Thursday, December 27, 2012

What if Spike Lee Had Made Django Unchained?



I just watched Django Unchained. I will be offering up a longer response later today. But, I can say with confidence that Quentin Tarantino has made an excellent movie, that aided by amazing performances from Jamie Foxx and Samuel Jackson, should win an award (at the very least) for best screenplay this year at the Academy Awards. Christoph Waltz's role as a lens and critical voice, a chorus of sorts, through which a contemporary post civil rights, Age of Obama audience can be "present" in the film, was also superb.

I had quite a few concerns about Tarantino's use of slavery in the Spaghetti Western counter-factual revenge genre. Most of those concerns were more than satisfied; and as I alluded to here, I am now pretty sure that Tarantino had some historians (and others such as Henry Louis Gates Jr.) consulting on the film.

There are quite a few subtle moments of conversation, as well as meta-level questions about black citizenship, masculinity, and agency colouring the movie (a racial "color timing" of sorts) that someone was likely in Tarantino's ear helping him to flesh out questions of black freedom, and how black free people occupied a type of liminal space in the South during this period.

While watching Django Unchained, I was very curious as to how the audience would respond to the difficult subject matter that was America's centuries-long slave regime. Would black folks be upset? Would we laugh unexpectedly at the dark and tragic events, actions that are a means of negotiating the real history, unfolding before our eyes?  Would the white folks be self-conscious about the reality of white supremacy in the guise of speculative fiction taking place on the screen? Most importantly, would all parties in the theater be "entertained?"

Before losing myself in the film, I kept thinking about Spike Lee's complaints about Django and his worries about Tarantino's ability, as a white filmmaker, to present a still little understood (by average citizens) chapter in American history, and then to package it around the latter's unique genre sensibilities. Lee's concerns are reasonable.

After seeing Django for the first time, and before going to see it many more times in the next few weeks, his criticisms were misplaced. In the spirit of Tarantino's counter-factual speculative history of America's slaveocracy, one that is more truth than fiction, I left the movie wondering about how Spike Lee's movie would have been different from Quentin Tarantino's version of Django Unchained.

Here are some preliminary thoughts. And of course, if you saw Django Unchained what did you think of the movie?


1. Tarantino's Django Unchained is an action drama with darkly comedic sensibilities. Quentin Tarantino loves his movies, the actors, and includes many subtle homages to genre film as he is ultimately writing a love letter through motion pictures to fans of geek and nerd culture. Spike Lee's movies, despite the high levels of artistry present in his earlier successes, are relatively joyless escapades. Spike Lee makes movies, I am unsure if he loves film-making anymore.

2. Like Tarantino's other recent work, Django is a postmodern film. It is an exercise in pastiche, genre mashups, and playing with aesthetic norms that locate the movie in a universe all of its own.

Stated differently, Django is a movie that knows it is a movie which is referencing other films all the while communicating with the audience that what they are watching is an exercise in "true" fiction.

In total, Django is an exercise in fictionalized social realism. Spike Lee does not have these sensibilities and would simply shoot a "straight" and very "modern" movie. Would this succeed? I am not sure.

3. Spike Lee's Django would be overwhelmed by James Horner's omnipresent horns, trumpets, trombones, and drums of drama. Lee, like many others, Spielberg most notably, overuses musical cues to signal important points in plot and story development to the audience. Tarantino's musical choices are part of the overall genre remix that he is creating. To point. His use of song lyrics, as opposed to instrumentals, in Django is masterful.

Django is a love story, a fairy tale, a hero's journey, and an exploration of friendship and earned respect between men.

Women are present in Django: Jamie Foxx's love interest "Broomhilda" is a driving element in the plot. However, Django is really a movie about men, masculinity, race, violence, freedom, the gun, and revenge. Tarantino's song choices accentuate these thematic elements. Lee's choices would likely be too heavy handed and lead the audience to a destination, as opposed to asking them to listen to what is being said, and then to meditate on the song's relationship(s) to the film.

4. Spike Lee is a great filmmaker. However, he has fallen prey to a trap common to many people of color who are self-aware of their own "raced"--and therefore inherently political identity--in the United States and the West. Spike Lee, to his credit, has embraced the burdens of race and representation.

This is a source of strength and a type of armor. It is also a challenging weight and limitation.

