Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Watching Django Unchained on Martin Luther King Jr. Day With a Bunch of High White Hipsters is not a Good Experience

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?


AbdullahAbdul'Aziz said...

You're probably right to worry. Look at the Boondocks for example. It pokes fun at certain foolishness in the black community and I got that and thought the show was great, we can't take ourselves too seriously, but a lot of white people I know who watched it and thought it was funny did so mostly because they got a kick out of the racism safety zone the show seemed (in their eyes at least) to create.

I sort of agree with Spike Lee on this one, in that I don't think something as serious and misunderstood as American slavery should be a source of entertainment. People tend to just take entertainment at its most shallow level and only a few dig deep into the subtle.

It's similar to white kids wearing Fear of a Black Planet shirts or suburban white girls wearing Malcolm X shirts (Wisconsin is a strange place). To them, our history is barely understood and perhaps trivial. Our history, culture, and symbols can be used for fun without thought of their meaning and significance. In part this is our fault for not doing much to preserve them, but as a minority group our history is, almost by definition, outside of the norm and outside the concerns of the dominant group.

I liked Django, but I don't think most white folks are going to understand it or take it seriously like they should.

chauncey devega said...

Django isn't "history" as we know. It is fantasy grounded in a greatly misunderstood long chapter in American history. My concern after this experience is that Django a fantasy exists in this world for the viewers. It became a way of working out anxieties but also reinforcing/legitimating colorblind racism and other racial ideologies.

chixie1023 said...

I think your experience at this last showing is one of many reasons some people, including myself, do not support this film.

I personally believe his use of the n-word is obnoxious and problematic. He believes in this word so strongly that I don't think he can effectively make a film about African Americans without using it towards its characters. Put him on a psychiatrist's couch for a few minutes and I'm sure some hatred for Black folks will be revealed. I do think most of his fans probably have the same sensibilities.

chauncey devega said...

Given the film the language was a choice and one that I agree with. But, Tarantino is a negrophile with a very "interesting" upbringing. Check out his NPR interview where he talks about his childhood.

Invisible Man said...

The prison industrial complex is obnoxious and problematic, the N word is just a word with different connotations depending on who speaks it. Black folks have transformed it into word art, which speaks to the ingenuity of the Black race. Let it go people it means as much as you make it mean, but in term of the contimum of the Black condition it means nothing, let that bone and get refocused on something else, like our need for reparations.

chixie1023 said...

I've read several of his interviews and I'll check out your suggestion too, but we're just on different frequencies regarding Tarantino.

chixie1023 said...

Invisible Man, stay on topic please. I don't tell you how to feel about the word, so please don't tell me how I should feel about it. What's poetic to your ears may sound like fingernails screeching down a chalkboard to others. My personal experience with the word and Tarantino's usage has informed MY opinion. Deal with that.

Now good luck on those reparations.

quiet-reader said...

This is an interesting one. FWIW I personally found the sheer variety of racial slurs on display ("pony", "jimmy" etc) to be almost more disturbing. Whites seem to know that we are not to say The Enword, but some of that other 19th century and/or invented racial jargon carries no such taboo. Might Tarantino's screenplay enhance racist vocab?

Also just as a view into pure id awakened by the film: the man I went to the movie with, who is black, has no Af-Am heritage and has never lived in America, decided to try out a Stephen impression on me. it was quite bizarre because it was clear he didn't know which aspects of the character were the stereotypical or disturbing ones, so I couldn't even tell what he was doing. It was like watching a mixture of charades and the game of telephone. I had no idea what he was going for and he had no idea why I found it unrecognizable.

The weird thing was that after he told me he had been trying to imitate the Sam Jackson character, I found myself tamping down the urge to "show him how it's done" while at the same time realizing that performing a racist stereotype "the right way" in order to correct him on the ins and outs of white supremacists' views of black people would've been inappropriate on so many levels... I can't quite unpack it but it was a fucked up impulse, surprisingly hard to resist, and not something that I would've found defensible as transgressive fun afterwards.

Thrasher said...

Yawn again ....

jimmy said...

Thing about this movie is... I used to really like the word "nigger" because of the way it sounded. Simply, pronunciation-wise. I used to say it a lot too. But after watching this movie (my first movie about slavery), I felt like I understood a bit more why some black folks get upset at the word. Right now I can completely understand the mindset of wanting to avoid speaking this word.