In Defense of Django Unchained

This is the only requirement I have when I walk into a movie theater:

I want to be entertained. Which means:

I want to be transported to a place and time I would never be able to experience (and probably not personally want to). I want to be emotionally moved. I want to FEEL. I want to care about the characters, learn something new, or get invested in the plot.

The director and actors are my tour guides and I expect them to care about where they’re taking me and  to make my trip worthwhile, no matter what kind of things they’re going to show me. There are some actors and directors that I will always trust to take me on a journey I won’t forget.

Because I’m in in it for the story.

Its not that I don’t notice or think about other issues while watching a movie, or don’t expect to see or hear about them, but I don’t walk into the theater expecting movies to meet my social justice needs. That’s what the Internet and my real  life is for. If a movie does that, that’s just the icing on the cake. I don’t expect it.

I’m probably one of about 20  black people that adored this movie. I’ve seen a lot of criticism of the movie itself, from people who want the movie to do certain things for them and there are perfectly legitimate criticisms to be made about it, but I’ve also seen a lot of criticism about how the movie simply doesn’t meet the social justice needs of the person viewing it and is therefore a bad movie. My argument is that’s not the movie’s purpose and its not the purpose one should have expected when walking into the theater.

Its not that a person shouldn’t want current social issues to be addressed  in a movie. If that is your priority then you should care that certain movies, actors or directors aren’t giving you what you want. I care about issues too, I just don’t expect the straight, White, cis-gender men, who make movies, to give two shits about social issues that are important to me. My expectations for white men caring about shit that doesn’t  involve them is pretty damn low and I don’t walk into a movie  made by a White man and expect him to teach me anything about racism, feminism, or historical accuracy. I know there are white men out there who give a fuck about people who aren’t them, but most of them do not appear to be filmmakers.

I don’t give Django Unchained an across-the-board A+. Its not a perfect film. (I’m not looking for perfect. I’m looking for Mr. Right-Now.) Like I said, there are some perfectly legitimate criticisms of the movie, but those things are not deal breakers for me and I’m willing to overlook those criticisms to take the journey.

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One of the biggest criticisms is the idea of a White man telling the story of slavery, and I suppose one can see it that way if one wanted, but I have two thoughts about this critique. One: I don’t blame Quentin Tarantino for being the man to tell this particular story. I blame the industry that won’t give PoC a chance to tell their own stories their own way and will greenlight stories by White men to tell other people’s experiences.

‘”The question I’m more interested in having is this: Could a black director have made this movie? Controlling for factors like Tarantino’s film credentials and ability to have strong openings, if you had a comparable black director, could he or she get this movie made without going straight to DVD? Would he or she even be able to pitch this kind of idea to a major studio head without getting stopped at the development door? I don’t think so.

And to me, that’s a bigger issue. Tarantino can make this because he is who he is but also because he isn’t black. It’s related to the age-old issue that many screenwriters and directors of color hear from studios: Will white audiences go see a movie about and featuring nonwhite people? Since they still make up the majority of the movie-going audience, green lights and decisions are still made with them in mind. And, yes, in 2013, this is still an issue. So I could only imagine the conversation if a black director tried to get “Django” made with the backing of major studio: Um, I’m not sure audiences would enjoy a movie about a black slave killing a whole bunch of white people.” End quote there.

-Daniella Gibbbs Ledger from the Center for American Progress.

http://www.npr.org/2013/01/14/169343956/the-big-picture-the-takeaway-from-django-unchained

If the Hollywood film industry gave PoC the chance to write and film their own vehicles, we would not then be having this argument about Tarantino being the  arbiter of what constitutes Black History, or any history for that matter. If there were other PoC  telling our own stories, this movie would not have been considered at all remarkable. Just one more voice in a choir of voices.

Two: Tarantino isn’t telling the non-fictional story of slavery. He is telling a fairy tale, a myth that’s set during that time period, that is itself an alternate universe version of real world history.. A lot of people found this movie extremely difficult to watch because of those realistic parallels. The brutality and sadism on display would be hard for anyone to watch. It was difficult for me to sit through too, but I don’t mistake my discomfort with brutality as a sign that the movie is bad. I’m supposed to feel uncomfortable. That’s the point. In that sense, the movie is doing exactly what its supposed to be doing, making me feel stuff. That I didn’t care for that particular feeling is not the fault of the film. Is there a legitimate criticism that Tarantino could have used some other, more positive, backdrop for this story? Sure. But for reasons known only to himself this is the landscape he chose.

