Tonight I went to go see Quentin Tarantino’s new film Django Unchained. When I first heard that this movie was in the works, I was a little wary because it was being described as a funny movie about slavery and I wasn’t too keen on the idea of such an important part of my history and American history being mocked or satirized. But when I heard that Jamie Foxx and Kerry Washington were starring in the movie, some of my worries were eased because a part of me felt that they respected themselves and their history too much to be a part of something that would be disrespectful of such a horrible time in history–at least at this stage of their careers anyway…
In the last couple of weeks I have read and seen a lot about the film. Believe it or not, this was the first Quentin Tarantino film I’ve seen (Kill Bill never seemed like my cup of tea). Given that the majority of the articles that I read about him and Django mentioned Tarantino’s films’ penchant for action and bloody violence, it seemed like even less of a surprise that Django would be my first Tarantino experience. When I realized that Django was intended to be a slave revenge story reminiscent of old American westerns, I began to be even more intrigued.
Without giving the movie away, I will say that I honestly really enjoyed it. Despite Spike Lee’s stated misgivings (and I am a huge fan of Spike’s work), I didn’t feel that the film was “disrespectful to my ancestors.” While some moments were obviously intended to be light-hearted, the film was clear about the horrors of slavery. In some ways, I even found It refreshing to be able to laugh at the ridiculousness of the slave masters, the slave system, and racism in general. All in all, I don’t think anyone goes to see a Quentin Tarantino movie for a history lesson (on that note, I don’t think this movie is for kids or for the uninformed or dangerously under informed), and for what it was, I think the movie was good.
However, I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t point out my gripes with the film of which I think moviegoers and film producers alike should be aware:
1. The continuation of the legend of the white savior. For those of you who aren’t familiar with that legend, it’s the tendency for movies that deal with the immorality of racism and strive for some sort of justice or equality to have a “white savior” figure whose kindness makes the strivings of the oppressed blacks even possible. We all know that collaboration between whites and blacks fueled the Civil Rights and Abolitionist movements, but the white savior legend often depicted in movies tends to make the black figure look helpless and completely dependent on the generosity and lessons of his white superhero.
For the most part, Django continues with and is even based on this trend. I’ve seen that relationship described as a sign of brotherhood in this film, but I have a hard time seeing it as such because Django’s “teacher” did not help him simply out of the goodness of his heart; he saw him as beneficial to his business.
2. The over-the-top Uncle Tom character. Again, those of us who know our history know about the distinction between field and house slaves, as well as about the divisions that that dynamic created and continues to perpetuate among African Americans. We know that not all African Americans (just like any other ethnic group) feel the same sense of loyalty towards one another. Still, I resent the fact that the other main black character in the film had to play such a role of sabotage. Even in a movie about slavery, black people have to be the ones cutting one another down, because that’s exactly what the media is lacking, right?
I also didn’t like that they had Django take on the traits the slave masters at times. Even if it was only to “play a character” as he had been instructed in order to complete their mission, if Tarantino really wanted to tell a revenge story, he should have fostered some unity among Django and the other slaves.
3. Misconceptions about submissiveness. At one point in the film, Leo DiCaprio’s character has this long speech about the natural submissiveness of blacks and how he doesn’t understand why black slaves didn’t just kill their masters and gain their freedom that way. All I could think was, “hello?” “Has Tarantino ever heard of Nat Turner? You know, the original black slave who went from plantation to plantation killing masters?” And Turner is only one example of several insurrections that slaves attempted. And insurrections weren’t the only form of resistance to slavery: Negro spirituals, The Underground Railroad, the list goes on and on…
In keeping with the misconception of submissiveness, I really didn’t like how the other black slaves seemed to be so in awe of Django rather than joining him themselves or displaying their own savvy. I guess there was only room for one enlightened slave in this film.
4. Limited role of women/Kerry Washington. I get it. It’s slavery. It’s 1858. Girl power might have been a bit out of place. But not really: Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth. Yes, we hear that Washington’s character is a runaway and feisty, but why don’t we ever get to see any of that? For much of the movie, she plays a damsel in distress. Her first real English line in the film comes at the end. Really though? I get the Western theme, but come on…