Django Unchained: the Western reinvented?

January 21, 2013 at 10:04 pm (adventure, Anti-Racism, cinema, Civil liberties, Clive Bradley, Cross-post, Racism, United States)

By Clive Bradley (reblogged from Solidarity and the AWL website)

Quentin Tarantino’s last film, Inglorious Basterds, walked a precarious line.

Set in World War Two Europe, it dealt with very serious matters — the genocide of the Jews — but in Tarantino’s inimitable way: at least as much about movies as about history, very violent, very funny.

It could have been a distasteful monstrosity. But to my mind it was a brilliant tour de force, with a delirious and unexpected climax that in fact was very thought-provoking.

Django Unchained sets out to pull off the same trick but this time about slavery in America. Does it succeed?

Django (Jamie Foxx) is a black slave sort-of-freed by a German bounty hunter, Dr Schulz (Christopher Waltz, the marvellous villain from Inglorious Basterds). Shulz — who is essentially a decent bloke — agrees to help Django rescue his wife, Broomhilde (Kerry Washington) from the most notorious and terrifying plantation in Mississippi, owned by Calvin Candle (Leonardo DiCaprio).

Much tension, and then, inevitably, much violence and gore ensues. Along the way there’s a brilliant turn by Samuel L Jackson as Stephen, Candle’s apparently-sweet but actually-terrifying Uncle Tom servant.

Some — notably Spike Lee (though apparently he refuses actually to see the film) have objected to the movie, and indeed to the very idea of Tarantino addressing this subject. He trivialises slavery, they say, and the African American experience. Much of this objection seems to be against Tarantino himself — a geeky white boy who verges, sometimes, on the “wigger”, a film obsessive rather than a historian, steeped in B movies, trash culture, (horror of horrors) genre.

And indeed, as you would expect, Django Unchained is as much about Westerns as about slavery. Its colours, its soundtrack, many of its events, are comments on the genre itself – which was once immensely popular, but died out in the 1970s or before (with occasional revivals, of course, like the recent remake of True Grit).

But what a comment. Westerns, as a genre, rarely (I think it might be never, but maybe some Western fan can correct me) have slaves in them at all, never mind as central characters. (There are black characters, occasionally – comedy buffoons with wide eyes and shuffling feet — but not, I think, acknowledged to be slaves).

Westerns certainly never have slaves or ex-slaves as heroes, riding horses, shooting guns, and exacting terrible vengeance on plantation owners.

Foxx’s Django is an avenging angel. There is — not quite the climax of the movie, but towards it — the inevitable set-piece Tarantino gore fest (as you would expect, both bloody and played for jokes). And you want him to blow these evil motherfuckers away. You root for the massacre. It’s exhilarating.

I don’t think, here, it’s as successful as the massacre in Inglorious Basterds (where the Nazi leadership is taken out) —which (for me, anyway) makes you reflect on your own bloodthirsty emotions; but it’s not, either, as purely ridiculous and jokey as the bloodfest in Kill Bill I.

But I don’t see that it trivialises anything. It is extremely entertaining — but how is it a valid criticism of a film maker that his film is too enjoyable? It’s not very sophisticated — Django is the good guy, the slave owners are the bad guys… But that’s how Westerns work; it’s pretty much the point of Westerns, except in the classic Western, Good is signified by white (hats, usually), and Bad by black…

Tarantino has said, rightly, that there’s nothing in Django Unchained that’s remotely as violent as slavery was itself. And it includes some marvellous — though very bloody — dramatisations of what slavery actually meant: a runaway torn apart by dogs; slaves forced to pummel each other to death for their owners’ enjoyment.

There is, I’m sure, a great film yet to be made about the experience of slavery in the US. Jonathan Demme’s Beloved, based on Toni Morrison’s novel, was leaden and dull; Spielberg’s Amistad was simply untruthful about the abolition of slavery. Django Unchained is not that film. But it’s a tall order for any film maker — to make the definitive statement about a vast historical experience.

15 Comments

  1. Berek said,

    Go ask the families of Channon Christian and Chris Newsom how funny “kill whitey” porn is, cunt.

