I really didn't intend to write anything more about Django Unchained, at least not before viewing it again, but I found Jelani Cobb's essay at The New Yorker's Culture Desk blog annoying, and I know from experience that there's just no getting rid of an annoyance until I write about it. So here we go...
Cobb's essay is well-written and thoughtful, which is more than can be said for many attacks on Django Unchained, but it is fundamentally flawed for reasons Cobb pooh-poohs as aestheticizing or art-for-art-saking or just callous and insensitive: it's not a movie about actual history as Cobb defines it, but a movie (partly) about the representation of history in movies.
The film’s defenders are quick to point out that “Django” is not about history. But that’s almost like arguing that fiction is not reality—it isn’t, but the entire appeal of the former is its capacity to shed light on how we understand the latter.This statement is infuriating in its reductionism and simple-mindedness. First, no, the entire appeal of fiction is not its "capacity to shed light on how we understand [reality]". Fiction has a multitude of appeals — the beauty of form, the pleasures of imagination, the basic entertainment that comes from escaping into a non-reality, the joys of complex thought inspired by stories, etc. There are, I suppose, metaphysical questions of whether we can ever think about anything that is not in some sense reality, but such questions make a concept like "unreality" pretty much meaningless, and I don't think that was Cobb's intention.
Cobb's obtuseness reminds me of a more hilarious response by a historian to a movie that wreaked havoc on historical accuracy. Alex Cox's underappreciated 1987 film Walker takes certain historical facts related to the career of the famed 19th century imperialist mercenary William Walker and turns them into a Tarantino-esque mix of comedy, melodrama, and gore, though for a more explicitly political purpose than Tarantino would ever exhibit. Walker is one of the great movies of the 1980s, superior in many ways to Django Unchained, but Robert E. May's review of the film in the Journal of American History in 1990 is unintentionally hilarious in its inability to comprehend that the movie's anachronisms and reveries are central to its substance and purpose, an inability that leads to such ridiculous statements as: "The film invents a black sidekick for Walker and portrays incidents of bestiality and cannibalism that, so far as this reviewer knows, have no documentary basis." If you've seen the film, and know the surrealistic, grand guignol scene that this refers to (a scene that will soon be followed by the landing of an American helicopter — presumably also without documentary basis from 1857), that sentence is a howler.
Walker is fundamentally different from Django Unchained in that while it is a movie that exploits and subverts genre forms and expectations, it's not a movie about representational history in the way that Django Unchained is. (Or, in other words, Walker is very much an Alex Cox movie to the same extent that Django Unchained is very much a Quentin Tarantino movie.)
Cobb enters amusing territory when he admits, "It seems almost pedantic to point out that slavery was nothing like this." Almost pedantic? No need for the qualifier. It is pedantic. More than that, it grossly misses the point, and is similar to saying of Mel Brooks's To Be or Not to Be, "It seems almost pedantic to point out that Nazism was nothing like this."
For better or worse, Django Unchained is not about actual, lived history. Historical fiction, like science fiction, is always at its core about the present, but it fetishizes the accoutrements of the past to create verisimilitude, to paste a veneer of pastness over itself. Thus, the central difference between Django Unchained and the film it keeps getting compared to (including by Cobb), Lincoln. Tony Kushner, Steven Spielberg, and everyone else involved in Lincoln worked obsessively to create the veneer of pastness. They even recorded the sound of Lincoln's actual watch to use in the film. Such historical fiction always fights against its fictionality. It's a genre of repression and self-loathing.
Tarantino makes something other than historical fiction. Call it "historical fiction". Or "historical" fiction. Or historical FICTION! It parades costumes and props that incite our perception of pastness (but may not themselves be particularly accurate to the historical record), it romps around through sets that function as signs for history (much like certain amusements at Disney World), it uses myths as myths rather than trying to mute them, and it revels in the artifice of its genre rather than resenting it or seeking to repress it. I think that's more honest than pretending a movie can recreate the past.
