The more I read about what Quentin Tarantino has to say about his consistently entertaining new slave Western Django Unchained, the less I like the film. This is supremely annoying:
We all intellectually "know" the brutality and inhumanity of slavery, but after you do the research it's no longer intellectual any more, no longer just historical record – you feel it in your bones. It makes you angry, and want to do something...I'm here to tell you, that however bad things get in the movie, a lot worse shit actually happened.
No shit. Also? No shit. Just in case you were thinking that Tarantino conveyed the enormity of slavery's atrocities in a 165-minute neo-exploitation movie featuring Jamie Foxx as the titular former slave bounty hunter, well, he's here to tell you that he didn't.
Please. This R-rated, mainstream movie plays like Crash next to 1971's Goodbye Uncle Tom, the mondo mockumentary that purported to cover every aspect of the slave trade with the help of the then-dictator of Barbados' leasing out his people who were degraded in all sorts of ways for the dubious cause of historical realness. Django Unchained features Kerry Washington's Broomhilde von Shaft character getting beaten, smeared with blood, face-branded, humiliated for her whip marks, not to mention the use of the word "nigger" over 85 times, a barehanded to-the-death "Mandingo fight," and a general regard of humans as objects. And still, it is kids' stuff compared to the truth. You didn't need Tarantino to tell you that, or anything about slavery in the first place.
It isn't that Tarantino and his angry bones have no right to examine slavery despite any cinematic translation of such an examination being destined to fall short of historical accuracy. It seems to me that an indelible scar on society like slavery deserves pondering by whomever, however, even if the ponderer is "putting it in a spaghetti Western framework and highlighting the surreal qualities inherent in the material. I'm highlighting them mythically and operatically, and in terms of violence and gruesomeness, with pitch-black humor."
That's what Tarantino told Playboy this month. One thing I admire about Django is its irreverence. At the very least, it lightens up the heavy material for the delicate sensibilities of mainstream moviegoers and thumbs its nose at those who would prefer a more polite, P.C. white hand guiding such material. Revising history is Tarantino's trusted method, anyway. Look no further than his consistent formal-exercising, which has elevated Blaxploitation, grindhouse horror, kung-fu schlock and pulp into series cinema that yields award-winning event films.
But recreating the awful past for the sake of popcorn entertainment came with a very tangible price. Tarantino, who says that part of his motivation for exploring this topic was wondering about the social strata inside a plantation, had his own petri dish of sociology on set. Also to Playboy:
[There] was a social-dividing issue between the extras that mirrored the ones between their slave characters in the movie. The ponies [slave call girls] were pretty, and they looked down on the extras playing cotton-picker slaves. They thought they were better than them. And the people playing the house servants looked down on the people playing the cotton pickers. And the cotton pickers thought the people playing the house servants and the ponies were stuck-up bitches. Then there was a fourth breakdown, between the darker skinned and the lighter skinned. Obviously not for everybody, and it wasn't a gigantic problem, but it was something you noticed. They started mirroring the social situations of their characters, being on this plantation for a few weeks.
Tarantino doesn't let on whether facilitating this division bothered him. It wasn't intentional, exactly, and it's morbidly interesting for exposing a fundamental truth of humanity: people want to feel superior over one another and will resort to subjective, otherwise meaningless criteria to achieve that. But at the objective top of this chain of command, of course, is Tarantino, a man who considered rounding up the likes of early contenders for the role of Django – including Idris Elba, Chris Tucker, Terrence Howard, M.K. Williams and Tyrese – and putting them "through the paces, make them go off against one another and kind of put up an obstacle course." It sounds like a Hollywood version of the "Mandingo fight" we see in Django Unchained.
That all of this was guided by a white man is greater commentary on race relations (who runs the world-slash-Hollywood?) than Django Unchained itself. Unlike the very difficult Goodbye Uncle Tom, which is depraved and disgusting enough to confirm every thinking and compassionate person's disdain of slavery and make for something that would play well at a Klan get-together, there's no mistaking the point of Django: slavery was bad and watching a slave revolt, killing torturers, traders and traitors alike, is cathartic. This is why racists already have a problem with this movie.
In structure and theme, Django Unchained is as straightforward a Tarantino picture as was ever made. The director provokes the greater questions about his own sense of morality and taste indirectly because of his subject matter, not because of his white-bread stance on it. Leonardo DiCaprio can play his plantation-owning Calvin J. Candie character with as much smooth charm as humanly possible, he can be written with enough quirk and nuance to make him a human being, but he is still the bad guy. Jamie Foxx can seethe humanity that telegraphs generations of mistreatment, articulating it with a gentle intensity, and he's still the superhero. Even Sam Jackson as the Uncle Tom character Stephen yields no ambiguity – he's just another henchman. Django Unchained attempts to be a simple movie and superficially it is, but that becomes undone by the attitudes regarding, confusion over and discourse about race that every viewer brings into it. Tarantino must know this. He says that via Django, he wanted to provoke conversation with it, but any movie worth watching will do that. Making people talk about an enduring point of contention without actually saying anything but the obvious is an artistic cop out.
When Django does succeed, it talks about talking, specifically about the folly and hypocrisy of white guilt. After Christopher Waltz's bounty-hunting Dr. King (heh) Schultz emancipates Django to assist him on the job, he proposes continuing their working relationship this way: "On one hand, I despise slavery. On the other, I need your help and if you're in no position to say no, all the better. I'm going to take advantage of the situation. But I feel guilty." He points out the similarity of what he and Django do as being "like slavery" in that "it's a flesh-for-cash business."
Maybe most telling—and this is a spoiler alert—is when Tarantino shows up as an Australian (?) slave-transporter in the final reel. His back-and-forth with Django ends with him being blown up with dynamite, exploding onscreen. Is this the ultimate expression of white guilt, self-aware commentary on Tarantino's annoying onscreen presence, some obscure cinematic reference that 99 percent of the people watching this thing aren't going to get, or is he simply just a dude getting blown up toward the end of a movie?
Who knows? Tarantino says he likes "making people laugh at fucked-up shit." He's harvesting atrocity for effect, which makes Django, at the very least, a pure-blooded exploitation film. The end result, as described to Playboy:
I was actually quite proud when I read that Django is one of the most anticipated moves coming out this year. It's a black Western. Where's the anticipation coming from? I guess a lot of it is me. That's pretty fucking awesome.
Tarantino's ultimate consideration is himself. He does it because he can.