Jamie Fox as Django
Tarrantino tells a Round Unvarnished Tale
My wife and I, after several days of serious debate, decided we’d venture out and check out “Django Unchained.” Our curiosity had been thoroughly whetted and there was enough controversy to lure even the most reluctant public intellectual. We also decided that we’d see it at the Magic Johnson Theater in the heart of Harlem, where we knew the audience would be almost exclusively African American.
We arrived late and had to settle for seats toward the front of the theater but not exactly where you have to look up at the screen and leave the show with a crook in your neck. Even before the film began the chatter was underway, and you know how Black patrons, particularly the young and restless ones, like to talk back to the screen.
As a kind of preview of the rap to come, two women who arrived even later than we did carried on a conversation across the theater as they struggled to find seats near each other. “Come on ovah here,” one of them called. “Dere two seats and maybe this gentleman will move ovah and let us sit together.” The gentleman did and the woman, armed with the biggest container of popcorn imaginable, a huge drink, and heaven only knows what else, excused herself down the aisle and clumped down next to her friend.
“Ain’t we kinda close?” I thought I heard her ask her friend.
“Yeah, but dese was the only seats left, plus we up close to the action,” she answered.
It didn’t take long for the action to unfurl from Quentin Tarantino’s script and under his direction. The first scenes and the music cued the Spaghetti Western motif we’d heard about and my mind went hurtling back to the Sergio’s of the past—both Corbucci and Leone—and that was a good sign because I totally enjoyed those films, particularly “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,” and it was hard to think anyone could get any uglier than Eli Wallach, yellow teeth and all.
A coffle of shuffling slaves immediately grabbed your attention, the whelps the size of ropes on their back; like those scarring the back of Caesar who is depicted in so many history books about slavery. Later, we will see them tattooed on the back of Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). One of the slaves chained together is Django (Jamie Foxx) and it’s a set piece that introduces Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) who comes out of the wilderness like a snake oil salesman on his buckboard concoction that reminded me of the first scene of Marlene Dietrich as the gypsy woman in “Golden Earrings,” which should give you an unmistakable clue to my age since I saw it long before it got to TCM.
I’ve heard that Tarantino is a real film buff but I doubt if he knew anything about that old movie, though I wouldn’t be surprised given the similarity to the haunting love story his film and the old movie have in common. Right away you knew this was not going to be a friendly encounter since Schultz is singularly concerned in purchasing one of the slaves. Most disconcertingly amusing about the exchange between Schultz and the white slave traders is Schultz’s language,“Among your company, I’m led to believe,” Schultz begins, “there is a specimen I hope to acquire.”
His words would not have been any more astonishing had he uttered: “Whither thou goest with those disheveled souls?” The tone and terminology of the request is as funny as it is deadly earnest and at its conclusion we have the first spilling of the buckets of blood that will make this one of the goriest flicks since, well, Tarantino’s “Inglorious Bastards.”
Having properly exterminated the traders, the slaves are left to their own devices and Django, like a bewildered Tonto, rides off with Schultz. After they kill the sheriff in a town they are passing through, viewers get a gander at the narrative theme and you wonder how the two of them will possibly wiggle out of a very desperate situation in a town without pity.
To mollify an angry posse of marauders with lynching on their minds, Schultz approaches them and unsheathes a paper indicating that the sheriff was really wanted for murder and that he had every right to capture him dead or alive. It was an incredible ruse but effective and it would be their modus operandi as they traveled from dry gulches to the snow-laden, freezing terrain of Wyoming, or somewhere in the chilly West. They were bounty hunters unchained and as they rode across the prairie I was expecting Count Basie’s band to pop up as it did in “Blazing Saddles.”
The Basie Band in Blazing Saddles
A Surreal Scene
The first half of the film is Schultz and Django as serial killers; mainly Django seems to be along for the ride until he drops his quest on Schultz that in exchange for continuing service they take time out to rescue his wife from a Simon Legree-like plantation owner. Aha! Now we have the subplot presented and it resembles one of the oldest of Western clichés—rescuing the damsel in distress, only this time it’s not the Durango Kid its Django the man! (Remember John Wayne in “The Sundowners”?)
Bad Men doing the Lawd’s Work
But another thing occurs when Django tags along with Schultz. Foxx is far less a traveling companion than he was with Tom Cruise in Michael Mann’s 2004 film “Collateral.” While the carnage in Mann’s film is vintage Tarantino, Foxx the taxi driver is held hostage by Cruise the hit man, who takes him along on his rampage.
When they arrive at Candie Land, named for its master Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), its reminiscent of those panoramic, long shot scenes from “Gone With the Wind,” with slaves scattered about in forced labor in cotton fields and other duties. But it was their confrontation with Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson) the HNIC and the beloved house Negro, the proverbial Uncle Tom in all his nastiness that is most commanding. Jackson has said of the portrayal as one of “the most despicable characters in cinematic history.” And he takes the fawning, sycophantic groveling right down to the last “yassuh.” It brought to mind that famous passage from one of Malcolm X’s speeches about the master and his house Negro.
Samuel L. Jackson as
The Stereotypical “House Negro”
“If the master’s house caught on fire, the house Negro would fight harder to put out the blaze than the master would,” Malcolm said from his “Message to the Grass Roots.” “If the master got sick, the house Negro would say ‘What’s the matter, boss, we sick?’ We sick! He identified himself with his master, more than the master identified with himself.” Now the audience in the theater had another enemy, someone to hiss at and deride.
