Black In The Saddle: The Racialicious Review Of Django Unchained

By Arturo R. García

When it’s all said and done, Spike Lee isn’t totally wrong in not wanting to see Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained.

Setting aside Tarantino’s interpretation of the pre-Civil War south for a second, Django finds him retreading familiar ground: it’s more Kill Bill than Inglorious Basterds. But in insulating both his hero and his story from history as much as he does here, the writer/director ends up shortchanging both of them.

Spoilers under the cut.

That’s no fault of Jamie Foxx, who ably delivers on portraying the titular hero’s slow-building emergence. (Indeed, that the film nicks from Joseph Campbell on top of Sergio Leone is the biggest surprise of all.) His Django goes from being a quick study to Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) to being better able to handle the meat of their mission to rescue Django’s beloved Broomhilda (Kerry Washington).

But, as Jelani Cobb points out in The New Yorker, some of Tarantino’s past predilections keep butting in:

Primary among these concerns is the frequency of with which Tarantino deploys the n-word. If ever there were an instance in which the term was historically fitting it would seem that a Western set against the backdrop of slavery—a Southern—would be it. Yet the term appears with such numb frequency that “Django” manages to raise the epithet to the level of a pronoun. (I wonder whether the word “ni—r” is spoken in the film more frequently than the word “he” or “she.”) Had the word appeared any more often it would have required billing as a co-star. At some point, it becomes difficult not to wonder how much of this is about the film and how much is about the filmmaker.

Cobb is correct in describing the use of that slur as numbing; Tarantino ends up inducing more groans than chills on that front. About the “best” you can say is that a) most of the people using it are defined as villains (Schultz avoids it whenever possible; Django uses it matter-of-factly or in the midst of playing someone of higher station) and b) the villains get theirs, without the benefit of being portrayed as “cool” or conflicted or anti-heroes; the closest the film gets to “typical” Tarantino dialogue is a scene where a bunch of proto-Klan members can’t get their look together, let alone their act.

As plantation owner Calvin Candie, Leonardo DiCaprio tears into the chance to not be stuck playing another nervy good guy. And there’s a fascinating exchange between Candie and his favorite servant Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson) where they show as much mutual trust as Django and Schultz, but only behind closed doors; to the rest of the world, they have to perform the massuh/slave relationship. It would have been nice to play both duos against each other more and explore that dichotomy.

Tarantino does succeed at bringing about discomfort using some quieter scenes: there’s no catchy score, for instance, on top of the “mandingo” fighting scene in Candie’s living room, where the only sounds are Candie’s brusque encouragement and the sounds of two desperate men; the scene of one of his slaves being torn apart from dogs ends up being a turning point for Schultz; Jackson succeeds in switching from playing Stephen as Candie’s willing fool to being his ruthless eyes and ears on the rest of the house; and, as David Brothers notes, the shot of a noose hanging as the newly freed Django accompanies Schultz into one town spells out how precarious his situation is.

But Tarantino cheats Django out of his ultimate revenge by linking Schultz’s death to Candie’s. The downfall of his mentor is a necessary step in Django’s journey. But eliminating the film’s most powerful villain–a man who bought and imprisoned his wife on top of literally playing games with the lives of others–means that what should be a triumphant third act for Foxx’s character becomes an abridged victory lap.

Imagine, for a second, the conclusion of Kill Bill without that final conversation between Beatrice and Bill. Without having Candie to overcome at the end, that kind of tension is taken from the conclusion of Django’s quest. He mows down the rest of the household’s leadership and Stephen, emerging as “that one in 10,000,” but emerges further removed from everyone but Broomhilda. This brings to mind another critique of Cobb’s:

On the hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, it’s worth recalling that slavery was made unsustainable largely through the efforts of those who were enslaved. The record is replete with enslaved blacks—even so-called house slaves—who poisoned slaveholders, destroyed crops, “accidentally” burned down buildings, and ran away in such large numbers their lost labor crippled the Confederate economy. The primary sin of Django Unchained is not the desire to create an alternative history. It’s in the idea that an enslaved black man willing to kill in order to protect those he loves could constitute one.

