Blerd Chick Stories: Django Unchained Is Really, Extra, Super, Racist But Not In The Way That Most People Think
Skip to the last paragraph to avoid spoilers.
In the simplest terms, Django Unchained is a standard hero’s journey, minus the refusal of the call because the hero is a slave who doesn’t have that option. This movie is very long. I took notes people. I’m going through every fucking one of them. Settle in.
From the moment we sat down we were in the land of shoot! BANG! Exploding things! Naked chick! Hot Guy with weapons! Everything pre-movie was a testosterone laden gun fest, except the World of Warcraft commercial which was a testosterone laden magic/hand-to-hand combat fest. This includes the advert for Django Unchained which bugged me because it shows someone wasn’t paying attention. Honestly guys, you got us. We’re in the seats having bought our tickets and everything. That half minute could have gone toward stirring my interest in a film I haven’t already paid to see.
Zero Dark Thirty: Nope, not even if you paid me. However, I want the choral version of Nothing Else Matters used therein.
The Last Stand: The plot here seems to be yay guns! I didn’t get anything else from it.
Parker: All I can think is “I wish that the Leverage team had written this because I love to watch a good heist and this does not seem to be a movie about one.”
The Lone Ranger preview had A- and I literally recoiling in horror. It was the most racist thing I saw all night. I mean seriously the broken English and quasi-mystical Native bullshit was necessary in what way? If Tarantino had done anything so stereotypical and inaccurate with his slave characters, the people in that theater would have burned the place down. I would have cheered. (For real, ask A- what happens when someone mentions the birds from Dumbo. I hate those goddamn birds.) It was like the worst parts of Wild Wild West and They Died With Their Boots On had an illicit, one night grope and this is the plague ridden, deformed result. Everything I’ve written in thus far does not even begin to express how fucking offensive this preview was.
So, we’ll be taking a pass on that one despite A-‘s unvarnished love for Johnny Depp. She probably realizes that my incessantly shrieking “THAT’S RACIST!” at the screen would somewhat ruin her movie going experience.
The theater was incredibly full and I was happily surprised to see a few other People of Color. There were maybe ten of us in all and I split my time between watching their reactions and having my own. More on that later.
One of Tarantino’s strengths is visual metaphor which he played to in this film. The moment in the trailer, wherein Django throws of his tattered blanket has a hell of a lot of meaning in the story. He’s just been sort of released from a lifetime of bondage by Dr. King Schultz. (Oh, what a clever name except not really.) It’s his first moment of almost freedom and he’s heading for the body of a freshly dead slaver to steal the man’s clothes. While this is happening Live Slaver, Dead Slaver’s wounded brother, is pinned under Dead Horse screaming at Django to stop.
It’s rare to see the moment an animal is harmed in a film and it kinda bothered me. I could have done without the head shot. That horse was just doing its equine job and all I could think was “I’m not even supposed to be here today!” Invoking Kevin Smith during your very serious Western is probably something to avoid.
Django gets up in Live Slaver’s face and puts some pressure on his wounded leg. It was a bold choice for the character, probably the first time he’s confronted a white man in his entire life. Most actors would have strutted to Dead Slaver and most directors would have let them, but Jamie Foxx scuttled like he was expecting to be beaten. That was the right choice as it tells the viewer a lot about who Django is and what he’s gone through.
Before they leave, King gives the other slaves on the chain gang a gun and the keys and lays out their options; help Live Slaver or kill him and follow the North Star, which King politely points out, to safety and freedom. Guess what they choose. They all throw off their blankets too, which is stupid because they’ve demonstrated that it’s freezing, but is clearly a visual metaphor for the throwing off of slavery. Got it. I actually got it a minute before when Django did it. I didn’t need it again but it is supposed to convince us that King is a good guy. He isn’t.
The whole film is peppered through with flashbacks and visions of Django’s wife Brunhilda (called Hildy) who has a German name and was raised by Germans and speaks German and GERMAN. Any idea what will become a plot point later?
Here’s first problem I have with the movie. Kerry Washington is an amazing actress with a huge range. In Django she has less to do than Arwen did in Lord of the Rings. Django thinks about her a lot. He has visions of her fairly often but she doesn’t do anything. Yes, she’s specifically likened to Brunhilde in The Ring Cycle who also spends a good deal of time waiting around for some dude to rescue her, but Hildy was so ephemeral and poorly fleshed out as a character that I found myself wondering why the hell Django was going through all this trouble. I understood that he cares about her but I didn’t, which made it hard for me not to be annoyed with her later when she’s all Fainty McSobberson.
