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January 07, 2013

Django off the chain

I saw Quentin Tarantino's latest movie, Django Unchained, on Saturday, and I give it an enthusiastic thumbs up. This is a superb and highly entertaining film by a gifted writer and film craftsman.

Of course, not everyone agrees with me. Some of the criticisms of Tarantino's film are:

  • Historical inaccuracies and anachronisms, including the Ku Klux Klan a decade before its founding, and the use of MF-bombs.
  • The focus on Django as black superhero obscures the historical fact that many slaves and former slaves resisted.
  • Samuel L. Jackson's character (a truly despicable Uncle Tom) is described as an object of laughter.
  • Too many utterances of the n-word.

I am not buying these criticisms. The film is not marketed as accurate history. The KKK's post-war origins are well enough known that the anachronism is plainly knowing and deliberate. The night-riders scene is extremely funny. As to the history of black resistance against slavery: I know about it not just from visiting war memorials featuring black Union soldiers (one on Boston Common and one on U Street NW in DC), or reading about the Massachusetts 54th Infantry Regiment. My dear friend Robert is the great-grandson of slaves who escaped during the same period after the man, Django-like, pulled an overseer off his horse and killed him with his bare hands for abusing his wife. So I know about that proud history of resistance.

Tarantino has not denied any of that. He made a revenge fantasy, not a documentary. Frankly, it was about time for the black hero to kill a bunch of bad white guys and get his girl. As to Jackson's character being some sort of buffoon, au contraire. He is feared by the household staff, acts in private like a surrogate father to the plantation owner, and is a cunning operator. He is several rungs above the "Ize gwine tell Missy, Boss" caricature.

I think what is behind some of these complaints is similar to the objection to Spielberg's Schindler's List by Shoah director Claude Lanzmann, who thought a popular entertainment dealing with the Holocaust was sacrilegious. Well too bad. The straightforward answer to the question, "Is nothing sacred?" is no. One man's sacrament is another man's sacrilege; that is an unavoidable consequence of a diverse population. Tarantino is a hell of a lot more respectful to the historic material he is working in than the maker of Mississippi Burning, with black folks cowering under the porch while the heroic FBI man saves the day.

In short: Please. Spike Lee's sight-unseen objections notwithstanding (and to be fair, he might well be unhappy about the fact that a black director would have trouble getting funding for such a film), a lot of black people (including several friends of mine) have expressed a strong positive reaction to this film. We all need heroes, and the indignities that black people have endured did not end in 1865. This film is directed with a sure hand, makes excellent use of its actors, and Tarantino's screenplay is smart and sharp. As for all those n-words, they bounce off Django like nothing. This is set in 1858, folks. In context, the use of the word is to be expected. The last thing Tarantino wanted was to whitewash the ugliness of our nation's historical treatment of its citizens of color.

I highly recommend this entertaining movie. As to Spike Lee, a director I admire, I suspect that if he ever does see Django Unchained, he will agree with me that it does not disrespect his ancestors. Having first seen the racist masterpiece The Birth of a Nation several decades ago, I feel cleansed by Tarantino's bracing corrective.

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