the problem with ‘django unchained’: why tarantino’s latest film does nothing for race in hollywood

April 30, 2012

With new film stills revealed and a trailer probably not far off either, the buzz around Quentin Tarantino’s highly anticipated ninth studio film Django Unchained is beginning to reach dizzying new heights of hyperbole. People are naturally excited because it’s Tarantino, the director responsible for such cult and mainstream hits as Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill Vols. 1 and 2, and most recently, Inglourious Basterds. But there are also some just as if not more interested in the potential of the project – a film about a black slave who gets his freedom and then revenge on the cruel slave master holding his wife captive.

Words by Zeba Blay

It’s a theme we’ve seen in many of Tarantino’s films so far – the revenge story. Most recently, he played out the ultimate revenge fantasy in Inglourious Basterds, creating a revisionist history where the Nazis lose and Jews, like Melanie Laurent’s Shoshanna or the “Basterds” of the film, get to exact pain on their would-be oppressors. With Basterds, Tarantino was able to take a rather delicate subject, a delicate time in history, and create something that “worked” (on some levels). In Basterds, you had characters with agency and meaning, two parallel storylines that put the oppressed, the Jews, in positions of power, and more importantly afforded them complexities in both personality and motivation.

Now, I may or may not have had the pleasure of reading the script for Django Unchained (let’s go with the former for the purposes of this article), and while I cannot divulge the full rundown of the plot, I will say this: Django Unchained is most definitely not what so many of those anxiously awaiting its release are propping it up to be. Namely, a game changer in White Washed Hollywood, a superior star vehicle for its two black leads, Jamie Foxx and Kerry Washington, and an edgy and profound gaze at America’s messed up past.

Rie Rasmussen, a Danish filmmaker who became friendly with Tarantino’s after releasing her first feature Human Zoo, had this to say in a recent interview about the upcoming Django Unchained: “I’m thinking this is going to revolutionize. If this doesn’t change the face of movies, then Hollywood is really, truly motherfucking racist.” Girl, really? Like, really, really?

At this point, we don’t need the reception of any movie to let us know whether Hollywood is “truly” racist. Steve Harvey’s Think Like A Man kicked the crap out of record breaker The Hunger Games in the box office, but that doesn’t mean that Hollywood has suddenly changed its tune altogether, ready to start making it rain with diverse roles and funding on the heads of black filmmakers. That’s like saying that there’s no more racism in America because we now have a black president.

But more importantly, for anyone to say that this movie in particular will be groundbreaking and change the racial landscape of Hollywood today is just…I told myself I’d never use this word but here we go: cray. Jamie Foxx said that Tarantino found, “a beautiful way for the characters to talk to each other…You’ve never heard it this way. You’ve seen movies deal with slavery – or Westerns that never dealt with slavery – do it the safe way. This way is like…wow.” Wow, indeed, Jamie. Look, purely based on what’s on the page, Django Unchained has not cast any revolutionary or even profound lens on slavery whatsoever. The most it has done is present slavery with a less sentimental, and more matter-of-fact sensibility. But it reads less like a conscious decision and more like “I don’t want to actually deal with racism or the horrors of slavery, I just want to make a cool Western.” Which is fine (I guess). But let’s call a spade a spade.

Where I really take issue with the script is that Foxx’s character, who he recently described as a cross between Richard Roundtree and Clint Eastwood, is really more of a second fiddle character to Tarantino’s latest muse, Christoph Waltz. Waltz’s character in the film is essentially the same character he had in Inglourious Basterds– only this time he’s on the side of the (figurative) angels. Much of the first half of the movie will be “The Christoph Waltz Show,” with Foxx’s Django character playing sidekick with handfuls of mumbled, monosyllabic lines, interspersed with several (pretty harrowing) flashback scenes of his life as a slave.

Like all of Tarantino’s work, Django Unchained is a pastiche of traditional movie tropes and genres, turned on their heads. In this case, it’s borrowing heavily from the spaghetti western, as well as from the blaxploitation flick, much in the way Kill Bill borrowed from cult kung fu movies. That exploitative quality certainly rings true throughout, primarily with Kerry Washington’s character Broomhilda, who is the second pointI take major issue with in the script.

Unlike the Shoshanna character in Basterds, Broomhilda is written as a sympathetic but totally inert character. She spends much of the movie being abused, and waiting for rescue from her lost love Django. In a movie about slavery, I can admire the impetus to go straight Passion of the Christ on our asses with the pain and suffering, the realityof what that suffering looked like and meant. But here, Broomhilda’s abuse, which includes several beatings and rapes, seems gratuitous. Her character is treated as merely a physical entity, a naked body to be gaped at by the audience rather than understood.

Something else that was sorta “whoa there”, something that I feel must also be said, is that reading Django Unchained struck me sort of like watching the “Dead Nigger Storage” scene in Pulp Fiction on loop. Obviously, in this context you understand, on some level, why the word is being thrown around with wild abandon from the Southern racists and the “good guys” alike – it was a “different time.” But there is still the same uneasy sense, as with the “Storage” scene, that Tarantino is just really excited that he gets to write the word “nigger”, which at some points isn’t even used as dialogue but as scene directions that could just as well have been “SUDDENLY A GROUP OF HOUSE SLAVES APPEAR”. It’s like when ‘Niggas in Paris’ comes on and you see certain folk get way more hyped than seems totally necessary.

The Scene in question, always wondered why Sam Jackson didn’t pop him upside his head.

Really, the question here is intent. When asked why he wanted to make the film, Tarantino explained “I wanted to do movies that deal with America’s horrible past with slavery and stuff, but do them like spaghetti westerns, not like big issue movies.” And stuff. Right. Therein lies the problem. Am I accusing this movie of being racist? No. What I am accusing it of is being a decent western (or Southern, in this case) with badly, sometimes blatantly stereotypical written black characters. The proverbial “chains” holding Django back don’t get loosed until maybe the third reel of the movie – and by then, the Django character has played silent sidekick for so long that his revenge doesn’t seem nearly as gratifying as it should be. And that’s a shame.

Django Unchained is set for a December 2012 release, so time will tell what the movie will actually be like. I could be completely off the mark, and I truly hope I am. The stereotypes might be played a lot more complexly than they’re written. Foxx might be able to turn his lack of dialogue into a more internal, affecting performance. Who knows. Certainly, the pictures of Jamie Foxx in his badass cowboy outfit, and the dearly puffy Leonardo DiCaprio dressed like a character out of Candy Land are both pretty intriguing. Tarantino is a talented director, if a so-so writer, and how the movie lives on the page as opposed to how it will live on screen may be two very different things. But I will say this: any credit that Django Unchained gets for being somehow “revolutionary” in the realm of Black Hollywood (and let’s be real with each other, it has and it will) should go to the actors, not the writing.

* Contributor Zeba Blay’s movie blog: Film Memory + @zblay on Twitter