DJANGO UNCHAINED (2012)
A Conversation with The Unenthusiastic Critic

Kerry Washington in DJANGO UNCHAINED

In my review of Django Unchained, I mostly take the position that the movie doesn't really work as a movie, and that therefore the cultural debate taking place around it lends it a significance it doesn't really deserve. I still think this, but the review felt incomplete somehow. So I'm bringing in The Unenthusiastic Critic.

See, on the one hand, I do find it almost impossible to take a Quentin Tarantino movie seriously, and therefore think it's an exercise in futility and false aggrandisement to really discuss in-depth what it does or doesn't contribute to our understanding of race relations, slavery, human relationships, or anything else. On the other hand, the film has provoked a strong reaction in many people, including my girlfriend N.—known in these parts as The Unenthusiastic Critic—who points out that Tarantino's prominence in American cinema means that Django Unchained will find a huge audience, and influence the cultural zeitgeist in a way that a better, more honest and significant film about slavery like Sankofa will never do. (To prove her point, I'd never even heard of Sankofa.)

I tried to con N. into writing my review in the first place, but she balked at this. ("I don't want to be your Senior Black Correspondent," she said.) She did, however, have some things to say about Django Unchained, so I conned her into sharing her thoughts in this special bonus episode instead.

Warning: The following discussion does include some heavy spoilers for Django Unchained, so—if you care about that—you should see the movie first.

Christoph Waltz in DJANGO UNCHAINED

Me: So…what'd you think of the movie?

She: Umm…my general impression of the movie was Eh, with an asterisk. And the asterisk is for certain elements that I found to be highly problematic.

Such as?

Such as the idea that this is supposed to be some sort of slave liberation, black revenge movie, and yet the revenge is largely led by a white character called "Dr. King" Schultz. So it's this idea that retribution, revolution, and revenge on the part of a black man somehow has to be mediated through a white agent in order to be palatable to mainstream audiences, or—for that matter—to be palatable to the director himself.

Right, the whole thing was King's idea; it was his very convoluted plan to rescue Broomhilda.

Right. And one of the most striking instances of that in the film is that it's not Django who kills the white overseer who has subjugated and debased his wife: it's his white zen master. He's the one who makes the plan, he's the one who gets the papers guaranteeing her freedom, and then he's the one who dies and becomes this Christ-like martyr figure. You could even go so far as to posit that he has some weird ownership over her, and over her name: he's the one who knows what her name means.

I hadn't thought of that, but you're right. He's the one who makes the connection between her name and the Brunhilde from myth, and thus establishes this whole framing narrative in which she's the helpless princess and Django is the knight who must rescue her.

Exactly.

Samuel L. Jackson in DJANGO UNCHAINED

Which is also interesting, because, on the other end of the spectrum, you have this Samuel L. Jackson character, who to some extent is the real agent on the other side: you have this white figure of black liberation, and this black figure of black subjugation.

Yes. The Samuel L. Jackson character is one of my other big problems with the movie, and the character who makes me the most uncomfortable. Part of it is how he's written, and part of it is how Jackson plays him. As you said in your review, he seems anachronistic and out-of-place. So, for example, when everyone else is using the N-word in a way we can argue is historically accurate, from Jackson it sounds like he's using it in the modern sense—

In the reclaimed, empowered usage?

Yes, but also troubling. To some extent, when they said it in 1859, it stood for African-American: if you were black, that's what you were. But when I hear Jackson saying it in the movie, it becomes tinged with what the word later came to mean, which is ignorant, buffoon, all these other really negative connotations that go beyond a phenotypic description. It's not just "black," it's all these other things.

So that's one problem with him. But the other is that he is an extreme caricaturization of this Uncle Tom stereotype: self-hating, obsequious…It's a problem. And part of my problem with it was experiencing this total caricature in a theater, and realizing that that was the character who got the most laughs from the audience. So then you realize they're laughing at this portrayal of black buffoonery, black coonery, and it carries all this stuff with it that the film never bothers to challenge or turn on its head in any way.

You sent me an article by Armond White that I thought was very interesting, in which White argues that this is the role Jackson often plays in Tarantino movies: "Jackson is to Tarantino what Stepin Fetchit was to John Ford–the actor who personifies his director’s sense of the Other."

