Tuesday, January 8, 2013

The Politics Of: Django Unchained

The 'D' Is Silent--But, Man, the Theater Has The Sound Cranked Up
We're going to talk about Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained from a political perspective. There will be spoilers.

The Movie
Django Unchained is a Quentin Tarantino revenge flick done as a western or, as he called it, a 'southern' as it takes place in the deep south rather than the west. It follows the life of a slave (Django, Jamie Foxx) who, when freed by bounty hunter Cristoph Waltz (who played the relentless Nazi investigator in Tarantino's last film), Foxx becomes a bounty hunter himself--all the while trying to get back to his wife (Kerry Washington) who was sold separate to him when they tried to escape.

Eventually this brings the duo to Candy Land run by the wealthy, barbaric Calvin Candie (so, I guess, that's Candie Land--but let's be serious). The two pose as wealthy buyers of fighting slaves (the 'sport' of Mandango) while trying to purchase Washington from her owner.

Django has Tarantino's signature ultra-violence. It has his signature surprising plot turns and several verbal digressions into trivia. It leaves you on the edge of your seat waiting for the next shoe to drop--often an "entirely different" shoe drops. Some scenes that might seem to be dreams turn out to be completely real. Other scenes that are played for laughs are nonetheless explosively violent. The gun play is gory.

As a fan of Tarantino's work I found myself gratified even at the almost-three-hours run-length. The completely anachronistic musical score, the various touches of "character" in odd places, and the genius casting (which leads organically to genius performances), and, of course, the pastiche of homages that make up the structure of his movies all thrill me. I find his ability to make violence satisfying virtuoso. Tarantino is certainly counting bullets in each revolver--he's putting in small touches you won't notice (people playing poker with ears taken from slaves)--and he has done the research to be historically accurate except where he isn't (he invokes the KKK well before they were founded).

I found myself by turns impressed with the performances and engaged in the story line. I recommend you see it if you've ever liked a western even a little bit.

Let's do the politics!

The Politics of Django Unchained
Chris Rock does a skit where he explains to white people when it's okay for them to use the N-word. It turns out this is a real question that a lot of white people would like the answer to. Rock explains that when a very specific (and specifically hilarious) crime happens to them, perpetrated by a black person, on Christmas eve, the police report will serve as their ticket to use the forbidden word. If only Dog The Bounty Hunter had known, huh?

It turns out that Rock is wrong: White people can use the N-word around 100 times when they're playing characters in a movie set in the slave-holding south. Of course the actual message of Rock's piece is that it's really never okay for a white person to use the N-word and if you think you've earned the right to use it, you're kidding yourself.

Bill Clinton was the first black president until he wasn't--and it appears he was surprised by how quickly an actual black president took the 'high ground' in racial dialog. Tarantino's script used the N-word a lot in Jackie Brown and Spike Lee blasted him for that. Tarantino uses it even more in Django and Lee, although he's not going to see Django, he isn't happy with that either.

Quentin should've seen it coming. Well, to be fair, he probably did.

What he may not have anticipated was the controversy around several appearances by Jamie Foxx which led to the following editorial by the Washington Times:
Is Jamie Foxx a racist? The actor recently hosted “Saturday Night Live,” delivering a rant that was supposed to be funny. It wasn’t. In fact, had a white person delivered the same monologue but simply exchanged the word “white” for “black,” his career would be over. The hypocrisy and double standard are egregious. They must stop. Black bigotry should no longer be condoned, let alone celebrated.
 Although the writer has a few other bones to pick, what he's really upset about--and the button Django hits--repeatedly--is that white people (Americans, anyway) aren't allowed to, even humorously, go places / use words black people are. Foxx can joke about how cool it is that he gets to kill all the white people in the movie--which is untrue, he fights for and with his white friend)--but if a white person did that they'd be finished.

Black rappers can use the n-word all they want on platinum-selling albums  Dog the Bounty Hunter gets fired for doing it in private. This infuriates a lot of people. Tarantino makes it even more pointed by having the white heroic character be German: there is no white American that is "in the club." We're all slave holders or suspect racists.

Tarantino more or less gets away with it himself by casting iconic black actors in blacksplotiation context wherein his whiteness is shielded by Sam Jackson's general approval (as we see in Tarantino's Pulp Fiction self-insertion). He can also get away with it because he keeps an authorial distance barrier between himself and the audience.

The one thing that Tarantino never does with his movies is provide a director's narration sound-track. I think this is because all his movies are structured around in-jokes to other movies and he's well aware that explaining the joke causes it to lose it's power. It's also possible that if he was on the table about all his references and such, he might get seen as less brilliant than a lot of people think he is (the recording artist Seal noted that he didn't like including lyrics with his CD's because the actual lyrics were often disappointingly less brilliant than what people imagined them to be).

Either way, the lack of explicit authorial voice is key to Tarantino's movies: they must speak through the camera to the audience and that's what he's doing with Unchained. Tarantino is trying to rile you up and get you to hate slavers--he does a good job of it. He's fine if you're upset by the n-word because you're supposed to be. He doesn't have to explain himself (unlike Dog) because it's a performance piece.

We can see this reflected in the other thing that people complained about Jamie Foxx for: in a Soul Train appearance (shortly after the election) he called Obama "our Lord and Savior." A lot of people have noted that Foxx is a comedian and wasn't being exactly serious or reverent.This still provoked outrage which was entirely ironic considering how Obama has been literally suspected of being the anti-Christ.

Basically: Foxx is an actor and comedian--no one (outside of the news bubble) cares if he takes a hyperbolic victory lap--but the state of race in America doesn't apply equally to white guys. Life's rough, apparently. It should be noted, of course, that Django isn't second to The Hobbit in earning power on its black audiences--it has a broad appeal and that's important too: While some people will be unhappy with Foxx's jokes and others will be unhappy with Tarantino's use of the N-word, it turns out people on both sides of the racial divide are very happy to pay to watch slavers get gunned down.

I think that's good news.

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