Django Unchained: Jelani Cobb vs. Quentin Tarantino

I find myself yet again having to defend the new Tarantino film: Django Unchained!  This time against Jelani Cobb, contributor to The New YorkerCheck out what he had to say here.

The intelligent and articulate Dr. William Jelani Cobb.

The intelligent and articulate Dr. William Jelani Cobb.

 

Firstly, I must say that Cobb had a lot more insight to offer than Spike Lee did, but that is to be expected since Cobb actually watched the movie, where as Lee did not.  A historian, one might expect Cobb to take issue with the historical inaccuracies of the film, but Cobb’s historical background gives him insight into the film that most movie goers simply don’t have.  He first aligns the film with Inglorious Basterds, which is a perfect parallel.  I, in fact, did the same thing myself when responding the Spike Lee’s comments in my first post about the film.  What Cobb notes here is that while he found the liberties Tarantino took while re-writing WWII allowed him to present certain ideals of heroism, Russian movie goers took issue with the film because it failed to incorporate what Russia contributed to the war effort.   Cobb notes that in Russia the “annual May 9th celebrations of the German surrender dwarf those of the Fourth of July in” America.  I can understand that the Russians may be upset that they aren’t given credit by the other Allies for their contributions to the war effort, and Cobb has a point in suggest that the altered history presented in Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds failed because that “actual history had yet to be reconciled.”  To this I have a couple of points.  Firstly, that Inglorious Basterds took place in France, where Russia had no impact.  Secondly, the point of the film was to re-write history and allow the people Hitler had put under such persecution to define his end, rather than let Hitler define his demise on his own terms.  In this instance those people under Hitler’s persecution were the Jews.  Yes, Hitler caused the deaths of many people who deserved revenge: homosexuals, political dissidents, Russians, Poles, Gypsies, ect.  It would have been nice for Tarantino to allow each of these groups a piece of revenge, but in the end, he chose to write about Jewish heroes.  Outside of the film itself, Russia must understand that its contributions to the war efforts, though important, will never sit well with the Allies.  NEVER!  Russia started the war by signing a treaty with Germany saying they would stay out of the war, leaving the rest of Europe to fend for itself.  Russia was content to see the rest of Europe get demolished by Germany so long as it was left out of the war.  It was only after Germany attacked them that Russia fought back.  Russia’s involvement was strictly self-serving.  After the war, many of the countries that Russia helped to “liberate” were placed under a totalitarian regime by Russia, which kind of sours the “liberation” part of the story.  It is true that America could be said to have profited off the war, and that they also didn’t get involved until they were attacked, but America had been helping out the Allies financially throughout the war, and also provided them with many supplies.  Getting into the war was a battle in and of itself considering how American input after WWI was regarded by the Allies.  Public opinion made it difficult for America to simply jump in.  So yes, perhaps the actual history had yet to be reconciled, but that is not the job of the film maker.  That is the job of the historian, and all things considered, Inglorious Basterds was a very satisfying film experience.

Melanie Laurent, as Shosanna Dryfus in the film Inglorious Basterds, a beautiful Jewess who gets revenge for her family and sends Hitler to the death he deserved.

Melanie Laurent, as Shosanna Dryfus in the film Inglorious Basterds, a beautiful Jewess who gets revenge for her family and sends Hitler to the death he deserved.

Cobb then suggests looking at another film on slavery; Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln.  Cobbs observations on this film are brilliant.  The danger with this film is that it does present itself as historically accurate and gives much credit to Lincoln for the abolition of slavery.  Cobb is right to note that this was a battle that was shoved down Lincoln’s throat and it was a stand he was practically forced to take.  To present the narrative in such a way as Spielberg did detracts from the contribution of many people who were opposed to slavery.  The abolitionist groups which were mainly comprised of women who didn’t even yet have the vote but were fighting for the freedom of others (those are heroes) were not even mentioned in the film.  Lincoln is a an American hero, but as is often the case with the ‘grand narrative’, it fails to offer the public a view of ‘history from below’, which is often what actually propels history, while figure heads like Lincoln are a product and manifestation of the tireless work of unsung heroes.  Tarantino though does not present his film as actual history though, and makes it clear straight away that the film and actual history don’t correlate as the opening credits state that it is “1858”, which it notes is ‘two years before the America civil war”.  As most historians will be happy to point out, the American civil war started in 1861, three years after the date Tarantino puts on the screen.

