The Emancipation Wetdream
On Django Unchained

Quentin Tarantino is an iconoclast, a gifted pastiche artist, and someone who firmly believes in his vision, God bless him. He effectively and articulately gets out in front of any attempt to critique it, and he has once again in the wake of his newest film, the incendiary 19th century slave revenge epic Django Unchained. "Not one word of social criticism that's been leveled my way has ever changed one word of a script or any story I tell," he recently said in an interview. "I believe in what I'm doing wholeheartedly and passionately. It's my job to ignore that."

Django Unchained

How do you argue with unshakable belief in oneself? Tarantino's style hasn't changed any more than his attitude, given how reliant it is on genre reconstruction and, since Kill Bill, on ace cinematographer Robert Richardson's unique gifts--he added an impressionistic flair to Tarantino's formerly drab lensing. Tonally, his cinematic worlds are remarkably similar whether we find ourselves in 1940s Germany, 1990s Los Angeles, or 1850s Mississippi; there are no tragedies in the world of Tarantino and death shall have no dominion, even if it is everywhere. We mourn for no one in Tarantino's world, regardless of how much we might like them.

In Django Unchained, he is as unresponsive as ever to shifting conventions of cinematic realism, draining the tragedy from slavery (even as his protagonists brutally dispatch its practitioners), or at least its manifestation at a few Texas and Mississippi outposts. All it took, we learn from Django Unchained, is a bit of help from a German dentist and a take-no-prisoners savagery on the part of the oppressed, who acts out of love for a woman of course, not out of solidarity with his racial brethren. Had it been the latter, I doubt this film would have been palatable enough for Christmas Day.

Of course, the assertions being made about him and his intentions upon the release of his newest attempt at cartoonish minority revenge fantasy for History’s Great Injustices are coming from various corners of the black intelligensia, whether that he is the Baddest Black Filmmaker there is (according to some hack on Salon) or Disrespecting My Ancestors (Spike Lee, having not seen the film and full of sour grapes over his waning skills as always, big surprise) or Still Not a Brother (the reliably cranky, incoherent, and hard to ignore Armond White) are as much smoke and mirrors as they are absurd, only serving to pull our attention away from the only thing that retains importance-- what the film is trying to mean.

Tarantino deserves a better discourse. His audiences deserve a better film.

The gap between its perceived intentions, the ideologies of its various public observers, and what the movie is actually doing couldn’t be wider. Of course, you could probably say the same for Steven Spielberg's Lincoln, a film made in an overly mannered, oddly bloodless, seemingly realistic register by an auteur with a more comfortably mainstream sensibility. While Lincoln's unveiling of the political machinations behind the Congressional ratification of the thirteenth amendment has been received favorably by establishment commentators, its sidelining of the possibility of radicalism concerning the enfranchisement of blacks, its clear desire to relegate the mainline abolitionist cause to the ideological sidelines, its refusal to deal earnestly with Lincoln's own struggles with racism, its devotion to his foolhardy incrementalism, which of course was painfully shortsighted, have been faintly heard in some critical circles amidst a sea of praise.

Django renders the battle for the thirteenth amendment, or the wars that killed hundred of thousands, the ones that tore our imperfect Union apart, perfectly unnecessary. As Leonardo DiCaprio's vicious slave owner ponders out loud why negroes, far outnumbering his own kind in their corner of Mississippi, didn't just up and revolt, his Tom Nigger, ably played by Samuel L. Jackson as some sort of self-hating Uncle Ben, provides all the answers we need. Fear. The movie never registers this, preferring to indulge us in its rueful fantasy of black hyper-violent virulence. This has nothing to do with reality of course, a concept that Tarantino seemingly owes no faithfulness to as he dives  into the troubling waters of historical revisionism.

Quoting liberally from the wobbly canons of Blaxploitation and Spaghetti Westerns is nothing new for Tarantino; he's more or less made a career out of exploring ironic, tough guy posturing and indulging wild tonal shifts between reflective, pop culture reference driven comedy and spasms of brutal violence. And so it is here. Of course, the film is outrageously entertaining. I laughed quite a bit, often uncomfortably so. I was riveted and numbed and amused and disgusted. Like any film of significance, I will surely never forget it. Yet it is never in doubt that Django will triumph, and Tarantino doesn't unfurl his tale with sensitivity or originality of form or content.Embracing an aesthetic which pays little respect to the ugliness of the milieu, it plods along, a work of brutish, terribly troubling, ultimately unfulfilling art, one that adds up to little more than adolescent superficiality.

For better or worse, he's the most influential filmmaker of our time.

In this cartoon pastiche of the antebellum south, whatever could be at stake? That which the movie claims to be at stake, the sustained desire and mutual dignity of a black man and woman, won through violence against scores of white men in the antebellum south, is an utter historical unreality and impossibility. To suggest otherwise is dangerous revisionism, a flight into wishful historical re-imagination that is as unseemly as it is potentially lucrative.

Because, you see, the white man had all the guns. And horses. And money. And legal claim to humanity. He had a monopoly on violence.

Nat Turner was hung. Lynch mobs didn’t wear sheets until after the war. What the fuck is Mandingo Fighting?

Django and Broomhilda Von Shaft would surely be strung up well before they found a way to pull a Margaret Garner. Why would we want to pretend otherwise? And what is so wrong with us that we’d find popular amusement in an attempt to obscure these truths, as this film surely does, even if they demand treatment in popular art? Do we want only fleeting fever dreams of revenge for our and our forbearers oppression?