If Lee made Django, his respect and reverence for the history he is trying to communicate, and honor for the many millions killed by the slaveocracy would leave him hamstrung. Lee would make a great movie about African-American slavery, and the Black Freedom Struggle, more generally. Of that fact, I have no doubt. Spike Lee's movie about the Harlem Hellfighters, the Deacons for Defense, or one of my favorites, the little known Colonel Tye, would be excellent.

Django Unchained is an exercise in genre. As such, it requires a type of creative detachment. Django's subject matter also deserves respect and meditation. Could Spike Lee take a step back and make a movie that is wonderfully self-aware, mindful of its obligation to entertain, which draws on the Spaghetti Western genre, teaches while not being didactic, and is a work of creative love?

Lee and Tarantino are both very mindful of their own aesthetic trademarks and brand: Spike Lee makes "Spike Lee" movies; Quentin Tarantino makes "Quentin Tarantino" movies. Yet, in this battle of gargantuan egos, Tarantino is in a place artistically where his self-importance is present, but does not overshadow his movies.

While watching Spike Lee's most recent popular films, I am left with a sense that his ego is primary and central to his art. In Django Unchained, such a move would be distracting and extremely problematic because it would be one more obstacle to the audience accepting the possibility, in the form of a speculative work of pop art, that what they are watching is grounded in real events.

I will offer one example of the differences between Spike Lee's Django and Tarantino's vision of the same film. In the movie, the audience is introduced to the fact that dogs were trained to hunt down and kill slaves. Scholars who study slavery, or African-American history more generally, know this to be true. It has also been handed down in the cultural memory of black Americans.

I watched Django and nodded quite a bit at how he casually presented some of the day-to-day violence that was at the heart of a system of racial terrorism where black bodies are human gold. Spike Lee's version of these same events would have been lectures and sermons full of pathos that would have been designed to both enrage and shame the audience.

In particular, Lee would have made sure to embarrass the white audience members about their near, current, not so far away, and personal connection to systems of white supremacy and privilege. Spike Lee does this often in his movies. I agree with his goal and vision in this regard because he is telling the truth about how individuals are connected to systems and institutions. But, and few people seem to get this fact, Spike Lee's movies about race are primarily for white people, as they are designed to provoke the White Gaze.

By contrast, Tarantino's exploration of interpersonal violence in Django is so matter of fact that it simply "is." There is no commentary necessary to legitimate or explain the gross violence by white slavers and others against black humanity and personhood. A world of white supremacy where whites as a group have full dominion in the eyes of the law and social convention over "the blacks," both free and slave, despite our many types of resistance, opposition, and struggle, was the standing decision rule for the racial state and herrenvolk America.

The mating of the business of death that is bounty hunting, with the American slaveocracy, is a masterful move by Quentin Tarantino. There, he highlights an essential truth that Lee would be unable to in the same way: life is cheap, while also being very expensive in slavery era America. Tarantino presents this cruel paradox by matter of fact, casual, and day-to-day acts of violence that are so common that people play on the swings while others are being whipped, branded, and tortured. The world of Django Unchained occupies that ethical space and set of artistic sensibilities. I do not know if Spike Lee is capable of that level of personal detachment.

27 comments:

CNu said...

life is cheap, while also being very expensive in slavery era America. Tarantino presents this cruel paradox by matter of fact, casual, and day-to-day acts of violence that are so common that people play on the swings while others are being whipped, branded, and tortured.

Feudalism ain't no joke.

Tarantino did yoeman's work depicting the essential pimpishness at the core of southern aristocracy.

Don (Big Daddy) Johnson set the stage and Leonardo DiCaprio knocked that whole sadistic pimp vibe out of the ballpark with Calvin Candie.

However, the character to end all characters was Samuel L. Jackson's Stephen. (or Flava Ruckus as my son whispered to me)

And the antidote to the madness of southern-style pimping gone wild was super competent shoot'em-up. Took me straight back to 70's at the drive-in.

Hands-down the best and most enjoyable movie I've seen in years. The audience reactions were part of the entertainment where we saw it - with folks not knowing quite how much they were "permitted" to hoot, hollar, and root on Django.

How did your audience process it CDV?

Marc McKenzie said...

Nice writeup. I will try to see DU over the next couple of days, but I also want to tip my hat to you for actually seeing the film and judging it after you had seen it.

Granted, you had legitimate concerns about the movie (as do many), but you saw it, and you've written a very good post. I do wonder, though...has Spike Lee seen the film? Just asking.

chaunceydevega said...

