Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Django Unchained: Can Quentin Tarantino and Spike Lee Both Be Right?

I went to see Django Unchained last night, and I had a lot of thoughts. For the most part, I agree with the critical reception that's appearing overwhelmingly positive (as of right now, it has an 89% on Rotten Tomatoes).

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. 

Two other articles that tackle this question of audience are Rebecca Carroll's  and Abby West's

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?

13 comments:

  1. My wife and I enjoyed this amazing film along with a 90% non-white audience. (We're Caucasian.) Experiencing the movie with black Americans, many of them likely direct descendents of slaves, enriched our experience. We all cringed, cried, and laughed together without a single moment of social discomfort (that I could discern). In the end, all fans are rooting for the good guys (Django/Schultz) to save love (Broomhilda) from hatred and evil (slave owners, enforcers, and accomplices). The human spirit is indeed colorblind.

    As we departed the theater, we overheard a group of middle-aged African American moviegoers criticizing Spike Lee for his comments. To paraphrase, "Spike Lee just needs to get over it." In their opinion, Tarantino is right.

    I agree.

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  2. I think you're right that the both have good points, but I feel that Tarantino's agenda for getting Americans to face their past head-on is far more important than Spike's 'lets treat African-American history delicately because most people don't appreciate the struggle' agenda.

    Simply put, you can't have your cake and eat it too in this situation. It's far better in the long term for us to dive all the way into it so we can sort through everything that happened. People can learn a lot through entertainment, and Spike definitely pushed that in his early films.

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  3. Spike Lee hasn't, by his own admission, seen the film. His commments, therefore, are uninformed and based on speculation and second-hand reports.

    In other word, Lee's opinion is irrelevant.

    If he watches the movie and then comments, I'll take his words seriously.

    One thing that the author of this article does not suggest, mention or hypothesize is the notion of professional envy by Lee. Lee isn't a professor somewhere. He's another film director, and arguably less sucessful and lauded than Tarantino.

    Though he's seen as a great filmmaker and a master, he is not generally regared as a genius as Tarantino is. I've read enough sniping by Lee of Tarantino to doubt Lee's motives. The author of this article makes it sounds as though Lee has presented balanced, intellectual critiques of Tarantino in the past. far from it. He engages in attacks, derision, and ad hominem arguments.

    When NBC criticizes CBS, take it with a grain of salt

    Second, I'm willing to bet Lee has had films of his criticized by people who hadn't watched them. Doubtlessley he has or would dismiss those criticisms out of hand based on the fact that the critics hadn't actually seen the film they are criticizing.

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    1. I have no doubt that part of Lee's critique is based in envy. Some of that envy is just regular old competition, but some of that envy is based in frustration over an industry that is more likely to give financial backing to a white (usually male) director than a black one, even when the material being handled is the story of black Americans. I don't fault Tarantino for that, but I do understand why that would frustrate Lee.

      I also agree that his critique is largely invalidated by not having seen the film. I did, however, see (and like) the film, so my question of whether he was right was based on what I'd seen of the film. He says it is disrespectful to his ancestors, and I don't think the actual material of the film is. However, reading requires both an author and a reader and--witnessing the state of race relations in America and the rather dismal understanding of racial history--I have to say that some (maybe even many) of the viewers will be using that material to disrespect.

      That's a risk anyone making a film with a social message takes, and it shouldn't silence them, but we should talk about it.

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    2. Your first paragraph really hits home, especially after reading another person's comment on one of the articles you linked (I can't remember which one, I sort of had about 50 links opened by the time I finished reading through everything). The person said that this was a film Spike Lee or any other black director couldn't get made.

      And that's fucking true and really, really sad. Even sadder? If Lee or a black director did make this film, this exact film in exactly the same way, it wouldn't have gotten the audience it did because it's a Tarantino film.

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  4. I haven't seen the movie but I don't think it is fair for Spike Lee to make comments about a movie he has not seen. In addition, I don't think we should say things should not be made in the United States. I believe in Freedom of Expression. If you don't like it,don't see it, if you see it and you think it is horrible express that view and explain why. You can't control how others react or understand a movie,any movie. We all bring our own bias to every film we see. We can only hope overtime that people learn from our past mistakes and we move forward but hiding our past or sugarcoating it won't make things easier,in the same sense telling it like it is won't necessarily make someone change their view but you still have to look at history and go forward. Oh,and lastly, remember, a movie is just a movie!! Let's Keep it all in proper perspective :)

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    1. You're so right that we all bring our own bias into every film we see. That's how we make sense of what we see and read.