Indeed, as the film ends, we see Broomhilda grab a rifle of her own. While Tarantino gave us Django as a superhero, I found myself wishing for a story where she joined him in forging their own myth, one that could be woven into the greater battle about to unfold in Tarantino-Earth.

  • Scottie Lowe

    America is too racially immature for a movie like Django.

    It was after much contemplation and serious debate that I made the decision to go see the Quentin Tarantino movie, Django Unchained, this past weekend. Having majored in African and African American studies in grad school and having done more than my fair share of research and study about chattel slavery in the US and its effects on the collective consciousness of African Americans, I decided that I would go see the movie upon which so much controversy has been brewing and decide for myself if the movie had any merit beyond “entertainment”. It is a movie, and by default, its purpose is to make people suspend reality for a couple of hours and get lost in a world of make believe, so, with that in mind, and having weighed the pros and cons, I set out to see for myself what all the hype was about.

    Prior to seeing the movie, I was very much aligned with the Spike Lee camp of detractors who were pretty outraged that a white person would dare to tell the story of slavery. Having only seen one movie by Mr. Tarantino previously, I was not impressed with his cultural sensitivity to the Asian people and wasn’t expecting much more than a gross/cartoonish depiction of the horrors my ancestors endured. I can say without reservation that Django unchained offered THE most accurate depiction of slavery I’ve ever seen in a non-documentary film. Hats off to Mr. Tarantino for not only doing his homework about what slaves had to endure but also kudos to him for grasping and interpreting the dynamics of race relations that very few people, white or black, seem to be able to comprehend.

    Much has been made about his excessive use of the N word. I, personally, don’t ever use the word unless it is in the most academic of discussions. I do not think it has been morphed into some sort of term of endearment and I fully recognize its impact when said in front of white people. My ancestors bled and died at the base of that word so I refuse to casually throw it around out of respect to them. The Black people who do use it, especially those who feel comfortable using it in front of other races, are largely ignorant of the impact of the word or the origins and stigmas attached to it. Black people today use it because, for centuries, that’s what we were called and that’s all we knew ourselves to be. The messages passed down generationally haven’t changed one bit and its use today is almost exactly as it was intended to be used during slavery. That being said, there was not one instance in the movie where the N word was used inappropriately. It was used in the exact context and frequency that it was used during slavery. The theater I went to see the movie at was predominantly white and movie goers laughed and chuckled at the use of the word, largely out of nervous discomfort and I suspect because that’s the way they use the word in private conversations and they were rattled by its free/uninhibited use. One can only assume they felt a certain level of comfort being around other whites and confident that the Black movie goers more than likely use the word so frequently there was no fear of reprimand or riot. What the movie did was create an atmosphere of acceptance of the word whereby whites could go home and discuss the movie and casually throw the word around without respect or reverence for its impact.

    The gentleman who sat next to my boyfriend apparently thought EVERYTHING in the movie was funny. He laughed incessantly throughout the entire film. It took every ounce of strength in my body not to take my shoe off and beat his ass to a bloody pulp. I was so outraged, so angry that I seethed and burned with hatred for him. His insensitivity and callous disrespect made me see red. My boyfriend, who is not of African descent, didn’t seem to take issue with him whatsoever. He saw my discomfort and he ignored it. He didn’t ask me if I was okay, he didn’t tell the guy to shut the FUCK up, he felt the white man had a right to respond in whatever what he wanted and that I just had to suck it up. Had I been laughing throughout a Holocaust movie inappropriately, the usher, the manager, and a half a dozen movie goers would have insisted that I leave. Had I been with a Black man, he would have insisted that the guy shut up and put the fear of God in him. Again, I have no doubt in my mind that if I were with a Black man and we were laughing inappropriately at a movie about the horrors of a white exerperience, we would have asked to leave the theater. It just proves that today, as in slavery, that if you’re white, you’re right, if you’re black, stay back. Not much has changed since slavery. The feelings, opinions, and personhood of Black people is insignificant to that of whites.

