Misplaced criticism over Django Unchained

On December 30, 2012

There is a rule somewhere in the book of cinema that disallows any combination of spaghetti western and slavery. Or you would think so, anyway.

Django Unchained belongs to Quentin Tarantino, though, so of course we're going to have the same sort of controversy we had with the ultra-violent, Nazi-killing Inglourious Basterds. Django strikes a nerve with many because it deals with one of the nation's greatest disgraces: slavery. And to many, mixing that with western gunplay and Jamie Foxx is not cool.

Spike Lee's tweet sums up one major problem a lot of critics have had with Tarantino's latest flick: "American Slavery Was Not A Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western.It Was A Holocaust.My Ancestors Are Slaves.Stolen From Africa.I Will Honor Them."

You also have the anger over the constant N-word usage (I counted 90-100 utterances) in the film, something Tarantino has come under before in films like the classic Pulp Fiction and blaxploitation send-up Jackie Brown.

The criticism I found the most ridiculous, however, is how Django apparently fantasizes slavery. There are critics who believe the film romanticizes it, while scholars believe it's another example of the "white man" recontextualizing slavery into a lesser evil. There's a belief that slavery is being used as a gimmick to sell another Tarantino revenge flick.

The main problem I have with those points is that a lot of them come from people who haven't even seen the movie. Does slavery make us so uncomfortable that using the topic in any way other than a mournful, semifactual context is offensive? I guess it does, which is why we're hearing some illogical arguments against Django.

Let's take the supposed recontextualizing of slavery, for instance. It's true our school textbooks (particularly high school and middle school) woefully lack an in-depth account of America's biggest shame, but why is Tarantino is being held to the same factual standard? I was under the impression because Django is a fictional tale, Tarantino was allowed to take creative liberties like fiction normally does. Am I right or wrong?

The irony of it all is that BET actually played the Roots miniseries the same day Django played. I'm sure opponents could've stayed home and watched if they felt Tarantino was that far in the wrong.

Also, the idea of a "slavery spaghetti western" feels odd at first, but it falls right in line with Tarantino's work. Your average cinephile knows a major part of Tarantino's craft revolves around borrowing from different genres and melding them into these crazy epics (Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill are prime examples). The main offense in calling Tarantino's respectful use of slavery a gimmick is how it discounts his previous works - a lot of them being a huge part of cinema canon.

I say "respectful" because nothing about Django screams "exploitation." It's simply too good of a movie to be cast off as a gimmick. How can the elite performances of Jamie Foxx, Leonardo DiCaprio, Samuel L. Jackson and Christoph Waltz, the stylish cinematography and excellent dialogue be described as "gimmicky?"

This is by no means an attack on Black culture by a director who has embraced it throughout his career. In fact, Django can be seen as a tribute that goes beyond the obvious thrill of a slave murdering slave owners in beautifully violent fashion. It's symbolic at times, like in the scene (which is in one of the trailers) where a slave owner's blood splatters on cotton - a twist on the blood spilt by slaves on those same fields. There's also this scene near the end of the movie that has our hero Django standing tall above slave owners who are dressed in black - a black man standing over the death of white supremacy.

However, by critics refusing to watch Django Unchained, they will never realize the flick isn't just a slavery western film. It's a love story sautéed in the western and revenge genres. Antebellum South is merely a context. The film's plot revolves around a slave who becomes a horse-riding knight who would go through hell to save his queen, while coming into his own as a dignified human being - self-love. It's all told in entertaining fashion.

What we have in Foxx's character is a hero who exists outside of the horrible caricatures of a Tyler Perry character and represents the country's shameful past while symbolizing what we aspire to be.

Even though I'm against the criticism against Django Unchained, I'm not surprised the film is causing discussion. That's what great art tends to do.


Email: brian.josephs@ubspectrum.com

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