I have been a Tarantino fan since before I even knew how to analyze what I liked about a movie. I was watching Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs as a teenager. I've loved everything from Kill Bill to Deathproof, and--even though violence isn't usually a major selling point for me--I've been drawn into the quick-talking, quick-thinking alter-worlds that he crafts.
Django delivered on those fronts, and presented a superbly acted cast of characters that left me completely absorbed in the plot for the full length of the nearly-three-hour film. There were times I had to look away from the screen because of the pain and anguish it presented me, and there were times when I laughed and times when I cried. I watched it with the full involvement of my mind and emotions, and I think it was a wonderful film.
I'm not sure if it should have been made.
As I'm sure came as no surprise to Tarantino (in fact, he was probably banking (quite literally) on it), this film has stirred up some pretty serious controversy. Here is a white man writing and directing a revenge drama with a re-invisoned and sometimes humorous portrayal of American slavery. That's not going to be without its problems. (As an aside, I was also practically begging for a strong female performance that never materialized. Kerry Washington did a wonderful job acting, but her character was the strongest woman amongst a sea of weak, almost invisible women).
For his part, Tarantino walks a tough walk. He had this to say in an interview with Henry Louis Gates:
No, I don't want it to be easy to digest. I want it to be a big, gigantic boulder, a jagged pill and you have no water.There's no doubt that he succeeds in making it a difficult pill to swallow, but--as someone who has watched many of Tarantino's films several times--I have to say that I see restraint in many of the right places. Tarantino recognizes the delicate nature of his subject matter, and I think he respects it. Of course, his treatment of it is not going to sit right with everyone, but I don't think that accusations that he's poking fun at slavery or treating it too lightly are justified.
In fact, later in that same interview, Henry Louis Gates says this:
I'm a scholar of slavery, and one of the things I notice in my classes [that I teach] is that we've become inured to the suffering and pain of slavery, that we've distanced ourselves enough from it, that people can't experience the terror, the horrible pain, the anxiety, the stress, et cetera, that came with the slave experience. I thought that in Django you really began to reinsert contemporary viewers into that pain, particularly through the scene when the dogs tear Candie's slave D'Artagnan apart. And by the way, I don't know if you know, but that actually happened.Later, Tarantino admits that part of his goal is to make people uncomfortable because the sins of slavery are so deep:
I think America is one of the only countries that has not been forced, sometimes by the rest of the world, to look their own past sins completely in the face. And it's only by looking them in the face that you can possibly work past them.I agree with all of that, and I actually think that Tarantino does a lot to accomplish his goals. The film does not treat slavery lightly, and it does put those sins under the magnifying glass in a way that will make audiences uncomfortable.
But then we have Spike Lee.
In the article linked above, Lee explains that he won't be seeing Django because it is "disrespectful to [his] ancestors." He has previously criticized Tarantino's use of the n-word, particularly in Jackie Brown, even as he recognizes that he's used the film very often in his own work.
And scenes from a movie where he's using the word very often in his own work kept coming to my mind as I watched Django.
That scene from Spike Lee's own Bamboozled (one of the most powerful movies I have ever seen) shows what happens when an audience becomes complacent and then complicit in atrocity. In this movie, a television writer pitches a modern-day minstrel show in the hopes of getting fired and showing how horrible media's expectations for depictions of black people in entertainment really are, but instead his show becomes immensely popular as the mainstream audience begs for more.
The commentary is clearly about the audience's role in entertainment and how it operates on a social level.
Filmmakers have to create material that can be misinterpreted or misused. Otherwise, they wouldn't be able to create anything that could be powerful. If they don't create work that could be used to further social ills, they couldn't create work that can be used to defeat them. Powerful work is rarely without complexity that can be mistreated. As I wrote on a similar subject a while back, I don't want creators to stop creating work just because of what its audience might do with it. I stand by that--mostly.
Still, I watched this film in the theater in suburban Missouri. The crowd was mostly white (as am I).
I listened with horror as some of the audience laughed at all the wrong places. They laughed at uses of the n-word that were decidedly not funny (and I don't think were meant to be funny). I thought to myself that maybe some of it was nervous laughter, laughter aimed to release some of the tension of watching some racially-charged scenes in our "post-racial" society that is anything but.
But then some of the audience (particularly a group of young white women) laughed at a scene that was clearly meant to depict the human atrocity, dehumanization, and lack of dignity of slavery. They laughed at a scene of a man hung upside down naked and tortured. They laughed and it made me feel sicker than any scene from the film could ever have made me feel.
Carroll had a similar experience where a white audience member laughed at a scene that probably shouldn't be funny. She said this:
My fellow Django viewer responded in precisely the way Tarantino wants his audiences to respond to the black characters in his films, and that is by viewing black culture in the same way that he interprets and perceives it to be: exotic, violently entertaining, alluring, and almost entirely objectified.I'm not sure that's fair to Tarantino, and I don't think the film attempted to make slavery "violently entertaining" (though there was both violence and entertainment), and I am sure that there was nothing "alluring" about the depiction of slavery (though Carroll's comments are about Tarantino's treatment of "black culture" in general).
In West's article, she notes that a lot of teenagers will see this film but that they aren't necessarily going to understand the historical context in which it is set:
They don’t always get the big difference between fiction and nonfiction. They suspect that all historical movies are about as accurate as a documentary. They are far from stupid and are often more pop-culture savvy than their parents. But they are also impressionable and still soaking up information that will shape their lives. So for every film that muddles an important issue (and here I’m focusing on slavery but it can apply to a number of other topics), are we obliged to make sure our kids have a pop-culture counterpoint? Do we need to make sure we get in a Lincoln for every Django? For every Inglorious Basterds do we make sure there’s a Schindler’s List viewing?In my opinion, Django Unchained is an excellent movie that works very hard to treat its subject matter with the respect it deserves. I can't say the same for the people who will be watching it, and I don't know what that means.
Can Spike Lee and Quentin Tarantino both be right?