Saturday, January 19, 2013

Everything I think about "Django Unchained" so far. I think.

When the controversy began brewing around "Django Unchained," I assiduously avoided reading, watching or listening to anything about it. I knew I wanted to see the movie, and I wanted to enter the experience with a clean slate, so to speak.

That is, a relatively clean slate. Having seen "Reservoir Dogs," "Pulp Fiction," "From Dusk to Dawn" and "Sin City," I knew that any film written AND directed by Quentin Tarantino would likely be extremely violent. And a little crazy.

I saw "Django Unchained" two Saturdays ago with a friend. A few days later, my desire to discuss it with a group led me to invite people on Facebook to join me in watching it the following week.

Which did happen. So now I've seen it twice. My thoughts so far (SPOILERS AHEAD):

1. If you like Quentin Tarantino's work, you'll love "Django." If you don't like Quentin Tarantino, you'll hate it. It is indeed extremely violent. And in its own way, more than a little crazy.

2. The movie has violence from beginning to end. But of different kinds. In the opening scene, when a bounty hunter, Dr. King Schulz (Christoph Waltz), sets Django (Jamie Foxx) free, he kills a man with clinical dispatch. Later, he trains Django to do the same. It involves no emotion except the shock experienced by bystanders.

The movie's midsection portrays violence specifically as a part of slavery. These acts of violence are prolonged, brutal and elicit emotional responses from everyone in the movie that we care about; all of which makes them elicit an emotional response from us.

The final act opens with a lose-track-of-the-body-count bloodbath, and closes with a smaller bloodbath. In these scenes, the violence becomes cartoonish. Or, if you like, mythic. If the movie works for you at all, this violence will make you want to cheer or clap or at least say "Yeah!" (remember cheering at the explosion of the Death Star, vaporizing everyone in it?)

3. As to the craziness, it ranges from the mild anachronism of having people say things that no one is likely to have ever said in 1858, like Dr. Schultz telling Django to be careful not to "break character," to the excess of having a night raid by wannabe Klansmen accompanied by the "Dies Irae" from Verdi's Requiem. And following that a few minutes later with Rick Ross.

It also includes having that night raid devolve into a scene that is laugh-out-loud funny.

4. The night raid scene is one of two in which "Django" seems to attack racism by presenting racists as idiots. The second is a scene in which the slaveholder Calvin Candie (played by Leonardo diCaprio), cites phrenological evidence for the inferiority of Black people. While the first scene is comical, the second becomes scary, because while Calvin is an idiot, he is also a - sociopath? psychopath? - a raging lunatic. With power.

5. The word "nigger," used 100+ times, almost becomes white noise well before the end of the film. Come to think of it, that is what the word started out as, right? White noise?

6. Although I would not call "Django" a Black film, because I reserve that term for a film that features a primarily Black cast, Django himself is the strongest Black character I have seen in a long time. Or to put it differently, he is a Black man who is one of the strongest characters I have seen in a long time. By which I mean, absolutely wilful in the pursuit of his objective.

In my experience, many Black films suffer from the lack of a discernible protagonist (that was my biggest problem with Red Tails, the George Lucas-produced tribute to the Tuskegee Airmen ). There seems to be an aesthetic out there that says that for Black films, the community is the protagonist (memo to self: read up on this). Django is not just a protagonist, he is a Hero, with a capital H.

7. But he is not a community hero. He gives some Black folk some help along the way. But he is not trying to free his people. He is trying to free his wife. Maybe he'll do more for his people later.

(UPDATE, 3 pm Jan 19 2013: Big DUH moment. Django gets Broomhilda, and her freedom papers,  before the final sequence, the smaller bloodbath in which he destroys not only the power structure of Candyland but the physical thing itself. Doing that brings him pleasure, but no particular benefit, as he already has everything he needs and has wanted. Apparently he does it for his people.)

8. Watching it makes me ask, "If Janet were enslaved, what would I do to free her? What would I not do?" Especially in light of Ephesians 5:21 ff.

9. Dr. Schultz has an unusually strong arc for a supporting character. You see him change significantly. In fact, he may change more than Django does. Django's circumstances change; his abilities change; but does his character change? Another discussion point!

10. To accomplish his goal, Django needed more than freedom. He needed money, a marketable skill and a degree of access which could only be provided by having a white man as a partner (although theoretically I suppose Django could have gained access to Candyland - Candie's plantation - just by riding in with guns blazing.). Which made me think of these guys, and the challenge that it still presents sometimes to acknowledge how useful white men can be.

11. Even so, I wasn't convinced, either the first or the second time that I saw the movie, of the necessity of the "Mandingo fighting" ruse. For me, that was the weakest part of the story.

12. The second time I saw it, I was struck by the parallels between Charlie's description of Django's pending fate as an employee of the LeQuint Dickey Mining Co. ("they take away his name and give him a number," etc.) and today's mass incarceration of Black men - parallels that Tarantino made explicit in comments about the so-called "War on Drugs" in a sit-down with Canadian talk show host George Stromboulopoulos:

Which makes me want to set aside time to read Michelle Alexander's "The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness."

13. Speaking of parallels, the scene in the library raises the questions: Could the slave trade have lasted as long as it did without some help from some Black slaves? If mass incarceration is the new slavery, who are the new Stephens? I may not ever answer that second question, but it does occur.

14. While Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson) is the only Black man other than Django with a large amount of screen time, we see other Black men showing a spectrum of responses to their situation. But the women, other than Broomhilda and an apparent courtesan, seem entirely docile. And even Broomhilda doesn't do much; she is described as being a repeated runaway, but we only see that in flashback.

15. I had Kerry Washington in mind for a script that I drafted a few years ago (which needs an utter rewrite). Now I guess she'll be too busy for a while. Am I the only one who thinks that her transformations invite comparisons to Meryl Streep?

NOTE, 9/16/2014 - An actress who played a supporting role has lit up the Internet with a story of police harrassment, but I can't make heads or tails of it.
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