‘Django Unchained’ – A Review (in parts)

Django (Jamie Foxx) rides with confidence

Django (Jamie Foxx) rides with confidence

I could whip Quentin Tarrantino’s %#! up and down Main Street for making a multi-faceted piece of work that a 700-800 word review cannot contain. Readers, this film review is long … well … so is the film for that matter. To accommodate the cornucopia of ‘stuff and things’ this eclectic director packs into all 165 minutes on celluloid, ‘Django Unchained’ has to be written in parts. Here is Part One. Be forewarned: you will need some tea and an afternoon to read through it. Bear with me.

‘Django Unchained’ is a rich filmic kaleidoscope paying homage to film and literary genres, art forms, political currents, and moments in the history of the United States. To begin, the director reflects on the Spaghetti Western of the 1960s (The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, and Django, 1966; Find a Place to Die, 1968); and the Blaxploitation western (Buck and the Preacher, 1972 and Take a Hard Ride, 1976) and plantation drama of the 1970s (The Legend of Nigger Charley, 1972 and Drum, 1976). Second, Django’s blue velvet suit (with knee pants), and fancy buckled shoes, imagined by costume designer, Sharon Davis, bring to mind The Blue Boy, painted in 1770 by English portrait and landscape painter Thomas Gainsborough, and Richard Birch’s illustrations of Little Lord Fauntleroy’s costume in the children’s book of the same name (1885-1886). Third, ‘Mandingo Fighting’ decidedly refers to not only the film Mandingo (1975); the brutal sports event is a strong allusion to “Battle Royal”, a chapter in Invisible Man written in 1952 by African American novelist Ralph Ellison. Finally, but not complete, the ex-slave narratives of the 18th and 19th centuries; the abolitionist movement; the North Star (Frederick Douglass’s newspaper of the same name and the icon of the Underground Railroad); even Opera (Richard Wagner’s Gotterdamerung of 1876) cohere to build a charming love story infused with German folklore (Siegfried and Brunhilde) within the framework of slavery in the United States.

‘Django Unchained’ nestles easily within the genre of romance, and this element forms the rare pearl within the film. The context that frames the love story warrants a brief commentary before I continue. As Nathanial Hawthorne examines Puritan culture in The Scarlet Letter (1850), and Arna Bontemps assesses the slave revolt in Black Thunder (1936), Tarantino reaches into the past to consider present-day socio-cultural moeurs.

Scene from Sankofa by Haile Gerima (1993)

Scene from Sankofa by Haile Gerima (1993)

Despite the nimiety of posts and articles swirling about Tarantino; Spike Lee’s rant; and questions over whether or not white people can tell our stories; when all is said, read, and done … slavery happened. Period. Yet, the historical distance compromises our national memory as attempts are made to chain this ragged but alert specter to the past. We have heard, if not entertained, every excuse and plea to disremember its legacy: I didn’t do it; I was not there! Why can’t we just forget? What is the big deal? Every so often, however, that specter will agitate for a production of a story to activate yet another discussion in its honor. We can depend on our popular culture to oblige its request. John Korty’s televised production The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1974) and Marvin J. Chomsky’s dramatization of Alex Haley’s Roots (1977) compelled my generation to remember as we feasted on the fruits of integration; and for those who were allowed to see them in the movie theater, the plantation dramas of the 1970s as well. As a young woman in search of a purpose in the 1990s, Haile Gerima’s poignant Sankofa (1993) encouraged me to continue learning my own history.

The popularity of ‘Django Unchained’ attended by a whirlpool of discourses, then, not only is important; it is necessary. The election of President Barack Hussein Obama ushered into the White House three generations of African Americans: the First Lady’s mother, Mrs. Marian Lois Shields Robinson; the President and the First Lady; and Natasha “Sasha” and Malia Ann. Some people are tempted to declare that race no longer matters and, now, well we can … exhale. Tarantino’s ‘Django Unchained’ antagonizes this temptation. Thanks to his reputation, the present-day generation has taken notice. ‘Django Unchained’ transports this generation into its own sankofa, Akan meaning “to go back and get it”. They are “to get” that the plantation regime released capillaries infected with a psychology that took a firm hold on the American psyche, culture, and society for some 300 plus years. Kerry Washington even concedes in an interview with The Daily Beast,

It’s so unthinkable that my ancestors endured all the torture and pain. I saw things in the script and thought this never happened. But then I talked to Quentin and he showed us the history books that illustrated the masks and other items used to inflict torture and violence on the slaves. It really blew my mind and made me appreciate even more what my ancestors made it through.

That Tarantino informs Washington of her ancestral history solicits critique, but let us reserve that for another review and move on to the love and the passion.

