Sunday, December 30, 2012

Django and History

Understanding Tarantino's Django Unchained
Django enters the fray in the film's climatic plantation shootout.
Like many of you, I viewed Quentin Tarantino's film Django Unchained during its opening week in theaters.  Set in 1858, "Two years before the Civil War" as the film states (1861 - 2=?), it concentrates on a former slave-turned-bounty hunter.  Django, played by actor Jamie Foxx sets out to free his wife still in bondage at the aptly named plantation "Candyland" with the help of his German partner in outlaw hunting.  There, they meet the entertainingly vindictive slave master Calvin Candie played by Leonardo DiCaprio, a character who relishes buying slaves and forcing them into "Mandingo" fighting.  More intriguing yet is Samuel L. Jackson's character--an Uncle Ben look alike who is comically devoted to his master and the "Big House."  The collision of all of these colorful characters results in one of the most vivid cinematic bloodbath shootouts imaginable.  Now, take the film for what it is: an historical caricature of the antebellum South that is rife with comedy and carnage.  Still, that does not mean we cannot take a few important points away from the film, both historically and cinematically.  Here are a few thoughts that were rolling through my mind as the tale unfolded on screen:

The Good...
From an historical perspective, this film is no Gone With the Wind.  For the most part, the movie brings the horrors and violence of American slavery to the forefront.  Django's entrance into Mississippi is especially evocative as he views slaves being herded through the streets in gangly neck chains, metal masks, and ankle cuffs.  As the script reads:

"The whole Main Street of Greenville is thick with five inches of s*** brown mud that all the horse hooves, and wagon wheels, and slave feet have to wade through to get from one end of the town to the other.  We see Django and Dr. Schultz enter the town, and slosh their horses in the mud, down the main street of Greenville Mississippi. The buying and selling of slaves is what the whole town is built around.  Black Men, Women, and Children in bondage are everywhere you look.  Lines of chained slaves are being marched one way or the other, move through the muddy streets of Greenville. White men on horses move them along."

Additional imagery of slaves being mutilated, imprisoned in hot boxes, treated as concubines, and dealt with as property and not people should be shocking for some.  While there is much embellishment at times, the scenes convey a stirring point.  In doing so, the film all but crushes perceptions of the tranquil, genteel, and romanticized plantation myth that has long been pervasive in Hollywood's treatment of the Civil War era.  At the same time, the movie is quick to portray the prompt posse mentality of dealing with slaves who revolted and blacks who did not "behave" accordingly.  When considering this film alongside Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and Spielberg's Lincoln, 2012 could be thought of as a cinematic year of very anti-slavery films.
Candie talks genetics.

Another interesting scene featuring slave owner Calvin Candie expressed the cultural and so-called scientific outlooks of many white Americans in the nineteenth century.  At the dinner table, Candie pulls out the skull of one of his former slaves--an old timer who was the valet of Candie, his father, and his grandfather.  Here, Candie used and described the phrase "phrenology," the scientific thought of the time that claimed the features of the skull cavity measured intellect, creativity, and personal tendencies.  The "Negro Group" was deemed the most inferior in this regard by anthropologist Samuel Morton in the 1830s.  This tenet allowed both northerners and southerners the ability to use science to reinforce their social hierarchy and racial prejudices.

From a cinematic standpoint, Tarantino obviously was paying homage to the spaghetti westerns and blaxpoitation films of the 1960s and 1970s that have so strongly influenced his movie making.  The soundtrack, the style, and even old character actors Russ Tamblyn, Franco Nero, and Bruce Dern offered a certain Hollywood flavor that is not often seen in theaters anymore.  Music, montages, and themes from Sergio Leone films and other movies such as Two Mules for Sister Sara are recycled or imitated with much creativity throughout.  Although the film is unconventional to say the least, aficionados of the Western genre or cult films should give the movie a try.

The Bad...
Stephen...the old, loyal slave.
As was the case with some of my friends and colleagues, I had incredibly mixed reactions to this movie.  Much of these sentiments had to do with Samuel L. Jackson's character, named Stephen.  This fictional servant is the embodiment of the loyal slave, Uncle Tom stereotype.  Obviously, Tarantino was attempting to satirize this staple character of plantation films, showing how ludicrous and simplified the persona is.  Indeed, the character of Stephen offers some of the best and most vulgar instances of comical relief in the film.  Jackson certainly did his homework in regard to old time Hollywood stereotypes of slave life.  However, I think many audiences members may miss Tarantino's lampooning and take such loyalty as historical reality.

In some ways, the film is almost an historical contradiction of itself.  On one had, the character of Django vindicates his own freedom, becomes a skilled professional, and ultimately seeks independence for his enslaved wife who is abused under the ownership of Candie.  Even Jackson's character of Stephen reveals in some instances that he is smarter than his own master.  Tarantino also avoids the Dances With Wolves formula where an oppressed people is saved by the messianic white savior.  Even so, the depiction of Stephen plus slaves who cannot think for themselves present an unusual balance of historical truth, parody, and fantasy that is sometimes difficult to delineate from each other.  Slaves are represented as a valuable commodities in the film.  Yet at the same time, slaves are seen being thrown into fight-to-the-death matches for the entertainment of their masters.  (Intentionally destroying one's own property would make as little sense then as it does now.)  For moviegoers, historical reality and theatrics can easily become entangled here.

I have discussed this film with a few colleagues and an interesting pointer from one of them stated, "I was hoping this movie would serve as our generation's rallying-cry for social justice and racial equality, but he [Tarantino] leaves one wondering what does justice mean today (and then).  And this is probably the point, among others. But at the end, I felt like I had to watch Glory to reorient myself."  Did Tarantino miss an opportunity here?  Maybe so.  That is for the audience and film historians to decide.

And The Ugly... 
The costumes.  I usually do not nitpick about such things--for they really mean nothing to plot or context.  However, I found some of the film's apparel so tacky that is became a distraction.  I suppose I was just expecting the same period detail as Tarantino devoted to his WWII flick Inglourious Basterds.  The only answer is that Taratino was attempting to imitate similarly gaudy costumes of his beloved spaghetti westerns.  Oh well.

Ultimately, the film is a mixed bag.  And frankly, I sat in the theater at the movie's end not knowing what to think about it.  Indeed, the film is a colorful, adventurous, and even thrilling homage to genre films of the 60s and 70s, demonstrating much creativity on the director's part.  But so too is it an embellished burlesque of serious issues in American History--one which is occasionally choppy and self-impugning.  That said, if such cinema urges average citizens to more strongly consider the horrors and consequences of the nation's original sin, then maybe such is not a bad thing.

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