@Cnu. I wanted to see more Big Daddy. I love the subtle touches too such as the sign on the haberdasher's store that said somethink like "nice uniforms and fancy clothes for house niggers." The audience was nervous at first. Once we got in the groove and everyone was laughing together and being respectful at the right times things were good.

There was one moment were some members of the ghetto underclass with their talking at the movie tradition of ignorance were cutting up and some black folks told them to shut up and be quiet because this is serious. They were young and embarrassed so it worked.

@Marc. I am gonna see it a few more times. I have some concerns, nothing is ever perfect. But, this is a very good if not fine movie even with some things qt did to appease white sensibilities and give the "good white liberals" a narrative out. There are two subtle things with Candie's character and his phrenology discourse that would have killed it for me. Django should have also been confronted about having a gun--illegal for free blacks and slaves in most parts of the slaveocracy. He should have also had someone demand his freedom papers. Django could have beat the hell out them or killed them, reinforcing the power of the gun and masculinity.

Shady_Grady said...

Dang CV, I am working on a review now but this is also something I noticed:

"Spike Lee's Django would be overwhelmed by James Horner's omnipresent horns, trumpets, trombones, and drums of drama. Lee, like many others, Spielberg most notably, overuses musical cues to signal important points in plot and story development to the audience. "

I could NOT have said it better. Very well stated.

I liked the film though beforehand I shared some of Lee's concerns. It does seem like some joy has dissipated somewhat from Lee's films. He has issues with QT. I get that. But I think at the very least he should see the film before he comments. But whatever.

It is something of a shame, that if this movie does well and it seems so far like it will, that it took a white filmmaker to reintroduce righteous black heroism/avengers to the movies. It's akin to the way that some people "rediscovered" blues by listening to Stevie Ray Vaughn. Go figure.

Shady_Grady said...

Also, though there were some free blacks in the South, greedy and intrigued though he may have been I don't think there's any way in hell Candie would have allowed one at his dinner table, not too far from his sister.

Erinn Anova said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
CNu said...

I love the subtle touches too such as the sign on the haberdasher's store that said somethink like "nice uniforms and fancy clothes for house niggers."

Some'ya country cousins hereabouts still shop at that same haberdasher. That was my son's other peak witticism, calling Django's valet suit a Harold Pener special. We see lots of those on and around the high holidays. I was greatly relieved when he traded that drag in for the Sergio Leone gunslinger kit. But you know what, I came out of there with a better understanding of the culture of pimpishness which hasn't yet died out in this far western garrison state of the slave-ocracy.

Though I vaguely recall both reading and seeing Mandingo and Drum back in the day, I don't recall a depiction of the pimpishness of the plantation dandies. Somehow or another, that's a trope that doesn't or hasn't gotten sufficient coverage in the contemporary popular culture, that, and the feudal torture chamber sadism that was part and parcel of the enterprise.

There was one moment were some members of the ghetto underclass with their talking at the movie tradition of ignorance were cutting up and some black folks told them to shut up and be quiet because this is serious.

The audience at the Plaza was thoroughly integrated and what was funniest to me was the unease with which people brought themselves to laugh out loud at the shenanigans, and to hoot and hollar at the over-the-top violence. Reactions were a little bit syncopated, as it seemed that lots of folk were looking to their left, looking to their right, to make sure they had permission to give vent to their responses.

Shoot, I feel like "Girl 6" was "disrespectful to my ancestors". LOL

priceless.comedy.gold....,

Michael Paul Goldenberg said...

Much as I like Spike Lee and most of his movies, he should be ashamed for spouting off on ANY movie that he hasn't seen. Period. Once I learned he hadn't seen it and was offering a loud, negative opinion, he dropped a LOT of respect points in my book. It's a betrayal of artistic integrity to do that and he should (and does) know better.

I haven't seen the movie yet, so I have NO opinion one way or the other. When I see it, I'll have a better idea of whether Lee accidentally hit any marks by playing blind. But even if he NAILED it, he'd be wrong to have said a word in advance of viewing the movie.

Black Sage said...

I haven’t seen Django and it’s an extremely high probability that I will not go to see it. I’m just perplexed at how Blacks could be so easily duped into being an actor in such a movie or as a mere spectator at the cinema. On a personal level, Django cheapens the inhumanity of slavery; one of the most atrocious encroachment of one group has ever made against another group of people. The aesthetics of a movie should never be able to diminish the terror, brutality and horrors of slavery. I’m afraid that with this movie, Tarantino just may have an opportunity to do just that.

