I’ve been through six periods of my “History of African American Literature” Freshman Writing Seminar, and not one class has gone by without someone in the class finding reason to reference Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained. This film came at a perfect moment: Right after a heavily racially-charged election, right before a historically-charged inauguration (the fortuitous match-up of Obama’s second Inauguration and MLK Jr. Day) and even more perfectly, side by side with Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln.
These two films make the same historical allusions, but could not have a more opposing treatment of their salient theme: race. Lincoln begins with two black men talking to President Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis). One speaks cautiously about the issue of emancipation and tries to cool the temper of his fellow black soldier as not to upset Lincoln. The latter is more militant, makes demands for black soldiers’ salaries and as he paces backwards, recites the Gettysburg Address to pressure the president to keep his promise for “a new birth of freedom.” These two overcast the rest of the film with a historical binary: the patient “Uncle Tom” (or as Malcolm X phrased it “house negro”) versus the militant black man (X referred to as “field negro”), but for the rest of the film, Spielberg does not add anything to the conversation on race.
Django ends with the same opposition, this time to a much bolder, important claim. The final hurrah of Django’s (Jamie Foxx) vendetta is to shoot the “house negro” (Samuel Jackson’s Stephen), arguing that even worse than the racist slave-master Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) is the Uncle Tom black man who doesn’t fight for slave emancipation and thereby betrays his race.
For its attack on passivity and use of humor in a painful setting (antebellum South), Django has been subject to condemnation and controversy. This film will likely be garnered with Oscars this March but I think this film’s greatest contribution to us is its controversy. I’ve heard some who like Django up until it “goes too far.” I think that this “going too far” is actually the discomfort that these issues warrant and pushes our moral appetite by forcing us to look at the issue in its present day context.
People often say the “Mandingo” scenes “go too far” and have criticized Tarantino for creating a non-existent recreation and exploiting a landscape just morally bankrupt enough to suit his imagination. I think that the mentality of “Mandingo” fighting (a fight to death between slaves for the owner’s enjoyment) is comparable to the set-up behind today’s professional sports culture where many claim there is a “slave auction mentality” behind owners forcing their (often black) players to take steroids and overlook potentially serious injuries. With these scenes, Tarantino forces contemplation with discomfort.
At other points, Tarantino creates modern day comparisons with humor. When Dr. King Schultz (Christopher Waltz) allows Django to buy his own clothing, Django gets excited and chooses an ostentatious royal blue Napoleonic riding costume and regal coif. The scene obviously references many modern-day rappers who come from underprivileged environments and, when their talent is answered with money, emphasize fashion and materialism over restraint or, as Kanye West says, “I know Spike Lee’s gonna kill me . . . but I’d rather buy 80 gold chains and go ign’ant.” With Lee’s public disdain for Django (“It’d be disrespectful to my ancestors to see that film”), West and Tarantino can both rejoice in brushing off Lee’s judgement.
All these scenes and many others in the film tread a fine line between okay and offensive. Lincoln, on the other hand, is agreeable, tame, sensitive to the issues and consequently, no one is talking about it with the same energy. Django is doing what cinema does when it’s at its best. Psychoanalyst film theorists argue that cinema exists for acting out on or opening up the audience’s repressed desires. Django is crawling into America’s racial subconscious and bringing out the innards (even the grossest) for display. Both a black revenge fantasy and white domination nostalgia get representation by the film’s characters — two threads subtexting American political discussions in the age of Obama.
And for that reason, I think 2012 compelled us into a new thinking man’s cinema. Lincoln is a good example of a genre I hope we forego: films that take familiar stances on issues and contribute to a stalwart in the national discussion, providing us with a commonly accepted set of PC “answers” to the problem so that we can “move on.” I think this attitude is the real issue. I have a problem with movies that put serious topics behind a glass casing as if in a museum and cover over historical brutalities to cater to contemporary attitudes. I can’t help but compare these different treatments to the two black soldiers who open up Lincoln: One makes us feel comfortable and content with our present views; the other makes us uneasy and angry, may make us think farther than we’d like to, but ultimately, the second turns us in the right direction.