There’s an argument to be made, in fact the one that Kerry Washington makes, that black women are never seen as the princess in the tower and that women of the period were expected to be meek, slaves even more so. That is all factual and if this were a review of a movie made in 1930, I would be super impressed. But it isn’t that. What it is, is a review of a movie about a black bounty hunter in 1858 who can apparently repel bullets and overcome anything that remotely resembles social conditioning, so it’s not like unrealistic characterizations are completely out of the question.
The one flashback which I did find evocative is the event that slingshots the whole movie; Django and Hildy’s escape attempt, which shows them running as a patrol comes riding up behind them. That moment scared me. All I could think was “run RUN! JUST KEEP RUNNING!” I’ve read too much about what happened to slaves who were caught. They showed some of that; whipping, branding, a punishment mask and eventually both Django and Hildy being sold to different people. None of that bothered me as much as watching two human beings sprint for freedom and fail.
Together King and Django become bounty hunters. Here’s where the most egregious racism starts. No really, even though we’ve had maybe ten appearances of the word nigger by this point. (I am not five. I do not spell things out. I will not use the term “the N word.”) Its use fits in this movie. It makes sense. I didn’t find it anywhere near as jarring and offensive as I did in Pulp Fiction.
So where is the racism? It’s in King, the too modern, white savior, mystical helper of the hero on his journey. He’s the audience avatar; a 21st Century set of reactions and behaviors walking around in 1858. In other words, he’s incredibly fucking racist and he doesn’t realize it. That’s fine, but his racism is never deconstructed and since deconstruction of racism is supposed to be one of the primary points of the film, it fails. Know this; King Schultz is not a protagonist. He’s another racist Caucasian, although somewhat less overt and violent than all the others. From minute one he has little regard for Django’s life. He totally ignores the fact that Django is always in significantly more danger than he is simply by being black in the world of the film. I don’t think that was a choice on Tarantino’s part because I bet he doesn’t see the fence either.
King convinces himself that he’s not racist, yet he fails to free Django right away because Django’s slavery is useful to him. Had Tarantino not worked so hard to make King the audience avatar, I would have accepted the behavior as historically accurate. But the work happened, so that decision only shows that every minute of screen time King has thus far spent attempting to prove his lack of racism, is a lie.
Further, on their first outing, he briefly communicates with Django by making mouth noises similar to the ones I make at my cat. “Move your hat,” is not a particularly taxing sentence, especially given the previous verbosity of the character but no, Django gets kiss noises like one would use with an animal. THAT’S RACIST.
Don’t get me wrong, the deal they strike makes sense in the story. King is hunting three men who he has no means of recognizing. Django has seen them, so if he helps King kill them he earns his freedom. But King’s overt hypocrisy remains.
When we finally find these three men, they are in the process of beating a slave as she screams and begs mercy. It’s notable that the other slaves ignore her. They just languidly go on about their business. But when Django first shoots one of the men, then takes up the whip against the second, everything stops. That message was exceptional in both its simplicity and its accuracy. Casual brutality against slaves was so common that even potential victims ignored it, but when one of them fights back, the whole world changes.
In another visually aressting moment, the third man is shot off his horse as he tries to escape through the fields. The spray of blood on ripe cotton made me gasp out loud. That one image had so many damn levels; it alone is worth your ticket price.
There’s a scene shortly after which would have been pure comedy gold had it not been a direct reference to Birth of a Nation. I hate that movie. I’m angry that it exists. I’m positive that Tarantino, who is a bigger film geek than I am, made the connection knowingly. I got the point and the scene was objectively funny but my seething rage muted my enjoyment. The two groups of PoC in my line of sight were not laughing so much either. The Klan is much less funny when you’re one of their targets, even in a historical sense.
Eventually, they start the search for Brunhilda. As a part of this search Django and King enter a “gentleman’s club” under cover. For the first three minutes of the scene all I could think was “why is that woman in a miniskirt?”
To which the less nitpicky part of my brain replied “Pay attention exposition is happening.”
“Right, but WHY IS THAT WOMAN IN A MINISKIRT?”
“OK, I guess I can…miniskirt.”
“Mini. Skirt! Also, still, how did Django just know how to ride in the first scene?”
So that was maybe a bad costuming choice. Not that I cared for long because the next scene is the Mandingo fight. Two slaves fight to the death while the Caucasian men and Django introduce themselves around and a couple of other slaves sit and watch. They fight to the death. One of them gets his back broken, lies screaming and is eventually bludgeoned to death with a hammer. That happens on screen. Horrifying? Yes. You’re supposed to be horrified. That’s the point.
