Saturday, January 5, 2013

Reflections on Django Unchained

(Last night I got to see the new Quentin Tarantino film Django Unchained for the second time in five days and so I've got many thoughts about it swirling around in my head which I'll attempt to elucidate here. Django's awesome theme song also continues to waltz in my head.)

The summer during which I turned 14 in 1999 was among the most memorable of my life. That summer I had my first job ever, working as a messenger for my mom's business in downtown Manhattan traveling around on foot picking up and delivering documents and paperwork, taking many breaks in between to explore what the city had to offer. Throughout that same year, members of the Wu-Tang Clan released their second round of solo albums and, as a devout Wu fan, I became a regular customer at the Sam Goody store located in the mall directly underneath the World Trade Center.

When the summer ended and I stopped working to begin my freshmen year of high school in Staten Island, I still had a bunch of soon-to-be-released Wu-Tang records reserved and paid for (at a discounted price) at that World Trade Center Sam Goody store. When each album was eventually released, I got a notification that it was waiting for me, and asked my mom to pick it up. Sometimes she'd have the regular messenger, a tall and very funny black man named Phil Jackson who had originally shown me the ropes, pick up the new CDs for me during his travels.

In September, Ol' Dirty Bastard's newest album was released entitled Nigga Please. My parents were always giving me a hard time about my musical tastes anyway and now, as a 14-year-old white kid, I had to somehow defend this new CD I'd pre-purchased which had the words "Ol' Dirty Bastard" and "N*gga Please" scrawled in sloppy crayon across its cover. Phil Jackson was also less than pleased with the package he retrieved.


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Spoken by Ol' Dirty Bastard (in true ODB form) on stage at a concert once:
"Lemme tell you what Shame on a Nigga is... see, remember when I said 'shame on a nigga who tried to run game on a nigga'? Remember when I first came up here and said 'what up my niggas and niggarettes?' and somebody said 'I ain't no nigga!'
See, the nigga government...is the Shame on a Nigga who tried to run game on us niggas, the black and white niggas. Now do y'all understand? Now do you understand? The only way we can stay strong is if we stick together. See cuz they gon' try... lemme tell you what they gon' try to do, and y'all remember this shit, y'all go tell the fuckin world. Teach all the babies this shit. They gonna try to make black and white go against each other, which they can't cuz we already havin a good time."
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It should come as no surprise that Django Unchained and its creator Tarantino are coming under fire from a variety of sources for a variety of reasons. Tarantino's films always inspire controversy and here we have an extra violent operatic spaghetti western blatantly, bloodily depicting an era of American history that's essentially been swept under the rug. The film is set in the South a couple years before the Civil War began and images of lash-scarred black backs, cotton plantations, Mandingo fights, shackles and some frighteningly medieval devices of bondage are featured throughout.

The film's hero, of course, is a freed slave named Django (Jamie Foxx) who goes on to kill a whole bunch of white men first as a bounty hunter and then as an effort to free his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) who was purposely sold off to separate slave owners. The film is a strange mishmash of gory violence, heart-stirring love, terrific dialogue, unexpected hilarity, and mythological archetypes, among many other things, all of which is stewed together into an all-around exciting and provocative film. Like most of Tarantino's work, it's very dense art that comes across beautifully on screen.

Similar to his previous film, the superb Inglourious Basterds, it feels very much like a valiant attempt at cinematic catharsis or some kind of film sorcery, washing away and making up for historic atrocities and imbalances through an often overdramatic movie. Not only is it about a slave taking revenge on slavemasters, it's about a super badass black cowboy who heroically fights through hell to save his beloved wife, the beautiful Broomhilda. The excessiveness with which this black cowboy hero's story is sometimes presented almost seems designed to elevate him up to the lofty heights of the countless white cowboys glorified throughout the 20th century's Western film genre.

Now, it's important to point out here some of the key negative criticism being hurled Django's way. Spike Lee, who seems to have a long-standing jealousy complex with Tarantino, not only refuses to see the movie, but said it's "disrespectful to my ancestors, to go see that film." Other prominent black entertainers have voiced similar opinions, often citing the prominence of "the N word" in a film written and directed by a white man. What's overlooked is the simple fact that a black director could never make Django Unchained, just as a Jewish director could never make Inglourious Basterds. No studio would pay for it and if they ever did, the public would react with a shitstorm many orders of magnitude worse than what Django has wrought.

This story needed to be told. An epic film for the masses with American slavery at its emphatically energetic epicenter needed to happen. That a filmmaker of Tarantino's talent and daring was the one to do it should be cause for rejoicing.