Well, and I guess that's where…I think you and I have both been trying to write the film off as just being kind of silly, and in a sense it very much is. But then you have a character like Samuel L. Jackson's, who almost becomes this problematic placeholder for really troubling ideas that Tarantino seems to have about black culture that he has been profiting from since Pulp Fiction, since Jackie Brown.

You've used the word "fetishization."

Right, but it's a fetishization of black culture that is no longer about paying respect or homage to a genre, and more about cartooning or aping something for the benefit of a white, liberal audience. Then it isn't silly anymore; for me, it becomes sinister.

One of the things I find interesting is that, if you look at the genre structure of the piece, Jackson's character, Stephen, is really the big villain. He's the last one to die in the revenge story— not DiCaprio's character—and so that makes him the Big Bad, the final threat that must be dealt with. The movie isn't over when Candie dies, it's over when Stephen dies.

Right, he's the last man standing. And if Tarantino had actually developed that idea of Stephen as the one with the agency, and the one with the power, like he was the puppet-master, that might have been a more interesting direction. But he didn't go there with it, and I feel like that's the general problem with the film: it's all very surface level, and built on stereotypes. Anyway in which he could have subverted those stereotypes could have made the movie more worthwhile, but he was either too lazy or just wasn't interested in doing it.

Well, that would have been a far more interesting movie, but it would have been fucked up and controversial on a whole different level. Then it would have been, "Tarantino has made a film in which black people are responsible for slavery." He comes close to that, but he doesn't quite go there.

Right, though you also have that whole phrenology speech Candie gives at the dinner table, and asking, "Why do slaves stay? If I were a slave I would have slit my daddy's throat and it wouldn't have taken me fifty years to do it." So is that also Tarantino's idea, of not understanding—or actually indicting—black people for not rising up and revolting and killing their masters?

Which is what Django does in this movie…

Which is what Django does, with the help of a white man. But that's not being honest to a history that did have quite a few slave revolts. When you traffic in this territory, however satirical or irreverent you want to be, it takes a much stronger empathy towards the material in order to be successful. And, like the portrayal of Stephen, that was a moment where there was no empathy. And part of that comes from understanding your own averageness, your own unexceptionalism, your own mediocrity, to understand why every slave didn't rise up and kill their masters. That requires a strong empathy that the movie lacks, and then turns into this revenge fantasy. "Well, if I were a slave, I would lead a revolt and kill everyone." That's assuming a lot about yourself that probably isn't true.

He sort of does the same thing in Inglorious Basterds, right? Because people say the same thing about Jewish people during the Holocaust: why did they go along with it? Why did they just march peacefully to their deaths? And so you have this fantasy force of Jewish assassins who fight back and actually manage to kill Hitler. And even if you buy into everything else he's doing, I'm not sure there's really anything empowering or edifying about that kind of fantasy revenge scenario when it's such a stylized, unrealistic presentation: I mean, Django is this mythical super-hero in a fantasy world. Which I guess gets into this exceptionalism you were talking about, which they say in the movie…

Right, Django says he's the one man in 10,000 who is capable of fighting back.

See, I find Django to be the other side of the coin from the Samuel L. Jackson character, and just as troubling in some ways: he's this wrathful, avenging figure of liberal white guilt who likes to kill whitey and wants to shoot white men in the genitals.

Yes. And when you look at the people he's killing, it's easy—for a liberal, elite, modern white movie-goer—it's easy to feel superior and removed from what's happening, because Django's targets are all low-class, ignorant, yokels who don't know any better. They're ignorant, and they're stupid, and that's why they think slavery is OK. And that terribly oversimplifies what slavery was, and who was involved in it, and it allows people to take a step back and say, "Oh, that's not me."

It's exactly the same point you're making about exceptionalism and the need to recognize our own mediocrity. White audience members can look at these movies and say, "Oh, that's not me, I would have been the exception. I would have been the one white person who stood up for what was right." Which we know is probably not true for the vast majority of us.

Foxx, Washington, and Schultz in DJANGO UNCHAINED

Right. So my other problem with the film is with Kerry Washington's character. Or non-character. She just wasn't present for 90 percent of the film: she's just this idealization, this abstract idea in his memory. I think she has maybe five lines. So when I hear people try to sell it to me as a love story, it doesn't work for me, because in a love story both people have to be fully realized, and both people have to have agency. I don't know anything about her as a character, beyond what her value is as a slave: she's pretty and she speaks German. So her currency to me as a character is exactly the same as it is to her slavers.