Steven Spieldberg's Lincoln, though not as heavily criticised as Django Unchained, may be more problematic in terms of its presentation of America history.

Steven Spieldberg’s Lincoln, though not as heavily criticised as Django Unchained, may be more problematic in terms of its presentation of America history.

An obvious critique of the film is Tarantino’s use of the N-word.  I was put off and curious as to Tarantino’s use of the word in Pulp Fiction, when he himself uses the word in character several times.  Had that character been Black, I likely wouldn’t have noticed it, just as I took little notice of the use of the same word in Tarantino’s Jackie Brown, and likewise took no notice of the word in films such as: Boyz in The Hood, Menace II Society, Harlem Nights and Clockers.  In this film, the use of the word makes sense as it is used by racist slave holders.  It is an ugly word, and it is used by ugly people in this film.  People take little notice of the word when Black writers/directors use it, I’m not sure why it should be a big deal when an artist/writer/director of another ethnicity uses it in an artistic context.

Leonardo DiCaprio as Calvin Candie: racist slave owner in Django Unchained.

Leonardo DiCaprio as Calvin Candie: racist slave owner in Django Unchained.

 

The crux of what seems to be Cobb’s issue with the film though is how he thinks the film portrays Black slaves as passive and perhaps even willing participants in the institution of slavery and that Tarantino suggests that Django is unique in that he is willing to kill for freedom.  I understand this, but this is not what Tarantino is doing in the film.  Early in the film, after Dr. Shultz, portrayed by Christoph Waltz, gives several slave men the keys to their freedom, they are eager and ready to kill for their freedom.  Later in the film, when Django, played by Jamie Foxx, is entering the plantation where his wife, Broomhilda, played by Kerry Washington, is held captive, we see another slave who has run for his freedom, though he is caught.  Likewise, when we get to the slave owner’s house, we discover that Kerry Washington’s character has also tried to escape and that it is not the first time she has done so.  And there are several other instances in the film of slaves who rail the institution that has enslaved them.  Yes, it would have been rewarding to see a film made about Nat Turner instead, or at least hear a reference to him in this film, but I think that would have been entering the realm of reality, and I get the impression Tarantino was trying to avoid that.  Still, it would be nice to see Nat Turner on the big screen.

Samuel L. Jackson as Stephen, and Kerry Washington as Broomhilda von Shaft.

Samuel L. Jackson as Stephen, and Kerry Washington as Broomhilda von Shaft.

 

I take issue when Cobb suggest that Samuel L. Jackson’s character, Stephen, is “happily enslaved”.  Cobb is right to point out that point out that such personalities were not representative of the person’s innate characteristics, but rather the product of the institution of slavery.  I agree with the sentiment, and I understand that Cobb might have concerns that a general public might misread Stephen’s mentality and project that Stephen is happy tp be enslaved, but general audiences also cannot be trusted to read smart satire and understand its intent.  This is a fault, not with the filmmaker, but with the audience.  I think the filmmaker does a great job of illustrating how the institution forces people who otherwise have great integrity to concede in a way that is morally reprehensible to them.  For example, when Django has to pretend to be a Black slaver in order buy his wife’s freedom.  He objects to having to play this part because a Black slaver is seen as the lowest person in the eyes of a slave, but he takes on this role because it means freedom for his wife.  And when Django sees a captured, runaway slave, you can see that it pains him to watch the dogs ready to tear him limb from limb, and though he has the power to stop it, and though Dr. Shultz makes an attempt to stop it, Django knows that he must allow this scenario to play its course if he is to buy freedom for his wife.  It is a difficult scene, but we see in it how the institution has put this man of ideal character in a circumstance where he must allow such an atrocity to happen.  Django has put family first, as he is fairly expected to do, and much has Jewish leaders had to do in ghettos like Warsaw when they were placed in charge by the Germans to decide which Jews were to be shipped to the camps and which were to stay in the ghettos.  Most of these men naturally sought to rescue their families first.  One man though, could not bear the thought of having to make such a decision and killed himself instead.  We see this same type of agony in Django, and in Dr. Shultz as well who is confronted by a slaver who tries to force Dr. Shultz to shake his hand with the promise of Broomhilda’s freedom.  Tarantino does illustrate how the institution of slavery changes people and makes them do what they otherwise would never do.  It is up to the audience to make the connections.  Cobb notes: “Oppression, almost by definition, is a set of circumstances that bring out the worst in most people. A response to slavery—even a cowardly, dishonorable one like what we witness with Stephen—highlights the depravity of the institution.”  This is true.  A person who does not think about the implications of what is happening on the screen is likely to look at the Stephen, the ‘happily enslaved’  character as cartoonish and comical, but a person doing a responsible viewing will consider the context.

