by Steven Malik Shelton
Entertainment is often passed off as apolitical yet there is almost always embedded in the imagery or symbols, certain psycho-social messages that reveal a political point of view.
Politics is the process that determines who gets what, and how and when. Yet even before the process begins it must first be launched from a particular mind-set, for better or for worse.
In Hollywood feature films (and especially those about Black people during chattel slavery) these dynamics of power politics and psychological gamesmanship are heightened and take on an even stranger flavor.
The latest installment of movie fantasy that sets its sights on the African holocaust is Django Unchained. Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino, it is the quintessential White-Blaxploitation flick for it has taken the subject/theme of American slavery /genocide and manipulated it in such a way as to be both entertaining and mentally destructive.
Let’s be clear on one thing; movies do not mirror reality, what they do is reflect someone’s definition of reality for specific purposes which are perforated by a subjective and biased world view and/or agenda. In Django Unchained, Tarantino hides behind attempts at derisive humor leveled at racists and slavers to deliver his dosages of cinematic poison and to unleash his own ideas of human suffering purged by catastrophic revenge.
The plot of the movie revolves around the actions of a Black man, Django, (Jamie Foxx) who escapes from slavery with the help of a White German born bounty hunter and dentist named Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). They team up to find and dispense of a collection of racists and killers. Django is taught the art of gun fighting by theaccurate and deadly sophisticated Schultz, who partners with him because he can identify some of the outlaws and reprobates the dentist is seeking to find and cash in on. Django agrees because it offers a golden opportunity for him not only to kill Whites that have tormented him but to rescue and reunite with his wife, Broomhilda, performed with pantomimic stoicism by Kerry Washington. And even though plagued with the suggestion that a Black man must have a White mentor/savior to jumpstart his potential and to guide him, the movie could have been a noble one, but along the way Tarantino plays to the most base and vile elements of the human psyche, and he massages the viewer’s conscious and subconscious biases and racism to entice them to feast on a diet of racial mythology, mayhem and sadism.
It is a formulae used before and quite successfully by director Martin Scorsese in movies like Taxi Driver (where a black man is killed by a white store owner and his corpse beaten with a baseball bat), the Departed,(where Jack Nicholson’s character shouts racist expletives against Blacks even though there are very few Blacks portrayed in the film) and Raging Bull where Sugar Ray Robinson who is probably the greatest boxer of all time is misrepresented as a mere fancy, dandy in the ring.
Yet “Departed” and “Raging Bull” were at least based on the lives of real and complex human beings, whereas Django Unchained is purely a figment of Tarantino’s ignorance and appeal to bloodlust. It merely consists of a basic, almost simple plot laced with episodes of incendiary and obscene violence. In the “Django” movie, Tarantino tweaks this formula to new depths of racial aghast and paranoia.
In the film we are met with the spectacle of an enslaved Black man being ripped apart by dogs; of Black men forced to beat each other to death for the amusement of Whites; of the protagonist/ hero of the film being strung upside down and threatened with castration by a White man brandishing a large hunting knife; and our sensibilities are assaulted by Tarantino’s version of an Uncle Tom/ house Negro, played dangerously albeit pathetically by actor Samuel Jackson.
One of the most disturbing scenes, however , was the one where plantation owner Candie, invigorated with sickening relish by veteran actor Leonardo DiCaprio, lectures on the peculiar indentions on the inside of a black person skull that supposedly makes them subservient and docile, then threatens to bash open Broomhilda’s head with a hammer to prove it.
This methodology of splicing feature films and inebriating audiences with extreme mayhem and carnage (you actually see the flesh flying in huge chunks and hear the sound of blood squishing and bones breaking) has evolved in lockstep and in tune with the violent tapestry of the American landscape, where the violence of the theatre feeds and strengthens the violence on America’s streets and street violence mirrors what is experienced on screen; Then, sadly (and outrageously) we pretend that one has little influence or connection with the other.
Tarantino has the temerity to criticize the classic television drama “Roots” as unrealistic. Yet while “Roots” could move the viewer to tears, the characters in his film are cartoonish and one dimensional. After all, what do we really know about Django? And what is revealed about the souls of the dozens of nameless, featureless, enslaved Blacks that are rolled out in front of the camera like floats from a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade? And unlike in ‘Roots’ there is no sympathy, affection or camaraderie shown between the Black people that are enslaved and tormented. In fact Samuel Jackson’s rendition of the deadly, despicable, and loyal slave, Stephen, receives the bulk of the screen time of any Black except Django. And even Foxx’s Django is strangely wooden and immutable; and despite all his episodes of retaliatory violence we never get the opportunity to take a glimpse into the fiery window of his soul.
To be sure the film is replete with westernized cinematic styles of retributive justice. And the spectacle of an oppressed Black man finally able to retaliate against his tormentors can be intoxicating. Yet, when we peep beneath the movie’s strutting, violent façade we can perceive its shallowness and superficiality. Moreover, the violence happens so frequently and with such comedic overtones, that even it loses its power to shock and to stir the human spirit. Make no mistake about it, American chattel slavery was the worst and most prolonged holocaust in human history, and to see it treated with such irreverence and frivolity is insulting and offensive.
Furthermore, it is not necessary for a writer or director of any ethnicity to manufacture a slave/ freedom fighter hero. American history is replete with them. The list is long and glorious and largely untapped by the movie making aristocracy.
The fictional, Django pales next to the real life personalities and characters of Frederick Douglas, Gabriel Prosser, Nat Turner, David Walker and Denmark Vessey.And there is little comparison between the fictional and docile Broomhilda and the historical and heroic, Harriet Tubman.
Tarantino exploits the African holocaust of American slavery because he approached it not with sincere or earnest intent to portray a terrible, heart wrenching (yet in many ways triumphant) chapter in American history; but with the singular purpose and goal to make money by appealing to the most base and curious part of the human psyche which is, sadly, too often mesmerized by violence, anguish and bloodshed. And like a dope pusher that realizes that addicts needs stronger and more potent dosages of their drug of choice to get off, Tarantino gleefully and shamelessly works to provide it.