Much of the remaining action happens in the Big House where we meet such extras as Franco Nero, the original Django who has a brief conversation with the other Django over a drink at the bar, though the subtleties of their exchange probably meant little to the average movie-goer. It was a nice little touch much in the same way that Richard Roundtree has a cameo role in John Singleton’s redux of Shaft, starring Samuel L. Jackson.
But after some rather tame chit-chat the gratuitous violence approaches its apex, with a fight between slaves as a preface. With a possible nod to today’s ultimate fight events, two muscular Black men tear into each other in a battle royal. Aha! Is this Tarantino’s “Mandingo” moment? Again, I was transported back to the novels and subsequent films based on the books by Kyle Onstott, especially “Drum,” and “Mandingo.”
World Heavy-Weight Champion Kenny Norton
Historians will certainly have a field day on the veracity of this fight, much in the same way they debated whether there were actually slave-breeding plantations. If the scene had taken place outdoors it could have come straight from Cecil Brown’s novel The Life and Loves of Mr. Jiveass Nigger. In this book the fight is cast in a folkloristic manner, conjuring the Trickster trope.
When the less than formidable Efan, faced with a gigantic opponent named Kocomo, walks over to the carriage and slaps Miss Ann, his opponent takes off running down the road; believing that any Black man who slaps a white woman in the state of Georgia in front of her husband and his master is more than he wants to deal with. It’s a hilarious moment without the bloodshed that results from Tarantino’s combatants.
Intrigue enters the film when Stephen begins to suspect that Broomhilda and Django know each other. He’s absolutely right and the marks of the branding on their cheeks is a dead give-away, though Stephen doesn’t seem to be aware of it. This is perhaps his way of toying with her or Tarantino’s idea of creating a dynamic interplay between contending elements of Black culture.
The shootout at O.K. Corral pales in comparison to the slaughter in the Big House, and the carnage soon reaches a point of inane excessiveness. But vengeance is mine sayeth Tarantino and “Reservoir Dogs,” “Kill Bill,” and “Pulp Fiction,” are merely dry runs for the blood and gore at Candie Land. Even so, there’s a quick instance of laughter when Candie’s sister is killed.
She is blown from the scene like something out of “Poltergeist,” suddenly as if snatched from the room. The audience almost laughed as loud as when Stephen got his comeuppance or when Django took the whip from an overseer or slave driver and administered his own vicious lashes. “Whup the motherfucker!” someone cried in the theater setting off a chain reaction of the phrase.
In this moment of retribution I recalled the passage from Frederick Douglass’s autobiography when he was no longer going to take any more abuse from Covey the slave-breaker. For nearly two hours Douglass and Covey fought each other and finally Covey had to concede he was defeated. Douglass wrote: “The battle with Mr. Covey was the turning point in my career as a slave. It rekindled the few expiring embers of freedom, and revived within me a sense of my own manhood.” This, among hundreds of others, is the film we’re waiting for.
With bodies strewn all over the place (and the only thing more excessive is the N-word), Django’s revenge is partially fulfilled; however, there’s still the man who threatened to relieve him of his private parts as he was suspended upside down in a barn; there was still the quest to rescue Broomhilda, who, for the most part was little more than a Pauline tied to the railroad tracks waiting for her prince to come.
Okay, the ending was predictable but at least it was a Black hero riding off into the sunset with his wife, and you’ll notice she is armed with a rifle as if now ready to be an agent of her own liberation. There is a moonwalk from Django’s horse and the two lovers are off to the sequel, huh?
Well, we don’t need another Tarantino film to remind us of what needs to be done cinematically. “Django Unchained” is, overall, a mixture of Spaghetti Western, blaxploitation, satire, slave narrative, lampoon, send-up, and fairy tale, as my wife concluded. No, it wasn’t a history lesson, just pure entertainment. But the question is: have we, as a people, reached a level of progress and tolerance to laugh at the horrific moments of our past?
The Beautiful Kerry Washington
Django’s Wife…The face that launched a slaughter
Probably not, despite the hilarity from the audience, because so much of the past is still with us. There’s too much mass incarceration of Blacks and the author Michelle Alexander has noted that we have more Black men and women in correctional control than were in bondage in 1850, about the time period of the film’s depiction.
Too many Black men stopped and frisked, harking back to the slave codes and Jim Crow laws; too much police brutality almost equal to the beatings administered by overseers patrolling the plantations. Other ethnic groups may be able to enjoy their troubled past, but there is not enough variety of our experiences in popular culture, too few films of merit or worthy television shows for us to relax and laugh at our torture and oppression.
There is no way we can stop the Tarantino and others from mining the richness or the grotesque aspects of our culture, particularly when he is aided and abetted by Foxx, Jackson, Washington, and producer Reggie Hudlin. So, what’s to be done? The only real answer is for us to make our own films; films that begin to depict and articulate the glorious struggle we’ve waged for total freedom and liberation. We have the resources and the talent, but the will doesn’t seem to be there.
It may take another generation or two before we’re completely “unchained” and ready to tell our own magnificent story where Douglass, Tubman, Robeson, Truth, and others can recount what they endured and overcome without interference from those with the wherewithal but a different agenda.
Meanwhile, “Whup, the motherfucker!!!”
Leonardo di Capprio as the Sadistic Slave Master
He projects the decadence and pure evil of American Slavery
By Herb Boyd
Special to Commentaries on the Times