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In light of the racial criticisms against Tarantino, it's worth pointing out this fact (which I love about him): Tarantino is a diehard Wu-Tang fan. You'll hardly ever see him conduct an interview wearing anything other than WU WEAR. He's good friends with The Rza who not only provided the excellent soundtrack for Kill Bill 1 & 2, but also studied under Tarantino in order to create his own film, The Man with the Iron Fists. (As much as I love Rza, though, his movie was pretty lame.) Rza is also responsible for the song playing during the closing credits of Django Unchained.

Rza aka Bobby Diggs was initially slated to play one of the slaves in the film's opening sequence but dropped out at the last minute. Nevertheless, two Rza associates and Wu-Tang affiliates got to portray slaves in that first scene, Kinetic (also known as Beretta 9 from Killarmy) and Reverend William Burke.

Were he a racist, surely Tarantino would never be accepted into the inner circles of Rza and the Wu-Tang Clan. (Go here to read Rza's piece for Huffington Post about his and The Gza's reactions after seeing the film.)

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I deactivated my Facebook account months ago but right around the time Obama was re-elected I happened to find myself briefly reactivating my account to take a peek at what people were saying. One of the first things I saw was a snapshot of hundreds of Twitter messages that occurred right around the time Obama's victory in the election was announced, all of the messages filled with the word "nigger" and violent, vitriolic comments.

Watching Django Unchained, I couldn't help but think about how so much of the hatred, sadism, and oppression against black people is still very much alive today in the United States. After all, once slavery was abolished it wasn't as if the slave owners were reprimanded or reformed in any way. They simply weren't allowed to own slaves anymore though they maintained the same attitudes.

After slavery officially became illegal, the oppression of blacks was continued in various other forms eventually leading to the rise of the Civil Rights movement. And yet here we are all the way in the year 2013, 150 years after the end of slavery and about 50 years after the Civil Rights movement, and there are currently more black people in our overstuffed American prisons than there were enslaved during the height of slavery. The United States has far more prisoners than any nation in the world and they consist mostly of young black men and women (and other minorities). Of course, any felon who gets released from jail back into society is then exempt from most of the privileges granted to any other citizen and so this cycle is designed to continue on through generations of poor and working class people.

This system of oppression is what is called "The New Jim Crow" and it's some scary shit. You can read all about it on this surprisingly detailed and immense Wikipedia page or pick up Michelle Alexander's book of the same name. I don't think it's at all an exaggeration to say that the mass devastation of a whole subset of the human race that was the institution of slavery has been redesigned, shifted around a bit, and is still going on today. And I haven't even mentioned the corporate privatization of the prison system, which only makes the picture appear much worse.

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"The jungle is thick/ I got machetes and whips
whips on wheels/ not scars on my back I still feel!"

I've written a good deal about the music of Bronze Nazareth, Kevlaar 7 and their group The Wisemen over the last few years. The legacy of slavery, lynchings, the Civil Rights movement, and Black America plays a major role in their art and many scenes from Django sprung forth lyrics in my head like the one above.

By strangely perfect timing, a brand new album from Wisemen member Phillie was just released on January 1st, the day after I initially saw the Django film. I link the two because this album, entitled Welcome to the Detroit Zoo (filled with superb production from Bronze Nazareth) carries a thought-provoking metaphor throughout its entirety; making sample use of a Katt Williams bit, the African people who were captured and shackled to be brought over to America as slaves are metaphorically compared to a tiger captured from its habitat and brought over to an American zoo. "I don't know how you'll ever understand what it's like to be a nigga in America if you can't understand what it's like to be a tiger in a zoo."

The first time I watched Django, right from the beginning I perceived an implicit link being made between the treatment of slaves and the treatment of animals (namely horses) that I seemed to catch glimpses of all throughout the movie. Seeing it a second time last night I caught more of these implied metaphors. It was arguably confirmed in the closing credits where, immediately after we see "Written & Directed by Quentin Tarantino" we see "No horses were harmed in the making of this film" and other assurances about the safety of the animals used for production.

Bringing this up with some friends who are vegan, they told me that the treatment of horses is what sparked the animal rights movement.* I've been thinking about the system of factory farms, animals being bred into a life of brutal servitude, torture and eventual death, and what this says about us as humans. It seems the same fat slob who was whipping female slaves in Django Unchained is now zapping cows with electric prods or cutting some poor pig's testicles off. The film Cloud Atlas (which also prominently featured slavery and bondage) brought light to this sadistic concentration camp mindstate in a much louder, explicit, and bloody manner. That mainstream art is subtly or not so subtly inserting this viewpoint into their films is promising for the future.