You see there is no magic bullet to kill it, the hard spectre of white supremacy. So you just go with it, finding it in fewer places than your parents once did, although more than we’d all, brown and not, like to admit. In forms both less significant and more insidious than ever. Subvert it subtly, or simply make peace with its last dying vestiges. Its manifestations, even in these supposedly sophisticated times, when people can speak terms like “post-racial” with a straight face, are too myriad and diffuse to confront, so fused into the essence of everyday life they are. For many, they don’t seem particularly sensational.

Quentin Tarantino knows this, no matter how many blaxploitation thrillers he consumed in his formative years. Just the other day he told The Hollywood Reporter that the prison industrial complex and the drug war have produced modern day slavery of sorts, a permanent, legally discriminated-against underclass. He might be a coddled, 1%er auteur, but he was also a working class kid from Tennessee who never finished high school and grew up immersed in the misbegotten negrophilia of another era’s B movies for newly emboldened young black audiences, who suddenly ruled the inner city movie houses after white flight.

Those films, also made by fantasy-fueled white liberals bent on providing the negro a profitable form of violent catharsis for the failures of the Civil Rights Movement baked in cheap looking blood and cartoonish heroes, are both a precious monument and for shame. The broad swath of so-called blaxploitation films, which black critics like White and Elvis Mitchell have long lionized, embody a pathological devotion to satisfy its intended black audiences’ immediate post-CRM desire for revenge, self-congratulation, and instant gratification, at the expense, generally, of one-dimensional white gangsters, cops, and whores who have nothing to do with the true burden afflicting post civil rights era blacks; institutionalized white privilege and the continuing inability of black people to erect institutions that affect change for our shared prosperity. These issues are rarely examined with any nuance in these films, except in long suppressed, barely remembered outliers (find Jules Dassin’s UpTight! on Netflix).

Tarantino’s Jackie Brown, a truly phenomenal crime movie and worthy distillation of, homage to, and improvement upon many of the blaxploitation films of his youth, is as effective in its earnestness about the anxieties all too many middle aged, lower middle class American black women face as it is riveting and darkly humorous in its meditation on various SoCal hustlers and low lifes. It’s also the last movie he made that wasn’t about revenge, explicit or implicitly. It was, as it should have been, about survival and getting older. It seems hardly possible that the man responsible for that film could have so irresponsibly delivered Django Unchained.

Perhaps he’s just reflecting the times in his Bush and Obama era tales of heedless revenge. It has been our countries default mode for quite awhile, as Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty is out to remind you. Just ask the folks who still have drones flying over their heads. Tarantino’s true gift is his default postmodern irreverence. It allows us to  take death lightly. He kills them softly, even when the squibs gush outlandishly from slack bodies.

Truth is, Tarantino isn’t alone; it was a watershed year for white filmmakers making mildly to severely exploitative films about black people of various types. Sundance and Cannes winner Beasts of the Southern Wild, from new director of the moment Benh Zeitlin and his collaborators who go by the moniker Court 13, is perhaps the most hyped film ever to emerge from the spin machine of Park City. It's also the perfect film for the Obama era; a beautiful lie wrapped in gauzy images of black feminine earthmotheriness, a movie that postulates that an abused, neglected, poverty stricken black girl, a new age Sambo, should willfully return to such conditions, now fatherless, after some sort of supernatural/ecological calamity. It is the most aesthetically pleasing, dangerously persuasive, unconsciously ideological argument any film has made for why the government, state and local, should have left black New Orleans alone when Katrina bore its destructive fruit. Of course it was made by ex-Obama volunteers. Oprah fawning over it was no surprise.

And it is only the most famous of an seemingly endless stream of festival circuit hits, which began to find purchase a few years back at Sundance with Lance Hammer’s Ballast, that are lauded by liberal white critics and festival programmers, who choose to either ignore the complex realities of negro life or prefer them packaged as magical or gritty or humorless  but always guilt unburdening art house narratives which wrap their simplified tales of negro pain or fortitude in the aesthetics of mysticism or miserablism or funk. Beasts, along with equally well intentioned films as seemingly diverse as Slamdance winner Keith Miller’s Welcome to Pine Hill, or SXSW winner Adam Leon’s Gimme the Loot form a black cinema for white hipster cinephiles of sorts, indulging by turns in magical negro cine-mysticism, superficial black hustling "success" or empty, stoic aestheticizing of misery that is made tragically heroic or surprisingly uplifting by filmmakers with little at stake in the storytelling. That is other than entry into the largely white world of film festival acclaim and talent agency representation and mini-major distributor approved elevation to potential auteurship.

Still, only a fraction of Tarantino’s massive audience will see any of those movies by admittedly promising white filmmakers working with extremely limited resources. If we’re talking about broad socio-cultural impact, however, he and Spielberg are two of the only games in town. Sad thing is, that’s only half the trouble. One day black Americans will have cinematic representations worthy of their rich diversity and their full, sordid and wonderful humanity. But don’t hold your breath.

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Brandon Harris

Brandon Harris, Brooklyn based and Cincinnati bred, is a Contributing Editor at Filmmaker Magazine and the director of Redlegs, a New York Times Critic's Pick. His writing has appeared in The Daily Beast, Variety, indieWIRE, The L Magazine and N+1’s Occupy Gazette.  He makes a mean brunch on Sundays.