The Help, vestiges of institutionalized racism, still exist throughout the South, like anthropological artifacts in a museum.
As a white Southerner, I’m grateful and downright excited that films like Django Unchained are being made. There’s actually nothing fresh or new about them—but Tarantino’s purpose has always been to legitimize the better angels of exploitation and genre films, because, like Django, movies don’t have to be good to be powerful or culturally resonant. What Tarantino does best is tackle the style of bald commentary and shocking, pulpified realism that previously suffered from low budgets and niche audiences and explode it on a national stage. The fact is, here in the South, we’re too polite to have these discussions out loud. In fact, I can almost assure you that no other Southern magazine will cover anything about Django Unchained, which is, frankly, pathetic, especially after the way those same outlets gushed their little hearts out over neo–Gone With the Wind apologias like The Help. The Help was a white person’s racial fantasy, so maybe Django is its answer. I’m not black (and somewhat problematically, neither is Tarantino), so I can’t rightfully say. But what I can say is it’s never too late to talk about race. And, by God, look at us; we’re doing it.
Photographs: Andrew Cooper, SMPSP/The Weinstein Company.