Django Unchained was arguably the most controversial movie nominated for an Oscar during this awards season due not to its brutal violence, but its liberal use of racial epithets. That Christoph Waltz won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor just adds to the list of injustices surrounding the movie. He should have been nominated for the Best Actor award instead.
Ostensibly, Django Unchained revolves around the titular protagonist’s (Jamie Foxx) quest to free his wife (Kerry Washington) from the clutches of the evil plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).
The savant-like Dr King Schultz (Waltz), a bounty hunter of above-average intelligence, wit and ability with firearms, aids Django in his quest.
I was aware of the criticism surrounding this movie even before its release and deliberately avoided reading any reviews (good or bad) to enable me to view the film with an open mind. According to director Quentin Tarantino, the aim of the movie was to empower the black American community by giving them a new idol.
“I’ve always wanted to explore slavery … to give black American males a hero … and revenge. … I am responsible for people talking about slavery in America in a way they have not in 30 years.”
In his revisionist telling of slavery, Tarantino has managed to add to the obfuscation of American history and further erode the notion of a post-racial world. (The term post-racial has gained credence in the USA since the election of President Obama to define a society devoid of racial preference, discrimination, and prejudice.)
As a Tarantino spectacle (gratuitous violence, entertaining setups, witty dialogue), Django Unchained passes all tests in much the same way that his other revisionist movie Inglorious Basterds did. But here the similarities end.
It is by critically analysing their differences that the audience understands the failures of the former and, indeed, the notion of a post-racial society.
While both movies deal with difficult periods of history (American slavery and Nazi persecution of Jews during World War II), the protagonists in Inglorious Basterds are afforded a level of complexity and character not present in Django Unchained.
Brad Pitt and his cohorts are framed as intelligent, self-determinant individuals who band together to rid the world of Nazis. Their quest –although driven by revenge at the injusticestargeted at their fellow Jews – is altruistic and in the service of humankind.
Conversely, the black slaves are reduced to buck-toothed, simplistic, over-sexed behemoths driven by base instincts; we know little about Django except his burning desire to free his wife. This desire is apparently so great that he routinely chooses to not help other slaves when opportunities arise.
These same slaves, as shown in the opening scene, are also incapable of seizing emancipation even when their captors are eliminated. (In this particularly nefarious scene, Dr King hands the chained slaves the key to remove their shackles, but they choose to lumber towards their former captor and beat him to death with sticks. This invokes the memory of the Early Man clubbing a woolly mammoth for dinner.)
Similarly, the black people in Django Unchained literally remain chained throughout the movie.
Dr King is the driver of the narrative – Django is merely his gun-toting sidekick. We know Dr King is challenged by the immorality around him, his actions reflect this, but we do not know what really drives Django, other than reuniting with his wife. Why does he not help his fellow disenfranchised?
This is never explored and implies an intrinsic, selfish nature to black Americans who achieve a level of success. Notice how President Barack Obama is often castigated for not doing more for black Americans and the disenfranchised? We are never in doubt about what drives the main characters in Inglorious Basterds. Their honour, courage and sense of duty are never in question.
Tarantino, and mainstream media in general, remain guilty of building the very stereotypes they profess to destroy.
In his quest to bestow a hero upon the black American community, Tarantino has given the world yet another negative stereotype about that community.
The black hero is one-track minded and has no desire to help anyone else, dresses like a modern-day pimp in shiny suits and still needs to be driven by a white elder-figure to attain ‘greatness’.
Contrast this with other superheroes that often show empathy for society and even their arch-nemesis. Perhaps the most contentious issue with Django Unchained is usage of the N-word – it was used 177 times. This cannot be justified by the movie aiming to remain true to the epoch. Movies have dealt with racially charged periods without overusing puerile invective. Indeed, the Jewish heroes in Inglorious Basterds are never on the receiving end of similar racial epithets, despite encountering an enemy who viewed them as sub-human.
Django Unchained cannot be viewed as an anomaly. Tarantino is a seasoned director who knows how to court controversy to boost box office takings. It is difficult to believe the studio would invest more than $100 million for this to all be a gamble.
This investment included the manufacture and licencing of action figures depicting slaves. Are we going back to the times of the gollywog dolls? Where were the Brad Pitt figurines and concentration camp sets to promote Inglorious Basterds?
This movie is essentially black-American history as told through the lens (quite literally) of a white man. The pernicious stereotypes Tarrantino employs – stereotypes much of the mainly-white audience barely notice – insidiously undermines the notion of a post-racial society.