    • Skippy said,

      In fact if you want to see ‘kill whitey porn’ try visiting your local video rental outlet, where the shelves are overflowing with serial killer/slasher/horror/’thriller’ films which feature the graphic degradation, torture, rape, mutilation and murder of young women, 98% of whom are of european descent.

  2. daniel young said,

    Maybe Spike should have a go.What else do you expect from Tarantino, except blood gore and mindless violence.

  3. Roger McCarthy (@RF_McCarthy) said,

    Perhaps I am just too old but I will never understand the hipsters worship of the appalling Tarantino.

    Inglourious Barsterds is quite possibly the very worst movie in a genre which is full of terrible movies and that this is the result of a series of deliberate choices rather than sheer incompetence to my mind does not get it off but impales it even more firmly on that hook.

    Again and again and again I have caved in to intellectual peer pressure from people whose opinions are usually sound and inflicted the latest Tarantino movie on myself only to end up not disappointed but disgusted and further convinced that the human race is moving beyond all likely hope of redemption.

    But not this time – Django Unchained will not be watched by me even when it eventually comes around on TV and I don’t have to directly pay to see it.

    Incidentally has anyone else read Jonathan Coe’s The House of Sleep which has IIRC a brilliant portrayal of a US movie director who is a monstrous amalgam of Tarantino and James Cameron?

  4. Clive said,

    What genre is Inglorious Basterds?

    • Jamie said,

      Inglorious Basterds are hard to put into one ganre like any other Tarantino movie. He makes them unique this way. Puts his own style into it. So you may say that it is a war movie, because it comes closest to this definition, but it is not accurate. Just like Django is not pure western.

  5. daniel young said,

    Then again the most popular pictures for our kids are natural disasters and the aftermath,or the full on Zombies ones, where you batter to death your neighbour for turning Zombie.

    What hope socialism.

    • Monsuer Jelly More Bounce to the Ounce (Much More Bounce) said,

      oh fuck off you utter fuckking cretin

  6. Malte Brigge said,

    Cultural Sewage! There is a brand of leftists who are so keen to take their inclinations and enjoyments as sound judgements that they can longer distinguish between fact and value. If you ‘like’ Tarantino’s easy postmodern pastiche sensationalism then that is fine, but don’t try and pass it off as culturally valuable – you don’t have to justify it ideologically just because you ‘like’ it – it is trash with a touch or irony that is all, even Tarantino says so!
    Despite my best judgements I enjoy boxing. It is exploitative, brutal and degrading, but I don’t try and pass this odd enjoyment of mine off as worthwhile or culturally advantageous. Professional boxing is wrong and I know it! It is just a mildly shameful part of my contradictory existence. You should think of your enjoyment of Tarantino in the same way and cease trying to make it ideologically palatable to others just because you happen ‘like’ it. You enjoy the easy watching of mildly sardonic and derivative American films, I enjoy getting drunk on absinth and cider – but I don’t try and make out that this activity is somehow a socially worthwhile passtime. Boxing and absinth are a couple of my vices and Tarantino is one of yours, just get used to it and pass over in silence – he employs enough publicists already!

  7. Clive said,

    I admire your ability to like something you find appalling, but that’s probably a matter for you and a shrink.

    Tarantino obviously is culturally significant – I don’t know what ‘culturally advantageous’ means – whether you like it or not. Hence, unlike any other film maker – say Michael Haneke or Jaques Audiard – he gets people on this site voicing angry opinions about him.

    I find people’s readiness to assert their opinions as simply ‘fact’ – in the case of the last poster quite literally – astonishing and frankly repellent.

    ‘Cultural sewage’ for me would be something like ‘Prometheus’ – utterly meaningless, incomprehensible and pointless. Whatever you might say about Django, I don’t think either of those adjectives would be appropriate.

    In my view there is a great deal to admire about Tarantino’s work, and generally the people dismissing him are either humourless or wilfully missing the point. I don’t think, by any means, he’s the best film maker currently working, or that he doesn’t deserve – sometimes severe – criticism. But this level of self-righteous unargued assertion makes me think he’s definitely doing something right.

