Monday, December 31, 2012

ABANDONED THEATER: Tarantino’s Myth of the Black Southern Cowboy


Quentin Tarantino: always causing a ruckus. Quentin Tarantino is our cinematic jester; through his films, he manages to magnify our biggest sins as a world, but all the while makes us laugh while we become more aware of ourselves through the lens of his characters and themes. Some people exist to silence loud, controversial voices—you know who these people are—but Tarantino exists to be that demon on our shoulders. And believe it or not, demons speak truths that some people just don’t want to hear.

Many critics, and filmgoers, have attacked Quentin Tarantino for using controversial topics in his films.  In possibly Tarantino’s best film, Inglourious Basterds[i], the director created a propaganda film about the propaganda films of the 1940s[ii]. He even burns down a theater during the film’s climax. In this effigy, the vengeful Basterds hunting Hitler kill him and his goons, fulfilling the revenge fantasy that builds Jewish protagonists up to be the heroes in Hitler’s assassination (that didn’t actually happen). Some cried foul on Tarantino’s use of the Holocaust in an entertaining revenge fantasy. Before Basterds, there were the Kill Bill volumes, which focused on one woman’s vengeance against the controlling and abusive Bill himself. In Kill Bill, Tarantino used the comic book genre and faced much less flak for his aesthetic choices[iii] due to the “lesser” format of his two volumes.

Now in Django Unchained, the director faces a new slew of accusations. A lot of critics, bloggers, pundits, and even everyday audiences will balk at a white director directing a brutal film about slavery that contains over 100 uses of the word “nigger[iv]”. A film featuring many racist slaver-owners, slaves themselves, and a man who despises slavery but is an outsider to American society, should contain the ugliest of words to maintain any sort of authenticity. Yes, Tarantino is white, but he is also a fantastic filmmaker who is interested in revisiting the deepest scars of world history, giving these events a voice in the modern vernacular—like the Holocaust, or American slavery. It is best to remember these events, and not ever forget how uncomfortable they should make us. If we as human beings forget travesties, or grow desensitized, we doom ourselves to repeat them. Or we make The Help[v].

Django (Jamie Foxx) is the audience’s most extreme example of slavery, while Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz[vi]) is Tarantino’s commentary—as cinema’s jester—on the history of slavery in America. Django himself starts the story as a slave: meek, afraid, and injured. The scars on his back are thick, he is separated from his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), and he shivers from the cold, mountain air “somewhere in Texas” where he trudges in chains. It is Dr. King Schultz who comes to his recue early, with his dentist’s wagon[vii], drawn by a single horse. Is Schultz the white savior that condescendingly saves Django?  No, much different—Django must save himself, choosing to learn from Schultz throughout the film, and by the end, goes from sad slave to mythical hero.


There be spoilers from here on out. You have been warned.

Django Freeman’s journey from slave to hero is a gradual one handled with care by Tarantino and Foxx. The trajectory is more important than any of the usual Tarantino camp or even hilarious jokes featuring racists marauders in hoods with eyeholes that are too small to see through. With Django’s ascension as the fastest guns in the South, he disproves the sort of biological[viii] argument that racists, like Monsieur Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio[ix]), use to explain their racism. The film’s antagonist, Candie, wants nothing more than to prove the Djangos of the world insufficient, but, no matter what he believes, Candie really has no way to hold Django down, except for the fact that Candie owns Broomhilda. As another a way to show Candie’s power, he holds mandingo fights[x], which are dog fights but with human slaves battling to the death instead of canines. To Candie, this is just a delicious detail to his exuberant life. Everything about Candie is about the excesses of spoiled children. He is named “Candie,” eats a lot of candy and other sweets like white cake, owns a plantation called CandieLand, and has terrible-looking teeth.

Schultz is the anti-Candie. He is a dentist, and does not like sweets. And he has better teeth than Candie. If Schultz is Tarantino’s voice and force within Django Unchained, is Candie the anti-Tarantino? Far from it, actually. Tarantino also gives into exuberance with his films, whether it is splitting the story up into 4 non-linear sections (Pulp Fiction), having bloody samurai sword fights (Kill Bill, Vol. 1), or killing Hitler, Tarantino never holds back, even with it might be wise to do so. Schultz and Candie act as two sides of Tarantino, and two sides of all people. We have exuberances, and we have contemplative sides. Schultz is an outsider to America, and recognizes that slavery is obviously abhorrent. He spends several scenes, after Candie gains the upper-hand on our heroes, reminiscing on his actions with Django. He remembers Candie ordering dogs to rip a slave apart. These memories lead Schultz to make his final mortal action.