    I do not watch violence as a rule so a great portion of the movie I spent with my eyes closed. Tarantino made a shoot ‘em up film with carnage galore. I can’t imagine that the gun violence was any greater than most movies but the most chilling scenes were the ones where the violence was an accurate depiction of what slave life was like. The slave being ripped apart by dogs, the Mandingo fights to the death, and the brutal rape, whippings, torture, branding, and abuse of slaves was chilling and accurate. Movie goers don’t get that. To them, it was all a part of the entertainment, made up.

    There is much that movies goers, both white and black, are too uninformed/ignorant to get. Samuel L. Jackson’s role was one that depicted the relationship of the house nigger to the master. Because our conversations about race in this country are so superficial and juvenile, the understanding of how a slave with the consciousness of a Stephen could exist. Left to their own devices, moviegoers will assume that he was a self-serving, back-stabbing slave with an agenda to better himself and control/destroy all the other slaves. In reality, house slaves were the creation of slave masters and their allegiance was part and parcel of the system of slavery that needed slaves pitted against one another for its survival.

    With the exception of the white protagonist, white people in the movie were depicted as stupid, outrageously cruel, and one-dimensional. They were lazy, treated slaves with despicable inhumane torture and were nonchalant and flippant about using their property, HUMAN BEINGS, for whatever deviant purpose their puny brains could conjure. Slave owners were just that.

    There are many more aspects of the movie that could be dissected, examined, and discussed but, unfortunately, America is too racially immature to have any such discussions. White people are insistent upon inflecting the comment, “I’m not racist,” “Slavery was in the past, let it go,” or, “Can’t we all just get along,” into every conversation about race. They control conversations about race with their ignorance and refusal to learn, accept a different point of view, and their thinly-veiled racist beliefs. How many white people watched that movie and went home to watch interracial porn where the N word is thrown around like rice at a wedding? How many white people who saw the movie routinely refer to Obama as a nigger and go on rants online where they hide behind a computer screen to espouse racist beliefs? If I’ve said it once I’ve said it a million times. White people have to wear a sheet, burn a cross, and run around screaming, “I hate niggers,” before another white person will dare to imply that they MIGHT be racist.

    Black people are just as misguided. Black people think the movie represents some form of revenge, a win for Blacks as it were. Bullshit! That part was fiction. The concept of a Black man being a gun-wielding bad-ass and able to ride off into the sunset with his lady love is more like science fiction. But Black people are so willing to embrace that “feel good” dynamic of the movie because we don’t want to face our shame and humiliation at being connected to a slave past. EVERYONE wants to assume that they would be the one slave in 10,000 who would revolt and kick ass and take names later. The truth of the matter is, slaves were subservient and bred to be docile and millions upon millions of slaves conformed to the rules in order to live, to survive, because they didn’t know any other way. Black people are terrified to acknowledge a connection to a slave past because they feel as if recognizing the impact of slavery on themselves means that they are by default inherently inferior.

    It won’t be until we can have an intelligent, informed, comprehensive discussion about slavery, race, and all its many, messy complexities that a movie like Django will be effective. For now, we are painfully diseased and incapable of having a dialogue about slavery/racism that goes beyond any more than cliché and rhetoric. Django was created with the potential to create an amazing dialogue about race but sadly, the nation just isn’t ready for that.

  • shuggieo

    That is a very interesting point you make about Django being the one to kill Candie’s but I think Tarantino got it sport on with the ending. The film was essentially about liberation of self and the illumination of choice which ultimately equates to power. The two major moments in the movie Schultz’s decision to have the last say on Candies gamesmanship. The fear of inferiority was Candie’s weakness and Schultz’s exploited that knowing that it would probably cost him his life. Schultz’s (who was the trickster figure in the movie) was himself liberated someone who took to choices away from people with his line of work to giving a couple a chance to the right to make a choice and a the same time giving them the power to defend that choice. His work was done, so for him to take Candie’s literally out of the picture cleared the path for Django to reach his own self realisation by tackling the real major villain of the movie, which was the root of what laid beneath the character of Stephen. That root is the conformity of western culture that has disempowered a black generation of their own thought and Stephen was the embodiment of that so I think Tarantino called it right for Django to blow up candy-land and all the so called scentiffic evidence amongst the unread books which fuelled an illusion to keep one in their place.