The German thing, now that you mention it, is interesting in light of what we were saying earlier about her relationship to Schultz. In a way, the two of them…

They have a much more intimate, and much more developed, relationship, than what she has with Django. And you know, Kerry Washington is just fantastic, and I want them to do better by her. And she's said in interviews that one of the things she enjoyed about the role was that black women never get to play damsels in distress, or be partners in a true, healthy relationship: so often our relationships are portrayed as dysfunctional, and you have to be a strong, single black woman. And I agree with that, we do need better, much more diverse portrayals of  black women and black love in mainstream films. I just wish she was there. She just wasn't there in the film: she was just this cypher for Django's idealization of her, and the slaver's idealization of her, and Dr. King's idealization of her.

Which is all purely physical: even for Django, his visions of her throughout the film are not memories of conversations they had, or flashbacks to their falling in love. It's just these purely visual images of her naked in a pond, or whatever.

Right. She's not speaking.

I have to say, I don't feel like writing good female characters is Tarantino's strong-suit to begin with.

No, definitely not.

So here's a question for you, because I know you enjoy Kill Bill a lot. You watch it every time it comes on.

Sure, it's a fun time.

So I took the approach in my review that it just fails as a piece of entertainment, and that even if you forget everything else that's problematic about it, it isn't as enjoyable as Kill Bill or Pulp Fiction or some of his other movies. But if it had been more fun—more of a kick-ass, funny, action-packed extravaganza—would you have as much problem with it?

I think I would still have issues with it. I mean…that's a hard question to answer, because I feel like, if it had been more successful as a film, it would have dealt with some of these things. It would have had to have been smarter, and the characters would have been better. If it had the same problems, but I thought it was amazingly entertaining or beautiful anyway, I'd have the same issues but I might say it was worth going to see anyway.

Here's the thing: I went into this movie with certain expectations of it, preparing myself for an experience that did not happen. Everyone said it's horribly brutal, and it's going to make you think, and it's going to challenge you…

And it's going to show you slavery like you've never seen it before…

Right, like it's this whole new narrative. And it really isn't. And I know part of your point is that you want to judge the work on its own merits, and you don't want to bring in all these extraneous things that Tarantino may have said, or whatever, and you don't read other reviews before you write your own, and that's fair.

But Quentin has basically said that Roots was ahistorical, and this was going to be more important than Birth of a Nation, and shit like that. And once you put yourself in that realm, then that's the rubric I'm going to judge you by. And I'm going to say I've seen much more brutal representations of slavery than what you've put on-screen, I've read much more brutal and honest and thorough accounts. When you bring all that to the movie, and ask me to view it through that lens, I'm disappointed, and I'm going to call bullshit. I think it's just arrogance.  And I'm sure part of that was just a reaction to the attacks, where he felt the need to claim authenticity to defend the film, and it snowballed from there.

When he clearly did not set out to make a historically accurate, authentic film.

No, I think he set out to make a Spaghetti western, and he said, "You know what would be a really cool playground for that? Slavery!" Which is fine…

Well, it's probably not fine. It was probably a horribly bad idea from the beginning.

Well, yeah. At the very least it would need to have been done in a much smarter way, with much more empathy, and much less arrogance. This is just like a white man's fantasy of, "If I were a slave, this is what I would do, this is how I would be." Jamie Foxx is who Tarantino thinks he would be if he were a slave, and Samuel L. Jackson is Tarantino's idea of who slaves actually were, and that's why they were subjugated for so long.

And Kerry Washington is nobody.

And Kerry Washington's character is fucking nobody, because Tarantino doesn't care about women unless they're hot, and then they're just objects!

So: best movie of the year?

No! Not at all!

Anything else to say?

Quentin needs to stay the hell out of his own movies. Do NOT try to act, dude.

Yeah, I didn't even mention that in my review, but the only thing worse than Quentin playing a part is Quentin playing a part with a bad Australian accent.

See? Arrogance.

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Filed under 2012 FILMS, MOVIE REVIEWS, THE UNENTHUSIASTIC CRITIC