The consideration of the Django (Jamie Foxx) and Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) love story brings to relief an interview ABC’s Good Morning America host Robin Roberts conducted with the Obamas while on the presidential campaign trail in 2008. In that interview, Roberts turned to the GOP backlash over a remark Mrs. Obama made on being an American. Mrs. Obama leaned in to answer but Mr. Obama interjected on her behalf with the following statement:

If [the GOP] think that they’re going to try to make Michelle an issue in this campaign. […] I find unacceptable, the notion that you start attacking my wife or my family. […] lay off my wife. She loves this country. For them to try to distort or to play snippets of her remarks in ways that are unflattering to her is, I think, just low class. I think that most of the American people would think that as well.

In essence, Mr. Obama drew the proverbial line in the sand and dared anyone to disparage Mrs. Obama in any way, form, or fashion. Any move to the contrary, and he was coming back to collect some dues.

Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), the ruthless plantation owner

Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), the ruthless plantation owner

Django (the ‘D’ is silent) is a slave-turned-bounty hunter in desperate search to find his wife, Broomhilda. She was sold down the river to the notorious Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), owner of Candieland plantation in Mississippi. He locates Broomhilda with the help of Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). Django stands ready to defend her at all costs but he has to court discipline before he (re)acts. Django’s poise corresponds not only with Mr. Obama’s warning to the GOP; also, his composure calls up moments in African American history when Black men supported families in an oppressive culture that generally denied the recognition of the institution for the enslaved. The film opens in 1858 somewhere in Texas–eight years after a more restrictive Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 took effect. James Buchanan is president of the United States. The year before, the Supreme Court ruled in Dred Scott v. Sanford that an enslaved Scott could not obtain his freedom because he was not a U. S. citizen. Until that final decision, Scott petitioned not only for his freedom, he sued for the freedom of his wife and children. In another but similar vein, research shows that African Americans searched for family members before and after the Emancipation Proclamation. Help Me Find My People: The African American Search for Family Lost in Slavery (U of North Carolina P, 2012) by Heather Andreas Williams is worth the read. Django’s pursuit of Broomhilda after obtaining freedom undeniably complements these histories and contemporary politics.

Thomas Jefferson by Mather Brownn (1786)

Thomas Jefferson by Mather Brownn (1786)

In Django’s quest, Tarantino crafts an African American Hero who slays the ‘dragon’, gets the girl, and lives to tell his own story with witnesses to spread his legend. Foxx plays Django with the confidence of a panther stalking its prey. Even though enslaved, he is not a slave in mind. He speaks with a purpose, walks with the familiar cowboy swagger, and commands a horse to ride and to dance. More significant, his unwavering focus on the rescue of Broomhilda dispels several stereotypes and myths. First, he is not the subservient “yes’m massa” enslaved who, if freed, would not know what to do with his freedom. Second, Django overturns the myth of the enslaved and his inability to manage emotions President Thomas Jefferson so brazenly posits in his ‘Notes on Slavery’ written in 1785. Jefferson believes,

[t]hey are at least as brave, and more adventuresome. But this may perhaps proceed from want of forethought, which prevents their seeing a danger till it be present. When present they do not go through it with more coolness or steadiness than the whites. They are more ardent after their female: but love seems with them to be more an eager desire, than a tender delicate mixture of sentiment and sensation.

Broomhilda (Kerry Washington)

Broomhilda (Kerry Washington)

Eager desire? Want of forethought? Who cannot feel the sheer urgency of Django’s yearning to liberate the black woman from torture and to facilitate the restoration of her honor? Who cannot appreciate Django’s steady nerve in his methodical assessment of every situation? Django not only will die for Broomhilda; also, for his woman, he will live! More significant, who cannot apprehend Broomhilda from Django’s point of view? In his eyes, she is his true love rising up through the mist in the lake. Through the lens of the plantocracy, however, Broomhilda is but property to be raped and branded. Is it not striking to see Django plead to stand in for Broomhilda as the overseer strips her back in preparation for the lash from the whip? That Broomhilda harbors her own belief in Django–not in massa or anyone else—is even more meaningful.

‘Django Unchained’ is a well-made film. We must remember, however, Tarrantino has not done anything new, but viewing ‘Django Unchained’ is crucial for today’s generation. Others came before him and offered up their own powerful stories of captivity and oppression. Let me suggest again Sankofa, a fervid narrative of bondage by Haile Gerima, and add Quilombo (1986) by Carlos Diegues (both on DVD). Each deserves your interest and dollars just as much as Tarrantino. On the whole, these are stories we all have to summon the courage to witness.

(A special ‘Thank You’ to Sandra Denise Clifton and historian Herbert Jefferson for their valuable insights and stimulating discussions on this film; to Dr. Robert Haller for editor’s notes.)

Stephens (Samuel L. Jackson)

Stephens (Samuel L. Jackson)

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