Django Unchained: Don’t Miss What’s Truly Important Because of the Smoke and Mirrors
by C. Liegh McInnis
It was never correct to group much of African American-themed cinema under the heading “Blacksploitation.” The latest blockbuster of the genre deserves to be examined as serious social commentary. “Django Unchained exposes well the complex classes of slaves, the complex relationships between slaves, and the complex relationships between slaves and whites within the ‘peculiar institution.’”
Django Unchained: Don’t Miss What’s Truly Important Because of the Smoke and Mirrors
by C. Liegh McInnis
“Stephen is the example of the calculating, critical thinking slave who learns/masters the plantation system/culture and manipulates it to his good fortune regardless of whom he must hurt.”
Django Unchained is a very good, possibly great, Western, if one can stomach Quinton Tarantino’s highly sexualized and gory style. My issue with Tarantino is that most of his films seem to be rooted in or use the white fascination for the exotic and violent black as a trope or backdrop for the sexuality and violence of his movies. However, in this case, Tarantino’s hypersexual and ultraviolent style is a perfectly suited vehicle to show the horrors of slavery, especially the degradation of human beings into chattel for the economic gain and perverse pleasure of white supremacy. That being said, while being a visually moving, if not often grotesque, film, rooted in sex and violence, Django Unchained exposes well the complex classes of slaves, the complex relationships between slaves, and the complex relationships between slaves and whites within the “peculiar institution.”
Yet, contrary to Ben Daite’s assertion in his review “Django Unchained – The Black, The Beautiful & Ev’thing Ugly,” Django Unchanged is not the first or best film to do this. So, when Daite asserts,
“It’s a black hero movie of some sort, a well crafted emancipation epic of a black man and shames the myriad emancipation organisms we have been hitherto inundated with in movies like the coveted Sweet Sweetbacks Badasssss Song by many a black film academics. Who said a black film cannot be bold, hot, intelligent, packed, disturbing and soothing at the same time? No film, like Django Unchained, has ever drawn the moral and physical color line so inadvertently,”
I can only cringe from the fact that Daite allows his desire to love and defend Django Unchained to show just how clueless he is regarding the history of African American films.
“Tarantino’s hypersexual and ultraviolent style is a perfectly suited vehicle to show the horrors of slavery.”
First, while lacking the budget needed to make it as well-polished cinematically as Django Unchained, Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song (1971) is a very good film. In fact, its style is quite revolutionary. The film’s fast-paced montages and jump-cuts were unique features in American cinema at the time and a precursor to the action-packed style for which Daite applauds Django Unchained. Also, the manner in which Sweetback is forced to use his penis constantly as a bargaining tool comments on American fixation with the black penis (as Tarantino eventually does in the later stage of Django Unchained) and on the notion that far too many African American men fall into the trap of allowing their penis to become a major aspect of their identity. Furthermore, I should not be forced to remind Daite of Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte’s Buck and the Preacher (1972), which not only addresses the conflict between African Americans and whites but also addresses the problem of all people of color (in this case African Americans and Native Americas) navigating their issues with each other while engaging their common issues with whites. And, if we understand that Death Wish and the Dirty Harry series are, essentially, urban Westerns because they are driven by the same white supremacist notions of conquering the savages, then we understand that Shaft (1971) also refutes Daite’s historically misinformed assertion. Additionally, Django Unchained does not come close to discussing or drawing “the moral and physical color line” that is drawn, deconstructed, mocked, refashioned, and obliterated in the manner of Blazing Saddles (1974), written by Mel Brooks and Richard Pryor.
Of course, maybe Daite’s assertion of Django Unchained’s superiority to other African American films is rooted in it being “hot” or “hotter” than other African American films that address race, but someone should remind Mr. Daite that “hotness” is relative and, often, judged on differing generational criteria. With that said, I seem to remember that most women found Richard Roundtree to be “hot” in his portrayal of John Shaft, and the same is true of Mario Van Peebles’ portrayal of Jesse Lee in Posse, Denzel Washington’s portrayal of Trip in Glory, and, if my memory serves me correctly, more than a few women were brought to a swoon over John Amos’ portrayal in Roots of the African warrior, Kunta Kinte, whose unbreakable desire for freedom and courage to obtain it are the heart and soul of the narrative. But, in fairness to Daite, when he says “hot,” I know that he also means the stylistic production and presentation of the film. Again, to this I respond that “hotness” is relative and often based on generational criteria as well as what the current technology allows a film to do.
“White filmmakers are regularly given larger budgets and creative control than African American filmmakers.”
Remember, we all have fashion moments in our past for which we hope no one finds those pictures. The same is true of film. Often, the current marvel of fashion and high-tech production, especially special effects, in movies often appears inferior (lame and dated) just ten years later. But, the reviews of that time tell us just how “hot” and stylish those effects were then. Still, in any era a film’s “hotness” is directly related to its production budget. Therefore, Django Unchained’s “hotness” may be more a tribute to the manner in which white filmmakers are regularly given larger budgets and creative control than African American filmmakers. Let’s not forget that Spike Lee was forced to go with his hat in his hand to African American funders to finish Malcolm X because the studio’s budget wouldn’t produce the epic that Lee sought to make. And even Robert Townsend had to fight with the studio for more money because, as he says, “The amount of the budget determines whether there are five hundred screaming fans after a Five Heartbeat’s concert or if there are just five people in an empty alley.” So, the style or hotness of the film is not so much about Tarantino as it is about the types of limited budgets African American filmmakers are given even after they have proven themselves to be excellent.