We get more visual metaphor, as the owner of the dead with a hammer slave, just slips on his pristine white gloves and goes to drown his sorrows at the bar.
This is the introduction of Leonardo DiCaprio’s Calvin Candie. He’s a narcissistic man-child with a lethal disregard for almost everything and frankly, he is significantly more interesting than either King or Django. I would venture that he’s the second most compelling character in the film. The most compelling character comes in shortly.
To show how morally bankrupt Candie is, he puts the death he just witnessed out of his mind and orders a drink; a cocktail, a Polynesian Pearl Diver.
Since I know something about the history of cocktails, now I’m wondering if that is historically accurate as well as still being bothered by the damn miniskirt. The fourth thing in this vein that bothered me is Hildy’s wardrobe during Django’s visions. She’s dressed like someone out of a Regency romance which is admittedly lovely, but also forty years out of date. Why?
This reveals a flaw in the story telling. If I’m thinking about that stuff, it’s failing to engage me.
Eventually they reach the plantation where Hildy is being held, but before they do, we are treated to the sight and sound of a man being torn apart alive by dogs for reasons that matter less than the act itself. It’s even more explicit and bloody than the Mandingo fight yet only about 1/1,000,000th as bloody and explicit as the reality of slavery.
A lot of people have complained about these two scenes. Those people are wrong and should shut up. This is a Tarantino flick set in the antebellum south with a black protagonist. Graphic violence is expected and totally the right decision. I would have lost all respect for the project had he pulled those punches.
Interestingly, I noted that the Caucasians in the audience reacted far worse than the PoC did. Were they unaware of the visceral horrors of slavery? If so, then I’m even happier those scenes were shown. Because you know what? The move ended. We all got to get up and go back to our lives. Actual slaves did not get to do that. They lived that shit. Sit there and watch.
By the time the main players get to DiCaprio’s plantation, (it’s called Candieland, for real y’all. I JUST CAN NOT) we’ve moved into the final third of the movie and thus the wind up of the hero’s journey. I was about to settle in and try to make some sense of my notes when Samuel L. Jackson came on the screen.
Let me tell you, if he doesn’t win an Oscar for this performance there is no justice. His character, Stephen, is evil, brilliant, totally able to don and shed the guise of the subservience at will, deeply Machiavellian and the real power at that plantation. Without him the film would be good. Because of him, it is great. Seriously, every moment he is on screen is just outstanding.
A bunch of stuff happens that isn’t all that important barring two moments.
First, remember GERMAN? This becomes important when King asks that Hildy be brought to his room so he can speak with her in his native tongue and they actually do that. Here’s what’s great about that moment; everyone thinks that he’s using “speak with her,” as a metaphor for rape. OK, they probably weren’t thinking rape but if slavery then rape.
A lot of directors would have tried to build tension using Hildy’s fear. They would have let King be just a little bit sexually threatening, touching Hildy in a lingering way or standing too close. Not this movie. It actually does the opposite. King makes the bed and puts on more clothes. I honestly loved that and it kind of redeemed him a tiny bit.
So, of course, he fucked it up right away. They bought Hildy, which is the entire point of the goddamn movie, yet King refuses to shake hands with Candie, thereby leading to his death and nearly Django and Hildy’s. His pride is more valuable than their lives. THAT’S RACIST! Also, it’s very true to life, but still.
All of this leads to the killing spree, which is the last act of every Tarantino movie. It’s about what I expected with a bit of a shout out to Roots and a bit more from Stephen which makes clear that he is a truly reprehensible individual.
Tarantino makes a cameo, natch, this time laboring under an unfortunate Australian accent and doing less than usual to further the plot.
The second moment came at the beginning of said killing spree. After shooting a white woman, which is the only death of a white person the audience really reacted to, Django sends the two female slaves who have been in the background this whole time, out of the house. Those women ran. They ran out of the house, down the lane and they kept running. Everyone laughed. No, actually, not everyone. The Caucasians laughed. The PoC in the theater? We did not. I can only imagine that the others were also thinking of what would have happened to those women had they stuck around for a sheriff’s inquiry and by what method that would have been conducted. Not pretty, y’all.
Everyone dies. Django and Hildy ride off. The End.
In summation, there are a lot of things wrong with this movie but it is what it set out to be and it contains more good than bad. Tarantino makes genre films and he does that with many of their genre specific flaws in tact though one that he avoided was unlimited bullets. That actually becomes a plot point, which I enjoyed. I would have been happier with it if the colorblind racism of Tarantino and the world had not been so grossly missed by every major reviewer and the movie itself. I noticed it because I have to. They don’t have to so they can pretend it isn’t there.