Then there is Django, who stands outside of the Schultz/Candie binary because he is black. And the only person who can hold Django down and keep him from rescuing his wife is another black man—Stephen Fetchit (Samuel L. Jackson[xi]). With about 30+ minutes left in the film, there is a climatic shootout in Calvin Candie’s library, between the good guys and the bad guys. The library in this film is highly symbolic. An intellectual man like Schultz can take advantage of a place like a library, as can other intelligent men like Stephen and Django. Candie, with his foppish Francophilia and phony Southern gentility, which is even phonier when he flirts with his own sister, was the odd man out[xii]. He is, frankly, a dumb man. Stephen knew this. The library is where Stephen can speak to his “master” as an equal, which is why Stephen was upset that Schultz and Candie were meeting there to finalize the Broomhilda transaction. It is his domain. But the shootout takes place in the room of learning, and both of the “masters” die. Schultz and Candie are gone, leaving Django and Stephen to face off on their own merits, not being told what to do. Stephen controls the white plantation workers, whether they know it or not, and they ship Django off. Stephen wins round one against the hero.


Tarantino, up until this point in the film, has made the viewer sufficiently uncomfortable: the use of racial derogatory terms, the black men walking in chains, the black people being whipped, the mandingo fighting, the bloody violence, the torture scene where plantation-hand Walton Goggins (Billy Crash) is ready to castrate Django, dick in hand, and of course uses of humor and myth. The last bits are where a lot of people jump ship on Django Unchained. Slavery is not funny, and it especially should not be reduced to some sort of myth of the western Cowboy, which Django certainly represents. Rather than the film failing because of the funny bits, the humor works in this because it makes the audience uncomfortable. Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange contains a genius scene where Alex (Malcolm McDowell) beats a person to death with a phallic statue while singing “Singin’ in the Rain.”  This murder/rape is completely horrifying, but it also contains some humor in its ridiculousness, making the audience think about how they feel on the whole affair. Django Unchained uses a similar tactic—it forces the audience to think about slavery whether they want to partake in deep, moralistic thought or not.

The good jester Tarantino also has a film here that is difficult not to compare to another film about a black cowboy meta-commenting on the Western genre—Mel Brooks’s Blazing Saddles[xiii]. Blazing Saddles is hilarious, but it also contains a lot of off-color[xiv] jokes about race. Both Bart (Cleavon Little) in the Mel Brooks comedy and Django in Tarantino’s western are fastest guns in the West (or South) and both are archetypical heroes. As Schultz gets to know Django, he compares Django’s journey to free Broomhilda to Siegfried’s. Siegfried, the mythical German hero also saving a Broomhilda, is a myth, as are the heroes of Spaghetti Westerns, like the original Django (Franco Nero[xv]) in and The Man With No Name (Clint Eastwood) in The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly. Django Freeman is stepping into this mythical archetype, as Bart did, a slow process that begins the moment Schultz finds him “somewhere in Texas.”


Django doesn’t give up after Stephen bested him in CandieLand. After outsmarting the Australian miners that Stephen sold him to, Django, through the information he learned from Schultz, and more importantly his own heroism, returns to the plantation to save his wife and claim vengeance against Stephen. It is a black man v. a black man, with no masters in sight. As a remade man, Django faces little resistance in his revenge plot, killing all of the white slavers and Stephen himself in the most flamboyant way he can muster. He blows up the symbol of slavery itself—CandieLand’s plantation house.  Django rescues Broomhilda and becomes, as Schultz said, the “Fastest Guns in the South.” He has ascended to become the mythical hero of Spaghetti Westerns or German folklore. And, as the plot necessitated, he did it without his “white savior” pulling the strings. Tarantino leaves the audience with this knowledge, in the most un-racist imaginable, that black people deserve their own mythical figures like Siegfried and Django.  Through problematic, controversial, and even offensive adventures of extreme violence and vicious hardships, all illustrated by the Good Jester Tarantino, Django evolves into hero status, showing the powerful nature of myth and overcoming adversity.

Because nothing feels better than watching the good guys win.

