On Monday, I watched the Inauguration. I then decided to celebrate by watching Django Unchained, Gangster Squad, and Haunted House. Please do not ask me for the logic of how the latter fit into my viewing choices. I am practical. As the movie Jackie Brown taught us, sometimes you see a movie that starts soon and looks good...or not.
I have commented quite a bit about Tarantino's Django Unchained. It is far from being a perfect film. Nevertheless, Django is one of the most important movies about post civil rights America in recent memory. There still remains much to be said about it. On repeated viewings the movie only improves for me, and the beauty of its little moments and touches becomes even more apparent.
For example, the names of the characters hold a great deal of meaning: one of the caricaturized "poor white trash" on Calvin Candie's plantation is named "Stonecipher" which I take to mean "dumb as a rock." Dr. Schultz has the same last name as Paula Schultz in Kill Bill Volume 2. Given Tarantino's film universe, one would have to assume that the characters are somehow related to one another.
The overseer about to whip a slave on Big Daddy's plantation is reciting verses from the Bible while he, apparently not a master of subtlety, has pages from the Bible pinned to his shirt. Sam Jackson's performance as Stephen is even more potent on a second, third, or fourth viewing. Leo DiCaprio is revealed to be a pathetic villain; Sam Jackson is the true evil, one whose conflict with Jamie Foxx is foreshadowed when the latter tells us how a "black slaver" is lower than the "head house nigger."
Moreover, Sam Jackson's character is a tragic figure who chose to get in bed with White Power in order to navigate a hellish and unfair world. Stephen made a series of Faustian bargains with the Racial State and is bound to them without apology or regret. His father, whose skull was hammered by Candy at the dinner table, made the same bargains too.
Ultimately, Django is not a slave liberator or freedom fighter. He only cares about freeing his wife. Django is also a superhero which is why all of the other black characters are depicted as two dimensional figures who are either 1) complicit with the system or 2) broken by it, and thus rendered silent.
I was a bit tin-eared towards some folks who were a bit more critical of Django Unchained than I was upon its debut a few weeks ago. I apologize for that move.
Sometimes you study a thing too long and you become numb to how certain concepts play out in the real world.
In Cultural Studies, we often talk about the relationship between the audience, the creator of a given text (e.g. films, books, movies, literature, etc.) and/or those who sell or "circulate" it (the corporations, film companies, radio and TV stations) and the object of study itself.
There, we are trying to get at how a public's experiences with a given type of popular culture are situated in society and reflect relationships of power, while also signalling to how audiences' experiences, and the circumstances of how a given cultural text was created, should be taken into account for purposes of analysis and critical inquiry.
Movies teach us how to watch them. Audiences must "buy into" a film for its narrative to "work."
When I first saw Django Unchained, I was fortunate to be with an enthusiastic yet respectful audience. With a few exceptions, all of the people in that screening understood the sensitive nature of the material being presented by Tarantino. They balanced humor with pathos and nervous insecurity at the appropriateness of laughing at a movie about black slavery.
The audience quickly picked up on those cues, and thus became complicit with the narrative and ideology that Tarantino was presenting.
Last night, I saw the film while sitting behind a group of four self-consciously aware and intentionally ironic white hipsters...with their obligatory Asian friend in tow for purposes of a racial quota and politically correct inclusivity.
If this group laughed at everything without shame I would give them a pass. It is the fact that they were quiet during certain scenes such as the slave auction in Mississippi, the feeding of a slave to dogs, or Broomhilda's whipping and torture--which signaled some awareness and choice on their part--and then proceeded to laugh mightily (and immediately in a forced way) at every mention of the word "nigger" which gave me pause.
It was also clear that said group had seen the movie several times as they recited the lines verbatim. Tarantino is imminently quotable. I get that fact. I enjoy his work because of his gift for dialogue.
However, seeing a bunch of white hipsters, with their Asian compadre in tow as racial cover, using a movie about black slavery as the fodder for a joke, is deeply and profoundly unsettling to me as both a Black Pragmatist, and as someone with an appreciation for American history.
Django Unchained is not Snakes on a Plane (and yes, I did see the latter, intoxicated, drinking from a flask while yelling Cobra la la la la at the screen).
In total, I am deeply worried that Django Unchained will, for a whole generation of youth, become the equivalent of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
In the most extreme versions of populism, audiences repurpose popular culture in ways that go against the attentions of the creators, and which subvert the political and social meaning of the text as originally offered.
As such, I pray and hope that there will not be Django Unchained parties at frat houses, hipster bars, lounges, and other such spaces come this Halloween. I know that I will be disappointed. I am all for the carnivalesque and the transgressive. While it is a dark comedy, to my eyes Django Unchained does not lend itself to such appropriations.
Am I being too sensitive? Will Django Unchained just become another excuse for white hipsters and others to say nigger with impunity, joy, and a cultivated sense of ahistoricism that removes any sense of responsibility or consequences for their speech? Is Django that different from much of commercial hip hop in that regard?