    • Berek said,

      Culturally significant? So are Peter Sutcliffe and Lavrenti Beria. Socialism, which in the time of good men like Attlee may once have had a moral purpose, is now drowning in it’s own filth and degeneracy.

      You’ve entered into your very own Nazi/Soviet pact. Socialists (who in my extensive experience are the people most likely to be personally avaricious financially) have sold their soul lock stock and barrel to rapacious capitalists.

      You get your pointless destruction of established traditions. They make their money. You deserve each other. Nye Bevan would vomit blood at the Left’s descent into this hell.

  8. Malte Brigge said,

    Clive,
    You may wish to consider the way Hollywood and the US film industry has come to establish its hegemony over general film release and also how it has come to determine (rather than cause) the configurations of what consitutes a ‘good’ film these days. Tarantino is simply part of that corosive legacy. This legacy promotes sensation, violence and enjoyment over thought and diffculty – that is its primary claim to cinematic dominance. Tarantino spices his films with a few ironic liberal references to please the ‘cool’ Sunday supplement set – that is all. I recall some of my semi-educated friends trying to convince me that the Cohen Brother’s ‘No Country for Old Men’ had some vague relationship to Yeats’ great poem – absolute nonesense of course, that kind of non-reference-reference is just part of the bland postmodern joke. You happen to enjoy Tarantino’s films, big deal, don’t try and pass it off as somehow ‘admirable’ to the rest of us.
    As it is, you say you don’t take to ‘unargued’ propositions paraded as ‘facts’, but I see no substantive argument whatsoever in your claims about Tarantino’s output being ‘admirable’. You simply state it and let it stand – again, personal enjoyment paraded as judgement. I am available to be convinced but I do not see any descriptive or analytical points about Tarantino as a film-maker in your response at all. I could trot out all the old cliches about boxing being a gateway for the poor and moronic notions about ‘disciplining’ the aggressions and so on to justify my enjoyment of it -but I won’t as I know that argument is in bad faith and mildly pathetic – professional boxing cannot be justified pure and simple. Why try and justify films that clearly appeal to our distorted and neurotic revenge fantasies?Just get on with your guilty pleasures in silence like the rest of us!
    Without Bach, god would be a second-rater! Ponder thereon!

  9. Clive said,

    Since I wrote the piece to which this is a response, I don’t see that I have to spell out my argument again. But in any case, it’s one thing to put forward an unargued opinion, it’s another to suggest that those who disagree with you are unable to recognise ‘moral sewage’ and what have you, and are therefore in some sense morally degenerate.

    If you seriously want to argue that no good films come out of Hollywood (which has been ‘hegemonic’ in films since at least the 1930s) there is plainly little point talking to you.

  10. Malte Brigge said,

    Clive,
    You surely understand that excuses implicate the guilt they seek to exonerate? Johnny Tapia said so and he was never wrong!

  11. jo said,

    Malte Brigg’s criticisms are interesting, they strike me as almost classically Platonist. Malte appears to dismiss anything that doesn’t exult the highest faculty, namely thought. The underlying assumption behind this is that man’s highest faculty is his intellect, and things that satisfy the intellect are better than things that merely satisfy the senses (sensation, violence and enjoyment). I have some sympathy with this kind of position, but it’s also quite problematic. It could, as in the case of some of Plato’s texts, lead to a wholesale rejection of Poetry. If thought alone is pure, why clothe it in fiction at all? What we need here is a more detailed analysis of the film itself, and not merely on the level of the cardboard cut out plot, but in terms of the unique medium of film itself. Granted there is some element of pastiche in Tarintino, one can ask whether this technique is used to interesting effect, which is surely possible, or whether it is a bit of derivative po mo. This doesn’t strike me as a question with easy answers. But it does seem that a good way to proceed might be to analyse how those classical western tropes operate in relation to the history of the western itself – i’d like to see see the relationship between Django adn The Searchers analysed a bit, for instance.

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