Beware some SPOILERS in this piece.
To paraphrase Oprah, call it a "Django Moment." This is the moment when, while watching Quentin Tarantino's campy new slave-revenge movie, a person of color begins to feel uncomfortable with the way white people around them are laughing at the horrors onscreen. Though the film from which it stems has only been in wide release for less than 48 hours, if what I've heard in private conversations is correct, the Django Moment is already a fairly widespread phenomenon.
My personal Django Moment came when an Australian slaver, played by Tarantino himself, haphazardly threw a bag full of dynamite into a cage of captive blacks before mocking their very real fear that they might be exploded to nothingness. A white man behind me let out a quick trumpet blast of a guffaw, and then fell silent. My face got hot, and my nephew, who was sitting at my right, shifted uncomfortably in his seat. Throughout the film, I'd laughed along with everyone in the theater as a lynch mob of bumbling rednecks planned to slaughter the "fancypants nigger" Django, and when the villainous house slave Stephen, played pitch perfectly by Samuel L. Jackson, limped dumbly around his master's plantation, kowtowing to every absurd demand with an acerbic and foulmouthed loyalty. But for whatever reason, the dynamite in the slave cage was a bridge too far for me. What the fuck is he laughing at? I thought, and just like that, the theater went from a place of communal revelry to a battleground.
Just so we're clear, I really liked Django Unchained, and there's probably no other movie I'll discuss more with my friends—and friends of friends—over dinner in the coming months. I also don't think it's important for everyone in the world to have the same opinions about what is and isn't funny. God forbid, for instance, that Seth MacFarlane were forever allowed to be the one and only arbiter of comedy in the United States. Nevertheless, as Tarantino's latest continues making its bloody cultural ascent, it seems more important to recognize the difference in audience reactions to Django Unchained more so than, say, the difference in audience reactions to Love Actually.
Dave Chappelle once said that the impetus for him walking away from his hugely successful Comedy Central show was an incident in which he felt like a white employee was laughing maliciously at one of his more racially steeped sketches. "[S]omebody on the set [who] was white laughed in such a way—I know the difference of people laughing with me and people laughing at me—and it was the first time I had ever gotten a laugh that I was uncomfortable with," Chappelle told Oprah months after he'd quit the show. "Not just uncomfortable, but like, should I fire this person?"
Today, Django Unchained has me considering, like Chappelle did years ago, what exactly white people are taking away from a film in which a subject like slavery is treated with such whimsy and humor. Was my Django Moment just me being too touchy? And beyond that, did my tittering at some of Django's brutality or Samuel L. Jackson's pathetic moaning cause someone else, black or white, to feel awkward?
Relentless and over-the-top violence is a hallmark in most of Tarantino's work, but in Django Unchained, the gore seems different from the director's previous efforts. There is a wide gulf, for instance, between the ultra-bloody kung-fu fights from Kill Bill and the Django scene in which a pack of wild dogs tears apart a defenseless runaway slave. Also difficult to watch is Django's wife, Broomhilda, being whipped for attempting to escape her plantation, and then being branded on the face. Even Tarantino's other recent take on monstrous ethnic oppression, the WWII drama Inglorious Basterds, had but one scene—the tense opener—that rivaled the hideousness of Django's ugliest moments, made all the uglier because they actually happened.
Considering that some of the real-life, well-documented tortures inflicted upon nonfictional slaves were much worse than the ones shown in Django Unchained, it's almost impossible to not feel self-conscious when Tarantino asks you to rapidly fluctuate between laughing at the ridiculousness of Django's characters and falling silent with shame at the film's authentic historical traumas. It's in this disunity that the Django Moments arise. One moment you're laughing at Mr. Stonesipher's unintelligible bumpkin drawl; next you're wincing as Stonesipher's hounds shred a man limb from limb. (In my theater, one man in front of me scrambled out during this scene and only returned when it was over.) You smile as plantation owner Big Daddy attempts to figure out how to treat a free black man better than a slave but worse than a white person, but then you grimace while watching the vicious slave master Calvin Candie exalt phrenology, the bullshit pseudoscience many racists continue to cite as "proof" that blacks are biologically inferior to whites. And since Django runs close to three hours long, at a certain point you start to catch yourself laughing where you shouldn't or—worse, even—hearing others laughing at something you don't find funny at all. Eventually, you begin to wonder if you're being too sensitive, or if the movie and everyone else around you are insensitive. Then you start to consider whether any of that even matters.
The tradition of gleaning strength from self-deprecation and gallows humor is prevalent in oppressed cultures. Be it Jews or blacks or gays, there is comfort to be found in picking at your own failings and defeats before others get the chance. But Django Unchained inverts the tradition throughout the film: Tarantino is white, and there are few laughs to be had from seeing slaves tortured over and over again. Beyond that, black viewers are themselves offered times to provide their own Django Moments, such as when I cracked up after Django blasts Calvin Candie's feeble, widowed sister in the guts with a revolver, sending her flying out of the frame, or when, directly in earshot of my nephew's white high school classmate, I giggled at Django saying his dream job was to get paid to kill white people.
After watching Django slaughter every white person in sight, I felt strange as I exited the theater alongside the rest of the mostly white audience. I wanted to pick out the dude who had laughed at the dynamite in the slave cage, but I also hoped nobody had been too put-off by my delight at an unarmed white woman getting more or less executed. Still, the unease I felt walking out was probably my favorite part of Django Unchained: On the one hand, you're unsettled by the behavior of the characters in the film; on the other, you're also unsettled by how you and everyone else in the theater reacted to those characters. Were you laughing with the movie, or was the movie laughing at you?