By Jean McGianni Celestin
Jean McGianni Celestin is a writer who focuses on the intersection of race with culture, sports and politics. Follow him @LiberatedKing
Quentin Tarantino’s new film, Django Unchained, starring Jamie Foxx, Samuel L. Jackson, Christoph Waltz, Kerry Washington and Leonardo DiCaprio attempts to tell the story of an enslaved black man in 1858 who becomes a bounty hunter in the American South.
In the opening scene, a cunning German dentist turned-bounty hunter named King Schultz (Waltz) crosses paths with a caravan of recently-purchased slaves and their new owners in the middle of the night in Texas. Upon determining that one of them, Django (Foxx), can help him identify some Wanted white men he’s been commissioned by the courts to capture “dead or alive,” Schultz frees him and the unlikely duo rides away to begin their manhunt.
All through the film, Django and Schultz engage in a string of clever tactics to apprehend their fugitives while Schultz mentors his new uncivilized partner on the sort of civil presentations and social etiquettes (reading and dressing), typically denied to blacks during slavery. But more notably, Schultz teaches him how to kill, playing on Django’s justifiable hatred for whites as chief motivation.
During the course of their journey, the film depicts—in vintage Tarantino-fashion—the monstrous acts of violence white slave owners perpetrated on their slaves and the deprecating conditions they subjected them to as permanent property. Then, at some point, Django confesses to Schultz that he wants to rescue his wife, Broomhilda (Washington), who was sold away to another slave owner in Mississippi.
Feeling responsible for Django, Schultz promises him that they’ll try to get her back once they’re done capturing the criminals on his list. But the cost is bloody. Broomhilda is owned by the pitilessly ambitious, third-generation slave landlord, Calvin Candie (DiCaprio), who has a booming enterprise organizing deadly boxing matches between male slaves and prostituting Broomhilda as a “comfort girl.” Stephen (Jackson) is Candie’s loyal and equally-ruthless elderly black house servant. The plot, then, introduces more carnage, resulting in Schultz and Django killing every slave holder and overseer on the infamous Candie Plantation, including Stephen, whom Django guns down and torches in the final scene.
Ultimately, Tarantino tries to sell the tale of a seditious slave avenging the injury whites caused to enslaved blacks on the way to rescuing his beloved wife, but fails, if not horribly at times, to deliver.
In fact, there is so much more to be desired of the film from the standpoint of black heroism than there are moments of true liberation within the context of chattel slavery. Sure, Django gets his gal and kills a lot of white people in the process, but the movie tries to depict the agony of slavery through the edited spectacle of a spaghetti western; which could be tolerable from a creative point-of-view, but comes off disrespectful considering it deals with an era that has yet to be portrayed sensibly (sans the satiric quirks) by mainstream Hollywood.
It’s important to point out that Tarantino is not a stranger to experimenting with sensitive historical topics. In his 2009 release, Inglorious Basterds, the director took a stab at the Jewish experience during World War II and got away with it being digestible, in part, because the journey of Jews during the Nazi occupation of Europe has been properly told in epic, heroic form by respected Jewish filmmakers. (See Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List and Bryan Singer’s Valkyrie).
However, with Django, Tarantino defeats the objective one assumes he was trying to champion when he thought about making this movie. The premise of a “German” bounty hunter freeing a black slave in the American South” to help him do his dirty work is so jarring and farfetched that it’s emasculating to have to consider. There is nothing self-determining or redeeming about Django becoming who he becomes as a result of this white savior phenomenon. And the image of the helpless, diminutive Broomhilda unable to resolve her own fate until Dr. Schultz and Django comes to save the day further deepens that wound and neglects the strength and importance of the black woman during this period.
There is not one woman, subjugated or otherwise, in the entire film one can be proud of. They’re either a slave mistress or the palpably dolt, debutante sister of a slave merchant. Even the use of the “N” word ad nauseam to describe everything from place, person or thing throughout the film exasperates Tarantino’s attempt even more; as does the constant tension (and lack of compassion) displayed between Django and other slaves during his quest to find his wife.
This glaring dynamic between the black characters goes unexplained throughout the movie, yet is symbolic of the black-on-black animosity the institution of slavery created amongst people of African-descent.
In retrospect, if Django Unchained lived up to anything, it’s that it successfully conveyed the grisly theme of beasthood the title is meant to imply. You’re constantly reminded that he’s not fully a man—even when unchained—because he has a job to do beyond his own freedom. So he rides through a gory trail of tears, not principally because he’s rebellious or wants to liberate his fellow man, but because his white mentor makes it possible for him to do so.
Even in scenes where Django exerts authority (whipping a white overseer and pushing another off a horse), the message of empowerment feels buried under the comedic relief of the dialogue. As a result, given the plethora of untapped narratives about real-life heroes who fought back against slavery like Nat Turner in Southampton, Virginia, Toussaint L’ouverture and Jean-Jacques Dessalines in Haiti, Denmark Vesey and Harriet Tubman―all whom have never been appropriately illustrated on the big screen, Django is a half-baked endeavor at trying to tell this brutal part of human history.
There is nothing amusing about making a parody out of it.
To simply watch this film with an unbiased cinematic eye sort of trumps the purpose of introducing the topic in the first place. And for any intelligent moviegoer to claim that they enjoyed it for its artistic and entertainment value, without considering the serious critiques being waged on the social aspect the storyline is packaged in, is even more problematic and makes the trivialization permissible.
It is not merely delusional to look past these negatives for the sake of enjoying a Tarantino flick. It’s also a self-defeating prophecy that will persist for as long as black people aren’t telling their own stories; and for as long as audiences and film executives don’t support black Hollywood filmmakers, who dare to with integrity the same way they seem to support others.
If not, a spaghetti western about a trigger-happy slave named Django (“the D is silent”) sporting sunglasses with a fresh shape-up while a Rick Ross beat plays in the background in 1858 Mississippi will be the best that people of African-descent can hope for when it comes to recounting the darkest period of their long and glorious history.