      When I say I'm not sure it should have been made, I certainly am not suggesting it should have been banned in any legal way. I, too, am a supporter of freedom of expression, but I do think that authors and audiences both have a responsibility to question the impact of the works they create and consume. Things can voluntarily be not made because an author doesn't feel like s/he should. Things can be voluntarily not seen because audiences act as ethical consumers and call for boycotts or simply choose as individuals not to see it. That's now how I personally feel about this film, but people who do feel that way about this film are not trying to infringe on the freedom of expression. Films legally CAN be made, but that doesn't mean that they SHOULD be made . . . or watched.

      And to "a movie is just a movie!! Let's Keep it all in proper perspective": I think the proper perspective for our media is to realize that it impacts the way we see the world. For many people, media shows us more about the world than we'll ever be able to experience firsthand. We use those "experiences" to shape our views, subconsciously and consciously. Study after study has shown that media impacts everything from how we think about violence, to how we think about body image, to how we think about romantic relationships. I don't think that movies should be censored, and I think we can explore disturbing themes in humanity through film, but they do have an impact on how we interact with the world. We create our media, but our media creates us, too.

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  5. I saw the movie with a mixed audience and didn't notice anyone laughing at inappropriate points during the film.

    I'm an African American woman who writes a film blog and I based my review of Django Unchained on the same criteria of any film I see - Was I engaged? Did I care about the characters and the goal of the plot? The musical component, the actors etc...

    Quentin Tarantino has made an art form of making violently entertaining movies. I don't think this one should be picked apart because it deals with slavery.

    And I agree with some of the other commenters who feel Spike Lee is just plain ol'fashion jealous. I'm sorry Spike's last few films haven't done very well, but it could be because his personality is so uppity and off putting. Where Tarantino, no matter how crazy he may be, is in love with his projects, the people he works with and his audience.

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  6. I read Ally Condie's young adult book Matched as part of a book club for BlogHer and remember a scene in which three young people in a dystopian society that controls every aspects of a person's life -- including their perfect death at the age of 80 -- are watching a movie. The movie shows people being bombed and dying, and two of the kids laugh because that's not how people die! People die in bed at 80 surrounded by their families. They were so sure this was ALWAYS the way people die that they laughed. I was really taken by that scene because it shows just how much sheltering a child (or an adult) can shape his or her awareness of what is possible. I think we need to look slavery full in the face and vow never again. I haven't seen the movie but now am wondering if I want to or not.

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  7. I haven't seen the film yet and I intend too. As a young woman of Colour i'm interested to see how it goes. I have a lot of mixed feelings about the talk surrounding the film. The whole Spike Lee Vs Tarintino thing and whether it's accurate or not. My top questions-which I may not get a clear answer to- are if Lee made the film would it be as popular-most likely not- is he upset he did make the film and that's why he is angry? Is Tarintino "just making a Blaxplotation film and if not can you fault him for some people missing the message he is trying to get across. I think the inclusion of the clip from Lee's film is a prime example that you can't always fault the director, the writer, the news reporter etc for what a person's take away is. Also to me it's important to note that even during the times of slavery some slaves preferred slavery, yeah I said.

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  8. I continue to vacillate with everything I read about this film. Violence disgusts me--including sexual violence. Maybe my heart won't take this one. Maybe I'll sit-it-out, and stop reading about it--maybe. A historian and a fiction writer???

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  9. Great review. I think you bring up some of the most interesting aspects of the movie, as well as social reaction to it, either positive or negative, ignorant or educated. I myself loved the movie and saw it anxiously (unlike other Tarantino movies) specifically because of its political nature.

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  10. Possibly Tarantino's most thoughtful and even political film to date.

    Maycee House Cleaning Austin Texas The Maids

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Comments are welcome and encouraged. I appreciate debate and have no problem hearing from people who disagree. This is a space where people can question and discuss. That said, I will delete comments that contain name-calling or bigotry. If it would get you kicked out of a dinner party, don't say it here. Use your manners.