Wednesday, January 16, 2013

'django unchained' and the fate of your soul: a post by jerome murphy

That Django Unchained is in some way sinful seems clear. Its tastelessness has the savor of forbidden fruit.

Tarantino’s latest juxtaposes classic Western horseback iconography with Roots-style plantation atrocities. Its script revels in dubiously appropriate moments of comic relief, in which touchy issues are simultaneously raised and dismissed (a neat, if annoying, trick). Relying on intuitive parallels between two uniquely American visions of violence, he makes stylistically free with images of our own American Holocaust, beckoning to fans of slick action extravaganzas.

You make a deal with the devil when you agree to that experience – and Tarantino’s burning brand will settle nicely into the barely healed cicatrix from Inglorious Basterds.

For one thing, it couldn't be too kosher that this white director, backed by a greater economic machine than any African-American director – Spike Lee, say – could have secured for such a venture, appropriates this material for what seems to be the sheer purpose of daring us to watch – and further, daring us to deny our desire to watch.

Or could it?

When else does Middle America witness the beautiful Kerry Washington undergoing the brutality of whipping and face-branding in a way that sears home, with nary a cinematic flinch, exactly what slavery could humanly mean on a day to day basis, and why its psychological scars are to be taken seriously?

White characters largely propel the story, of course; the word unchained underscores abolitionist agency. Jamie Foxx's "man with no name" laconicism in the title role ironically highlights the character’s status as Tarantino’s prop (though it’s worth noting that critics such as Wesley Morris of The Boston Globe disagree, perceiving a powerfully restrained performance). Meanwhile Kerry Washington’s Broomhilda is a vessel of pathos, abstract as her namesake goddess, Brunnhilde. The actors’ efforts to animate these roles remain rather shackled by Tarantino’s script.

Yet if you want to trace the problems of Django along what Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois famously referred to as the color line, where exactly would you draw that line?

Do you condemn this director, who allows himself to be fatally outwitted by his leading man in an unflattering cameo that underscores the fallacy of assumed white supremacy?

Do you condemn Jamie Foxx, subservient to that director but also working to upend our society’s established images of white and black power dynamics?

Or do you condemn Samuel L. Jackson for his role as jiving House Negro, in a parodic performance brilliantly illustrating both the degradation and the sinister utility of that particular costume?

Spike Lee objects that slavery is not a spaghetti western. To which we must respond: nor is slavery Roots, despite that chronicle's more humane endeavor. It is nothing more or less than exactly what it was, and every fictional depiction is artifice, the product of third-party decisions.

That’s not to let Tarantino off the hook for prurient choices: it’s to put us, the consumers, on a hook of our own.

Surely we can admit that we most readily assimilate cultural values not when we quarantine a particular experience as morally heavy, but when we simply sit back and enjoy the ride?

When, for instance, do you readily accept that black characters, male and female, are to be relegated to being de-sexualized foils or comedic garnish for white characters onscreen: while viewing a film explicitly addressing racial tensions, or while absentmindedly taking in another whitewashed J. Lo romantic comedy with Wanda Sykes playing modern-day Mammy? Which is the more pernicious experience? I enjoyed the disposable confection of Monster-in-Law, but was unsettled by “light” fare’s enforcements of social hierarchies.

Likewise, an action flick like the remarkably condescending Avatar, which broke box-office records, masks the bitterness of its insidious substance under copious aesthetic sweetener (and leaving aside questions of cultural hierarchy, one could write a book – albeit no beach read – on Avatar’s anti-science, anti-intelligence, pro-violence hypocrisies).

So this barbecue-sweet genre recipe, palatable to a general audience, catalyzes Django Unchained’s rare medicine. It occurred to me that Kerry Washington and Jamie Foxx’s passionate embrace – two loving and sensual black bodies enjoying the black man not as done-her-wrong scoundrel, but as triumphant champion – was an image not much more familiar to much of that audience than that of the plantation.

You may not care to sign the contract Tarantino is offering here. That’s all right, the devil has plenty of other deals for you. What about the contract you sign when watching the next nihilistic cop-and-gangster show, where people are blown to bits, and car chases are cool and satisfying?

What about the contract you sign with your every endorsement of rap music in which young black men perform roles born of urban desperation for the profit of all?

Or when endorsing popular entertainments that only allow players to assume center stage on the condition of stereotypical, and therefore non-establishment-threatening, behavior?

What about the contracts you sign every day allowing tropes to do with class, race, gender, intelligence or appearance to gain authority by hiding in plain sight?

As a very different fictional slave roared at his Coliseum audience, and, implicitly, us moviegoers: Are you not entertained?

Not that such contracts are equivalent to those offered by Django. Indeed the point is to contrast them, to ask what justifies one over the other. Such decisions must be made consciously if we are not to commit what Toni Morrison calls “the crime of innocence.” (Tar Baby – uneven but excellent book.)

Django Unchained threatens the viewer's comfort precisely by making its trade-off between entertainment and amorality impossible to deny. Thus the film’s failures are decidedly more aesthetic than moral. Which undermines Tarantino's worthwhile subversions more: Django’s relishing overuse of the n-word, or its overlong and inelegantly constructed third act? Of course, one could argue for an overlap between moral failures and failures of craft, beginning with the film’s premise.

This work resonates most as a dizzying elision of iconic shorthand; its title riffs on decades of Western and blaxploitation cinema, and that apellation Django is so janglingly onomatopoetic alongside Unchained. It’s best understood in terms of such riffing, rather than as any attempt at revisionist history. Christoph Waltz’s Dr. Schultz is a tongue-in-cheek reversal of the villainous Colonel Landa in Inglorious Basterds. In Tarantino, very little seems accidental, which is not to say well-advised (the why-not-the-kitchen-sink soundtrack surely overreaches in combining folk, soul, orchestral pomp and hip hop).

One of Django’s drawbacks is that Tarantino’s hyperactive agenda shortchanges provocative ideas, such as the unnerving implication that hip-hop tracks are present-day slave songs. It's perverse to introduce such concepts without sustaining them.

From the shimmering swirl of celluloid visions where many, many movies ago Quentin Tarantino first fished out every stylistic device he would use to stimulate our basest ocular impulses, has floated down to the present day this inevitability: black male vengeance as one more tool of cinematic homage.

This is to say that Django Unchained is problematic and disturbing. It’s giddily entertaining. It’s decadent. It’s offensive. It’s irreverent.

It is a modern-day abolitionist act, which offends most of all by being necessary.

-Jerome Murphy


  1. I think it's the first time I haven't known "how" to comment on a blog piece. This is dizzyingly thought provoking and the fact that you've been able to explain, in succinct fashion, my thoughts on this film is just brilliant. It's a discussion within a discussion within a thesis and so on and so on. I truly enjoyed your review. I am impressed that you were able to actually "put it in words".

  2. A remarkable perspective and series of points, Jerome. I generally watch most films only once - even the ones I find most thought-provoking - but I feel as if I need to rewatch Django, as ably as I potentially can, through your eyes. Thank you for the considerable food-for-thought.