I’m with Henry Louis Gates on this issue, when he  says:

“… throughout my career as a cultural critic, I have done my best to defend the right of filmmakers, visual artists and novelists to take liberty in their depictions of historical events. Feature films, for example, are not documentaries; and the generic differences between them should always be kept in mind. What’s the difference, at least in this context? I think of it this way: Feature films are about what could have happened, while documentaries ostensibly are about what did happen…”

I like Django Unchained exactly because it is NOT a documentary of the time period. I  don’t think I would’ve been able to sit through it if that had been the case. The film is full of anachronisms and that’s a legitimate criticism only if you expect absolute realism. Coming from a SciFi geek background, I view the film through the lens of  Fantasy and Alternate History, where it makes perfect sense that Jamie Foxx can walk around looking as cool as can be in a pair of smoked spectacles,  while twirling six shooters.

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Django Unchained is a hero story,  that could have just as easily been written by James Campbell or Richard Wagner. Christolph Waltz character , King Schultz,  makes this parallel within the movie, when he tells Django of the Norse myth of The Volsunga saga, part of which involves Siegfried climbing a mountain, fighting a dragon and walking through a ring of fire for his “bae”, Brunhilde,  who is being held captive in a castle.

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This is the story. I’m all about the story.

I like how Tarantino flips the tropes of the Western genre. There’s a Black man on a horse, with a sidekick who is a White man with a mysterious past. Its not some sympathetic Confederate soldier who is out to get revenge on the Northerners who wronged him. Its an ex-slave, out to save his best girl, and willing to walk through Hell and damnation to do it. It is the his sidekick who dies to facilitate his goal and it is Django and his bride who get to ride off into the twilight together. I  also like it because Black women don’t often get to be loved like that in a movie. We don’t get to be the damsels in distress that a black man will bring down heaven to save.

Our very first messages as black women are that we are unloved and unloveable, so seeing us get to be saved, instead of always doing the saving (Don’t get me wrong. I love me some Michonne. That’s my girl!), seeing the black female  as a precious thing that a man would be willing to die and kill for…

This is the story.

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This story is as grand, epic and romantic as any of Clint Eastwood’s lone gunman narratives or Luke Skywalker’s hero’s journey to slay the beast and win back his father. For me, the backdrop to Django Unchained is no more realistic, or even horrific, than the Nazi Germany of Life is Beautiful (1997), or the setting in a galaxy long ago and far away, and the only drawback I have to the story being told at all, was that in Hollywood, a  Black man would probably  have never  been allowed to tell it.

 

Note:

I wrote this in response to the OscarsSoWhite hashtag, as once again I will not be watching the Oscars this year. There were any number of stories told by PoC this year that were worth nominating and every single one of them was ignored in favor of movies no one will remember were ever released.

I also wrote this as a precursor to my review of The Hateful Eight (which somehow, I got roped into doing and have no idea how that happened!). The Hateful Eight is another excellent movie which was ignored by the Academy this year.

8 thoughts on “In Defense of Django Unchained

  1. Pingback: Black Cowboys/Girls & Black Westerns – Geeking Out about It

    1. I never thought of it quite like that. I never saw 12 years. That movie is too on the nose for my tastes.

      However Hateful Eight is a good companion piece for Django.

      Tarantino needs a third Western now to complete whatever trilogy this would be called.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. They both take on the subject of slavery in wildly different ways.
        But would agree that The Hateful Eight is also a good companion piece for Django! Watched it the other day and thoroghly enjoyed it! What could Tarantino finish off his Western trilogy with?!?

        Liked by 1 person

      2. If Django is his nameless gunslinger movie (like those spaghetti western Eastwood films) and Hateful 8 is his Magnificent 7, then he’d have to do an epic Western with Native Americans, maybe, like Dances with Wolves, which he says is one of his all-time favorite Westerns.

        Liked by 1 person

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