I give Django Unchained a strong 9 out of 10.

[i] But really, Pulp Fiction.

[ii] There is a great article-in-waiting on this extended metaphor—the propaganda about the history of propaganda through the eyes of Quentin Tarantino. Another day.

[iii] Though he still faced the usual “violence leads to the downfall of society” arguments.

[iv] I’m personally not going to write this disgusting word again in the blog, but, to paraphrase the great Louis CK, don’t ever say or write the word “n-word” because it just puts the word in the mind of the listener/reader anyway. It gives a weird permission to say “n-word” this and “n-word” that. We all are intelligent enough to understand that it is the meaning that gives the word power, not the actual letters and enunciations, right?

[v] I kid, but honestly The Help is the sort of film about racism that should offend, not Django Unchained. The Help is a film that gives easy solutions to racism, and wraps a pretty bow by the film’s end. Meanwhile, Django Unchained ends with a lot of bloodshed and the threat that Django will now have to go on the run for the rest of his days. His biggest nemesis is not the wicked slave owner who owns his wife, but the head house slave. If complications make us uncomfortable, then The Help is the comfort food (chocolate pie?) of the film world.

[vi] GREAT EXAMPLE OF ACTING #1: Christoph Waltz plays Dr. King Schultz amazingly as the anti-Nazi. He won an Oscar for his portrayal as Inglourious Basterds lingual Jew Hunter, Nazi Col. Hans Landa, who was a dastardly and childish villain. Here, he is the hero, an introspective and warm soul, regardless of his character’s nihilistic job of bounty hunting the bad guys. In ways, while Landa was a difficult character to play (and amazing to watch) through his gleefully cheery evil demeanor and his mastery of German, French, English, and Italian, all spoken throughout the film, the subtlety and the way the audience identifies with Schultz may be Waltz’s most nuanced performance to date.

[vii] The best sight gag of the year—a large ceramic (?) tooth bobbing about on a spring. None of the characters even mention how hilarious and out of place it is, which makes it even funnier.  

[viii] Phrenology. Oh Jesus. . .

[ix] GREAT EXAMPLE OF ACTING #2: Most critics anticipated a great performance from DiCaprio—especially after the first trailer—and he did not disappoint. He is on edge in every scene, and unpredictable in his actions. Like so many of Tarantino’s best villains—like Landa, Bill, or Mr. Blonde—Calvin Candie is a whirlwind force of nature. In his scene where he goes on about phrenology, DiCaprio slams his hand onto the table, slicing his hand. Blood pours from his hand, and while I watch this I thought to myself, “Man, Candie is nuts.”  I read afterwards that DiCaprio cut his hand, and they kept rolling. Turns out DiCaprio is nuts. He never lost character, just looking down at one point to acknowledge the wound, but not to dwell on it. The cast gave DiCaprio a deserved standing ovation after they were done shooting and he received stiches. That is what great performances are made of. Passion. The sort of passion the drunk and high Martin Sheen showed during the filming of Apocalypse Now, when he sliced his hand after punching a mirror. This is the sort of outward passion that DiCaprio rarely shows in his roles, tending to play the brooder. Needless to say, DiCaprio reaches out of his usual range for this film, and it pays off for everyone.

[x] A fiction, added by Tarantino. All of his stories lack subtly on the surface. Where to find the really good details are under the surface. For example, WHY add mandingo fights?

[xi] GREAT EXAMPLE OF ACTING #3: Jackson steals the show. While not billed as a major player like Foxx, DiCaprio, and Waltz, Sam Jackson is truly a wonder as the evil house slave who wants nothing more than to keep blacks like Django and Broomhilda under the sway of the white men, and himself. Jackson, more than any other actor in this film, inhabits his character to terrifying results. At first it is kind of funny to see Jackson, as Stephen, speaking with the elderly, southern, black dialect, but then, during his confidential meeting with Candie in their library—the sanctuary for Stephen—with clarity, the audience sees Stephen’s power over the unstable slave owner.  Stephen sips his drink and mocks Candie’s denseness, without fear. Jackson has never played character so manipulative.

[xii] “Alexandre Dumas was black.” Oh, the look on Candie’s face!

[xiii] The bags/eye-holes scene is right out of the Mel Brooks playbook. Hilarious stuff.

[xiv] No pun intended.

[xv] Great use of cameo in Django Unchained by featuring Nero. 

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