Just because Henry Louis Gates may have been consulted QT, is not at all an appeasement to me. I have a lot of respect for Mr. Gates, just not as much as I had once before. Moreover, Mr. Gates is the one who wrote an article for the New York Times in April of 2010 in which he essentially stated that Africans and Europeans are equally culpable for the Atlantic slave trade. I’m still befuddled as to why Mr. Gates would say such a thing because the entire African continent was without a slave shipping industry, unlike Europe. However, he was sounded trounced by Dr. Molefi Kete Asante in his rebuttal essay targeting Mr. Gates: The Slave Trade and Reparations: Closing the Gates

Additionally, I understand that quite a few Blacks in particular accept this movie as a wishful escape hatch or a buffer against the true realities of slavery. I surmise that most Blacks don’t truly want to somehow envision or feel the pain and psyche ache that our ancestors surely endured from sun up, until sun down; from childhood until the balance of their lives were spent.

In short, I’m unwilling and therefore I cannot accept, and I will not accept this movie as a trope in the uplifting of Black Americans or some imaginary revenge story. This time period (slavery) is irreducible to anything short of self governing.

Thrasher said...

I also rated Django with 100 stars best movie I have seen in years with superb acting on everyone 's part. I also enjoyed Big Daddy and Stephen both remarkable portraits..

Now to the issue at hand.. I have always postured that a man could never express what a woman feels in that same universal truth of natural order a white person could never express a Black man's voice from Miles to Ella.

Spike's film would take up places that QT just peeled away at the edges...

To be continued..

Greg Thrasher

Bruto Alto said...

@ Trasher

My question is would Spikes movie be as good? two words Girl Six.

chaunceydevega said...

@shady. i look forward to your thoughts on the movie. it ain't perfect, but what is? i do think that candie would have allowed django at the table because it would be, to him, the equivalent of a trained monkey that can do tricks. he couldn't resist showing him off.

@cnu. i am waiting till after the new year to post my longer thoughts on the movie. yes, there was lots of "pimpage" going on at yee old plantation. and to your points on fashion, we are now going to have Django to blame for the return of cowboy country negro dress this upcoming fashion season. i can't wait to see the black hipster set now trying to transform into django. will be laughable.

@bs. i hear your concerns about the good doctor gates. his politics are, how can we say, problematic at times. django is not a history movie. if you are into genre exercises and sharp film-making then it works. there are problems with the movie, quite a few, but i accept it for what it is.

despite what some would like to suggest the movie is not a catharsis--maybe for the post racial set and white liberals who want to feel good that they elected a black president and now there is a mainstream movie about black revenge.

and you are spot on, and I address this in my longer django, essay it is very interesting and revealing that we must have a fantasy film counter factual to explore black justice and revenge. what political work, re: the white gaze, does that narrative choice do? what does it allow for?

@Bruto. Spike's Django would be an exercise in meditative tedium. If his most recent work is any indication, Spike's version of this story would simply not work on any level.

CNu said...

Spike, like more than a few of your excessively identified commentators, is psychologically/artistically crippled by his racial preoccupations.

These clowns hollow-ring about a "holocaust" - clearly not paying attention to the basics of human history.

This excessive and debilitating over-identification is the primary deliverable of higher-ed's "ism" studies.

THE most effective and cost-effective political counterinsurgency of all times.

Black Sage said...

Some nincompoops don't even know what is considered a holocaust in the first instance. Simply because people don"t refer to slavery as a holocaust, surely doesn't mean that it wasn't a holocaust.

CNu said...

so-called native americans were subjected to what amounts to a damn near extinction level holocaust.

aztec civilization, holocaust.

some africans too weak to hold their own on the african continent, paid a temporary visit to the darwinian threshing floor and emerged on the other side stronger and with disproportionate dominance of the richest and most powerful culture in human history.

numerically thriving and multiplying, and the only thing holding them back at this moment in time, a bunch of limp-wristed, weak-assed, psychologically crippled "males" who would rather cry like little bitches in search of never ending pity and a handout.

long overdue time to cowboy the phuk up and stop all that whining!!!

Black Sage said...

Yeah, I hear you, over-prepper, tragic mulatto, post apocalyptic minded, barbarianism natured, pwog controlled, counter insurgency educated revolutionary wannabe! I'm happy to hear that you're speaking of yourself!