Since Tarantino's frame of reference for just about everything is cinema, Django Unchained is not about slavery or racism, but about slavery and racism in movies. This is a real history, not an alternate history, but it's a real history of representations through the past 100 years. Even when making a positive statement about the film, Cobb misses this point, such as when he says, "There are moments where this convex history works brilliantly, like when Tarantino depicts the K.K.K. a decade prior to its actual formation in order to thoroughly ridicule its members’ (literally) veiled racism." That the Klan was created after the Civil War and not before it is irrelevant, because this is not a scene about the Klan of history. (But, to get pedantic myself, Tarantino clearly shows this group to be a proto-KKK, not the actual, organized group. Also, they wear hoods, and so are, indeed, literally veiled, but these men never attempted to hide their racism. It is a norm for them, and to hide it would be abnormal.) This is a scene at least as much about the movie Birth of a Nation as anything else. It's also about John Ford:
Earlier this month, Django producer Stacey Sher alluded to Tarantino's animosity toward Ford at the film's PGA screening. "He’s not a John Ford fan," she said. "Do you know why? John Ford was a Klansman in Birth of a Nation, so Quentin can’t really get past that — and I can’t blame him."In Searching for John Ford, James McBride writes:
Ford was hired to ride as a Ku Klux Klansman, one of a long line of hooded men on horseback: "I was the one with the glasses. I was riding with one hand holding the hood up so I could see because the damn thing kept slipping over my glasses." (A photograph exists of Klansmen riding across a river in the film, with one doing exactly what Ford remembered doing.)Thus, the scene serves a plethora of purposes: it advances the narrative (though it's hardly essential to the plot, it gives conclusion to one episode and set of characters), it's comedic, it reminds us of the KKK, it reminds us of Birth of a Nation (the first movie shown in the White House), and it riffs on an anecdote about the early life of one of the greatest American myth-makers. It punctures at least some of the power of representations of lynch mobs and purveyors of racist violence — instead of being terrified by this fierce mob, we laugh at these pathetic fools and celebrate their demise.
In interviews (e.g. his somewhat contentious recent interview with Terry Gross), Tarantino can be frustratingly shallow about his use of violence and its purpose — he has become, after twenty-plus years of questions about gratuitous violence in his films, reflexively and unreflectively dismissive of the idea that violent movie images do anything in the world. Yet he clearly believes, even if he won't say so, that those images do real work. He wouldn't have made any movies if he thought that movie imagery has no power to affect people. Nor does he believe that he just makes movies for some let's-pretend fun, to romp around in imaginary worlds and imaginary situations. Of course, that's one of the appeals of fiction, and a central part of the joy of acting or writing or any other creative endeavor, but somebody who thinks the work of imagining and the act of creating stories and sounds and images has no effect beyond entertainment doesn't make movies like Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained — they make movies like Transformers.
Note that there is a difference in the violence against the slaves and the violence against the slave-masters. The violence against the slaves is filmed in a realistic style, and its goal is to convey the pain and brutality of that violence. The violence against the slavers is grandiose, unrealistic, grotesque, and with an entirely opposite goal: entertainment. It makes us laugh and clap and cheer. To create such a difference, the creator must believe there is a moral distinction between the two modes of representing the violence.
Movies affect audiences, and so movie violence affects audiences. The interesting question is not whether it does; that's not even a question. The interesting question is how does it affect audiences. The only general answer we're ever likely to consider even vaguely definitive is: It affects them in lots of different ways depending on who they are, the social and cinematic context, the type of imagery, the cultural situation, etc. Maybe some people laugh at the violence against the slaves in Django Unchained. Most would do so, I expect, from discomfort. A few might do so from sadism. Many people will laugh and applaud the violence against the slave-owners in Django Unchained. Most will do so because that violence conforms to conventions of comedy, entertainment, and the (disreputable) joys inherent in revenge narratives. A few might do so from sadism. To reduce the complex of possible responses to simple good/bad dichotomies invalidates any argument about representations of violence.