(Edit: Further feeding into this interpretation I'm asserting here, I just read in Tarantino's recent NPR interview the following statement: "The only thing that I've ever watched in a movie that I wished I'd never seen is real-life animal death or real-life insect death in a movie. That's absolutely, positively where I draw the line. And a lot of European and Asian movies do that, and we even did that in America for a little bit of time. ... I don't like seeing animals murdered on screen. Movies are about make-believe. ... I don't think there's any place in a movie for real death.")

*Learning this fact immediately made me think of the tragicomic story of Friedrich Nietzsche's final moments of sanity. In 1889, not long after the abolition of slavery in America, Nietzsche witnessed a horse being flogged by its owner in the street, ran over to it with a face full of tears, embraced it to protect it from further whipping, then fainted. He suffered a complete mental breakdown and spent the next ten plus years in mental illness before dying in 1900.

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I've seen all of Tarantino's movies and can't remember a scene that hit me emotionally like the one in this film in which Django and his wife Hildy attempt to escape from their plantation. Here's the amazing song "Freedom" that plays during that scene:

3 comments:

  1. Great piece. Oddly enough, I've recently been bantering back and forth elsewhere about learning that there is an acupunturist here in town named Django Saax Barbato, which with no disrepect to him, I find amusing. So I looked up the name Django just now. No surprise that it has become more popular after the rise of jazz guitarist Django Reinhart. What I did find a little surprising, and which may of interest to you too is that it is Romani for "I awake."

    I am a bit of a wimp when it comes to watching violence in film, so evaluating Tarentino is a bit beyond my scope, but you might be interested to read a piece an Indian blogging acquaintance of mine did a good piece about Pulp Fiction recently, which I think you'd find yourself in some resonance with. It's here.

    In a more general way, though I think the respect Wu-Tang Clan accords Tarentino does reveal that his aims are serious, I also think that it is extremely hard to portray graphic violence without exploiting it. I read Geraldine Brooks' March a while ago and found that her attempt to render the beating of a black woman slave in it the weakest part of the book. I wouldn't want to censor the attempt, but I don't think many people succeed at not sensationalizing it.

    I've been reading a classic suspense novel set in 1963. I won't mention the title because it would give away something of the set up for anyone who might happen to read it, but I will say that there is a black man in a dilemma in it, and there is a near perfect rendering of what the situation of such a person (who in that era could have been played by Sidney Poitier) who has risen to the professional class and yet has a deep awareness that his good standing could turn on a dime, simply because of the color of his skin. It is odd that we are now nearly fifty years later, and yet I think President Obama would be a perfect exemplar of the situation.

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  2. Love the meaning behind the name Django, thanks!

    I do recommend seeing the film, even if you have to cover your eyes at times, because even if you take all the violence out it's still a great picture. The only time in which a slave being whipped occurs in the film is rendered in such a way where you see nothing but the woman's face. Despite his bad rep for gore, Tarantino tends to leave the very worst violence off screen.

    In the post I mentioned the film's excessiveness, at times he somehow makes the violence so exaggerated as to seem silly and not at all believable. I also read somewhere that when they filmed (or tried to film) a scene of a female slave being beaten, Tarantino and many of the crew started crying. Such horrifically painful depictions of violence were apparently cut out from the final version. (I've also skimmed through the original script which has other horrible acts I'm glad didn't appear in the movie.)

    On another note, I read something in an interview that again feeds into the animal slavery/animal rights thing I mentioned at the end of this post:

    "The only thing that I've ever watched in a movie that I wished I'd never seen is real-life animal death or real-life insect death in a movie. That's absolutely, positively where I draw the line. And a lot of European and Asian movies do that, and we even did that in America for a little bit of time. ... I don't like seeing animals murdered on screen. Movies are about make-believe. ... I don't think there's any place in a movie for real death.""

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  3. That's a good quote. I might have to try Tarantino on the small screen, though. It's not meant as a judgment of Tarantino or even violence in film to say that I am a bit faint hearted. I did like the music from the clip you put up though.

    I think it is hard to describe the brutal aspects of slavery because the accounts of it all show that it was so appalling. What are we to do with it, in the end? What sort of relationship do we form with that kind of past? Judging the perpetrators doesn't really seem like enough, because it was a system, much like the prison system you describe today. It isn't about one bad guard, it's about a whole cultural mindset that has to be overturned.

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