CNu said...

rotflmbao..., works all the time, every time.

Paula Evans said...

Is it really necessary to marginalize Spike Lee's filmmaking in order to express your admiration for Tarentino? Lee's body of work is not perfect but, he does possess a few masterpieces under his belt. Hey, if you were comfortable viewing Tarentino's violent, n-word laden, wet dream of a film, and not feel the need to take a shower afterward, then own that. To each his own. But...don't try to dismantle people's cultural sensibilities if they aren't down with all that.

CNu said...

Hey, if you were comfortable viewing Tarentino's violent, n-word laden, wet dream of a film, and not feel the need to take a shower afterward, then own that.

lol, honest masculine violence is cleansing when compared with the conniving, condescending, and yeasty sliminess expressed in the sentence above....,

makheru bradley said...

"some africans ... paid a temporary visit to the darwinian threshing floor and emerged on the other side stronger" "numerically thriving and multiplying"

Based on that criterion European Jews did not suffer a holocaust either, since they “emerged on the other side stronger,” and they are “thriving and multiplying.”

Anyone who believes that our Mangamizi was temporary is detached from historical reality.

CNu said...

Based on that criterion European Jews did not suffer a holocaust either, since they “emerged on the other side stronger,” and they are “thriving and multiplying.”

A genuine effort was made to exterminate european Jewry. No such effort was made to exterminate Africans enslaved across the Americas, as it would have been contrary to the economic interests and aims of the enslavers.

The Jews didn't lie down on the job after the attempt was made to snuff them, instead, they mustered up every possible resource available to them and made what they believed was a strategic thrust toward a posture of "never again".

The fact that they've maneuvered themselves into a demographic and geographic blind alley in the middle-east is largely attributable to the psychological scars left by the fright given them 70 years ago.

Jewry is arguably in far more precarious shape worldwide at this moment - than it was in 1920 in Russia and Germany.

As for the descendants of enslaved Africans in America, we are numerically, materially, and opportunistically in a culturally and geographically open field. The ONLY obstacle remaining to prevent the long-term evolutionarily stable strategic maneuvering of black folks in America, is the comparative emasculation of black American males over the past forty years, and, the loss of cultures of material and martial competence.

I'm increasingly convinced that there has never been a more needlessly whiny and self-victimizing male demographic in the annals of recorded history.

nomad said...


"I'm increasingly convinced that there has never been a more needlessly whiny and self-victimizing male demographic in the annals of recorded history."

We know. How could it be otherwise? Wez born this way. I wonder how you and Pastor Manning escaped the curse?

nomad said...

" No such effort was made to exterminate Africans enslaved across the Americas, as it would have been contrary to the economic interests and aims of the enslavers."

Utter nonsense. Working black people to death and dumping millions in ocean in the middle passage is just as deliberate an act of genocide as gas ovens. You don't seem to understand the magnitude of the crime, which, BTW, goes far beyond its physical dimension.

makheru bradley said...

"The fact that they've maneuvered themselves into a demographic and geographic blind alley in the middle-east is largely attributable to the psychological scars left by the fright given them 70 years ago."

So you recognize psychological scars on Jews, but not on Afrikans. Whew!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

CNu said...

rotflmbao...,

Only the stupid, the ruh-tarded, the neutered, or the psychologically deformed could read any such thing into what I've written.

Your comfortable fat-asses, are educated, warm, well-fed, and as heavily armed as you choose to be, yet you sit around and endlessly whine about shit like a bunch of little bitches instead of pulling your weight like the still medieval muhuggahs in Af/Pak who manufacture quality automatic weapons by hand and who believe and live a many sons and many guns standard that would've made the wild-wild west seem tame by comparison.

Zionist Jews have allowed their paranoia to back them into an untenable and unsustainable evolutionary blind alley.

Feminized and spineless jiggaboos have allowed their hypogonadal tendencies, (or as Calvin Candie put it, their phrenologically self-evident submissiveness) to back them into being less than men, not taking control of their offspring, and not charting their own future in America and beyond.

buncha slack-jawed, bitch-assed old __________________....,

nomad said...

so how did you and Passa Manning escape the curse? srsly. well as srs as that bullshit u just rote.

nomad said...

well, i can see my work here is done.
did i say bwaaahahahahahahahahaaa yet?