Jamie Foxx as Django Freeman.

Jamie Foxx as Django Freeman.

Cobb notes also that history is “replete with enslaved blacks—even so-called house slaves—who poisoned slaveholders, destroyed crops, “accidentally” burned down buildings, and ran away in such large numbers their lost labor crippled the Confederate economy” and that slave owners lived in constant paranoia of potential slave rebellions, which admittedly is not clear in Tarantino’s work.  I certainly would have loved to see such things in the film, but I don’t think the absence of these things implies illicitly that did not exist.  Perhaps Calvin Candie, a slaver played by Leonardo DiCaprio, suggests that this paranoia wasn’t present, as he seems to have no fear of a rebellion and even asks why the slaves don’t rebel, but earlier in the film a slaver played by Don Johnson is very much concerned about such things as he is extremely distraught about Django killing several overseers in front of other slaves, so much so that he later leads a failed ambush to kill Django, and answers for this with his life.

Thoms Jefferson: Celebrated slave owner.  I think it is about time the American government removes slave owners from its currency and replaces them with heroes such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Andrew Jackson: Celebrated slave owner. I think it is about time the American government removes slave owners from its currency and replaces them with heroes such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

 

What Tarantino does in this film is simple.  He picks up what has historically been perhaps the most romanticized era of American history: the western, and inject it with all the ugliness that radio-play authors, pulp novel authors, teleplay writers and screen writers have left out of the genre.  He puts slavery at the forefront of the narrative.  Slavery is grossly ignored in America, and in turn, it is often celebrated.  You can’t hear an American politician say anything progressive without first conceding that they want to maintain the ideals of America’s “forefathers”.  Well, guess what, America’s forefathers were misogynist, capitalist, racist bastards.  Many of them were slave owners, and when they said “All men are created equal”, they didn’t mean a word of it.  They meant that all property-owning white men shouldn’t have to pay taxes to the British.  Every quarter in America, every dollar bill in America has a picture of George Washington on it.  That is the face of a slave owner.  Why should any Black person in America have to carry a coin with this man’s face on it?  Thomas Jefferson raped his slaves.  This is a fact.  Yet the American government sees fit to put this man’s face on every nickel, and every two-dollar bill.  This man, a rapist, a slave owner, is still celebrated today.  John Adams, one of the few “forefathers” who actually opposed slavery, is not featured on a single piece of American currency.    Andrew Jackson is also featured on common currency, the twenty-dollar bill, and was a slave owner.  One thing I agree with Spike Lee about is that the Black population of America went through a Holocaust during slavery.  I don’t think Germany will ever see fit to put Hitler on currency, so I don’t see why America see fit to put Washington, and Jefferson and Jackson on currency when they were guilty of equally atrocious crimes.

Quentin Tarantino

Quentin Tarantino

 

Tarantino is a white director making a film about a black experience, so yes, there will be flaws, and people will take issue with how he presents certain things, but he makes obvious that the story he presents is fictional and does not represent history, and what he is ultimately doing is challenging how America seems to collectively white-wash a dark chapter in its history, and he brings out the ugliness to show how morally corrupt this nation was.  In order to move forward, America has to face its demons, and Tarantino is one of the people encouraging America to do just that.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the man whose face SHOULD be on the American quarter.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the man whose face SHOULD be on the American quarter.

Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

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