Yet, what’s really flawed about Daite’s review is that he spends so much time trying to convince readers that Tarantino is a bold and revolutionary director just for making Django Unchained that he never fully discusses the most important aspect of the film, which is the juxtaposition and exploration of the various ideologies of slaves, namely the ideological positions of Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson) and Django (Jamie Foxx) as well as Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) when one considers that she is an example of the manner in which various slave classes/ideologies were often created based on the ideology of the plantation where a slave was born or purchased as an infant. (Check the history of Phillis Wheatley.) So if Mr. Daite could remove his head from Tarantino’s ass long enough and stop making jabs at Lee long enough, he might find the time to write an analysis of the film that shows us how Django Unchained succeeds rather than spending the entire review stroking Tarantino’s…err…ego while giving the middle finger to the history of African American cinema. Thus, the saddest part of Mr. Daite’s analysis is that he becomes guilty of the same flaw of which he accuses Lee. For some reason Daite seems to think that he can only celebrate Django Unchained by denouncing the history of African American cinema.
“Tarantino correctly identifies Stephen as the traditional Greek and Shakespearean figure, such as Iago, who has the ear of the King and manipulates his position for his own good often at the demise of others.”
To be clear, when Samuel Jackson responded to Tarantino’s questioning of if he would have a problem playing Stephen by stating, “You mean do I have a problem playing the most hated black man in the history of American cinema?,” one wonders if the general public will understand the depths of what Jackson was saying. What makes Django Unchained a good, possibly great film, is, again, the layering of the complexity of African American characters. Stephen is not just a flat, stereotypical house nigger or sellout or Uncle Tom or handkerchief head. Stephen is the example of the calculating, critical thinking slave who learns/masters the plantation system/culture and manipulates it to his good fortune regardless of whom he must hurt. To his credit, even Tarantino correctly identifies Stephen as the traditional Greek and Shakespearean figure, such as Iago, who has the ear of the King and manipulates his position for his own good often at the demise of others. But even more, Stephen is proof that the slaves both intellectually (administratively) and physically maintained the plantation during slavery and much of the South after slavery.
As a digression, watching The Jack Benny Program, I often wondered if the white writers purposefully crafted Rochester, Benny’s valet and chauffeur, as being more intelligent and moral than Jack Benny or if it was simply a Freudian slip of white supremacist schizophrenia. Moreover, drawing a chronological line from Rochester to Stephen and plotting that line with a host of African American servants and slaves, one realizes that African Americans not only built America, but they also maintained it administratively. Yet, I wonder how many people will not realize that the library scene between Stephen and his master, Calvin Candie (Leonardo Dicaprio), is not fantasy but a fictionalized retelling of the manner in which African American slaves and their offspring have been and have remained counselors for whites in leadership positions. How many African Americans had the ideas, but whites obtained the patents or job promotions based on African American intellect and work? Stephen is not a heroic character, but he is not a mindless boob either. Stephen is an example of one of the various ways that African Americans were forced or chose to analyze, navigate, and manipulate the schizophrenia of white supremacy for survival and profit.
“The African American community is not taking seriously the need to produce enough critical thinkers to engage and evaluate artistic portrayal of real-life issues.”
An African American whom I have known since high school once said to me in 2010, “C. Liegh, your problem is that you spend too much time with niggers. Niggers ain’t got no money, no power, nor the sense to use either if and when they get ‘em. That’s why I hang out with white folks.” This person works as a highly paid consultant in his field with very lucrative contracts from major white firms. One person may view this person as a modern day Stephen, and another person may view this person as somebody just taking life as it is. The real question is what is informing how one may perceive this person because the real problem is that the African American community is not taking seriously the need to produce enough critical thinkers to engage and evaluate artistic portrayal of real-life issues in a manner that allows the mass of African Americans to understand what is being said about us in all forms of media and what is being done to us in every way possible, even when it is being done by us. Furthermore, a key to understanding all of this is understanding the complex history of African people.
So, again, I wonder how many people will really understand what is occurring in the library scene between Stephen and Candie. If there is real brilliance to Django Unchained, it is Tarantino’s writing of and Jackson’s portrayal of Stephen and Dicaprio’s ability to portray Candie’s schizophrenic dependence upon Stephen in a manner that exposes Stephen’s plantation magnitude. Then, add to this Django’s ability to analyze various circumstances and navigate them accordingly along with Tarantino’s crafting and positioning of other slaves to complete the complex three-dimensional portrayal of multifaceted human beings all reacting to slavery in the manner that best suits their understanding, personality, and benefit, and Django Unchained does become a film worthy of most of the praise that Daite gives it, and one does not need to marginalize the history of African American cinema to celebrate the artistic (creative and critical) successes of Django Unchained, unless one is positioning oneself to be a literary neo-Stephen.
C. Liegh McInnis is an instructor of English at Jackson State University, the publisher and editor of Black Magnolias Literary Journal, the author of seven books, including four collections of poetry, and one collection of short fiction.