Django Unchained: Controversy Unwrapped

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[SPOILERS]

“Django Unchained”, the latest film from Quentin Tarantino, has provoked a lot of controversy as usual. At this point in his career the biggest controversy he can now commit is making an uncontroversial film, which wouldn’t be his style at all.

He has been attacked for making the film too violent, too anti-white and too anti-black. It seems he can never win, but what’s behind each if these criticisms?

VIOLENCE!

In the wake of the Sandy Hook shootings, rabid american gun owners were looking for other reasons than the semi-automatic killing device the shooter used and instead focused on THE MEDIA, specifically violent video games and films. Tarantino bore the brunt of much of this criticism to the point that he refused to answer anymore more questions about it in this interview.

It must be annoying for a director to want to talk about his film but get moral outrage instead, especially since he is not an ambassador for every violent film ever made and “Tarantino makes violent film” is no longer news. He might have handled refuting the question badly, but the point of him refuting the question is still valid, the point being he is Tarantino and speaks for the actions of nobody but his own.

Some of the criticism has been based solely on the fact the film is violent, independent of any reference to the recent Sandy Hook shooting, which immediately renders the criticism null as it is the equivalent of a homophobe calling homosexuals gay. Tarantino is all about violence and the cinematic spectacle thereof. It is over the top and it is gory, but they make sense in his films Why? Because they are next to funny scenes of John Travolta dancing and amazing scenes of Christoph Waltz drinking milk. Violence is not the be all and end all of Tarantino films, they are just a part of his signature style which is used to highlight the fantastical nature of cinema and the absurdity of fiction itself.

You can disagree with his use of violence from a cinematic, narrative and filmmaking perspective, but to disprove of him on violence alone is being disengeniously offended.

ANTI-WHITE

Some criticism of the film has come from white right-wing critics who, like with VIOLENCE!, don’t get the joke. Or do get the joke but are using the opportunity to stoke racial tensions and give racists like these legitimacy for stuff like this.

It is true that practically every white character in the last half of the film is killed by Django, but it isn’t an anti-white statment as much as it is an anti-slavery statement. In Tarantino’s last revenge fantasy Hitler’s face is turned into bullet piñata which worked on two levels: the first being the melodramatic way a head explodes under heavy fire and the second being the embodiment of jewish feeling towards Hitler in a cinematic close-up. “Django” is equally as  narratively and thematically coherent, everyone supportive of slavery gets their comeuppance and a film about black revenge features a black man taking revenge, there is no racial call-to-arms here. Unless you are so offended at anti-slavery you want to lynch the first black man you see.

White people in Django represent slavery, and this is the real reason why racist and right wing critics deplore the film. They do like to see their ideology being attacked so rather than outwardly say “we hate blacks”, they wrap their hatred around a critique of the film that attacks violence committed towards whites as a problem with the film. This does not only miss the point of the film but it also ignores the centuries of privileged position that whites in America have enjoyed.

Tarantino wryly comments on this, particularly how economic inequality was as rife as slavery and how it was used to keep lower class whites in subordinate positions. When Muguy jokingly comments that you could say he was raised to become Calvin Candie’s lawyer, Django quips “One could almost say, you a nigger”, he isn’t too far from the truth. The portrayal of the incomprehensible rednecks at Candieland is another example of this, because if it wasn’t for their skin colour, they might as well be slaves as well.

Overall, these anti-white critiques shouldn’t be taken seriously, but they do make excellent unintended funny reading, if only it wasn’t so tragically for real.

ANTI-BLACK

Much has been made of Spike Lee’s comments regarding “Django” as a film that is “disrespectful to his ancestors” with some backing his general sentiment, which is at its heart is valid; the use of the african american experience to sell movie tickets and win awards.

But these effects are to be expected, after all The Weinstein Company is hardly going to produce a film that isn’t going to be at least nominated for an Oscar. Because what’s the point of having Leonardo Dicaprio make his hand bleed for a role if he isn’t going to win as Oscar? It’s almost as if Harvey Weinstein only makes films to win Oscars (FYI: he does).

But to the greater point of black exploitation; it seems on the surface that Lee is right. Here we have a white guy telling a black guy to perform for mostly white people under the pretence of making black people feeling better about being abused by white people for generation, all the while the first white guy makes loads of money for other rich white people. Sounds alot like “Bamboozled”, a Spike Lee film where white TV execs make a vehemently racist show that is justified because its ironic.

Sounds alot like “Django”.

However, the spectacle of style in “Django” makes the film seem anachronistic, at no point does it use irony to justify the racism it depicts. If anything, the racism in “Django” is entirely justified in the same way the use of the word nigger is justified in “Huckleberry Finn”, as a product of the times and a part of history that must be confronted and not shied away from.

Not that historical accuracy is one of Tarantino’s strong suits, mandingo fights, for example, are more of a historical facet of Hollywood than a historical fact of slavery, but just because they didn’t happen doesn’t mean the power of that particular scene should be taken away, especially its symbolic meaning.

Despite the intentions of “Django”, it is an important film for both historical and present day understandings of slavery and its effect on American society. It starts new debates about race and its impact today. If anything this film gives the facts of slavery a human face, putting meat on the bones of the statistics of slave trade.

Hopefully, the debate of race in film forces studios, producers and distributors to search for authentic black voices for authentic black stories. Tarantino in this sense is a starting point rather than the end when it comes to black film. As a reply to Lee’s tweet commented “[Its] Outrageous that black directors never have the funding to tell their story”.  Black directors, writers and producers do exist and if any good comes out of “Django” it’s that audiences seek out their voices and the industry pays attention.

h/t to Jefferson Barbosa for the poster image

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