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.