Jelani Cobb at least understands this, writing:
The theme of revenge permeates Tarantino’s work. If the violence in his films seems gratuitous, it’s also deployed as a kind of spiritual redemption. And if this dynamic is applicable anywhere in American history, it’s on a slave plantation. Frederick Douglass, in his slave narrative, traced his freedom not to the moment when he escaped to the north but the moment in which he first struck an overseer who attempted to whip him. Quentin Tarantino is the only filmmaker who could pack theatres with multiracial audiences eager to see a black hero murder a dizzying array of white slaveholders and overseers. (And, in all fairness, it’s not likely that a black director would’ve gotten a budget to even attempt such a thing.)This is insightful, but not as insightful as Steven Barnes's take on the function of the film's revenge plot. (The theme of revenge permeates most action movies, most westerns, most crime films, etc.) Part of Cobb's rhetorical performance in this essay is to construct distance for himself from the unsavory, low-class, perhaps even autonomic emotions associated with the revenege plot, and so his sentence implies it is the other people in the audience of that Harlem theatre who are cheering, not Cobb himself. He's able to stay outside them, to preserve his academic distance, his taste. Because he is separate from this audience, because his own tastes are, he suggests, more cultivated and discerning than those of someone who would cheer at such stuff, he knows what they do not: That their indulgence in base emotion blinds them to "aspects of the film that were at least as troubling as the other parts were affirming".
In “Django,” the director creates an audacious black hero who shoots white slavers with impunity and lives to tell about it. In the Harlem theatre where I saw the film, the largely black audience cheered each time an overseer met his end. ... The trade-off for an audience indulging in that emotionally powerful and rarely depicted brand of black heroism is overlooking aspects of the film that were at least as troubling as the other parts were affirming.
This is a zero sum assumption that has no basis in evidence and is patronizing to everybody else who was in the theatre with him. For the sake of argument, let's grant Cobb's assertion that "Primary among these concerns is the frequency of with which Tarantino deploys the n-word," and that "Here ... black people—with the exception of the protagonist and his love interest—are ciphers passively awaiting freedom." I find the latter more convincing than the former (again, audiences are complex: some of us do not go numb to that word's repetition through the movie; other people arrived plenty numb to it already), but it would be foolish to say that Django Unchained is unproblematic in various ways. For instance, as I said in my previous notes on the movie, I think it's unnecessarily male in its focus.
So let's grant Cobb's complaints, add in my own about the male focus, and ask: Is it true that a viewer can either revel in the base pleasures of a revenge flick about a slave successfully wiping out slavers or a viewer can recognize "troubling" aspects of the film, but not both?
Or, to put it another way: Is this a movie that you can either love or loathe, but not anything in between?
Obviously, I don't think so. It's a troubling movie, absolutely. Trouble-making is not an inherently worthless or destructive activity, but neither is it usually a nuanced or especially multi-layered activity. Additionally, because one of Tarrantino's clear goals is to trouble past representations, to do so he must participate in the replication of at least some of those representations for his troubling to be legible to the audience. There's no way to make a clean escape from such work (cf. Mandingo). Swim in a swamp and you'll end up smelling like it, even if you spend the whole time screaming about how smelly this damn swamp is.
It may be base and immoral to indulge in revenge fantasies. It may be detrimental to society for so many of our narratives to derive their pleasures from such fantasies. To deny the attraction of revenge fantasies, though, is disingenuous. Repressive, even. Better, it seems to me, to get them out there. Better the shallow, unabashed, frequently-comedic indulgences of a Tarantino than the serious, reality-obsessed revenge fantasies of so much popular culture (24, anyone?).
"Is this how Americans actually perceive slavery?" Cobb asks. Yes. No. Maybe. Who are these Americans of whom you speak, sir? The great unwashed? The chattering classes? The soccer moms? Every politician's fellow Americans? The people in that Harlem theatre with you?
Tarantino does not generalize: his obsessions are specific genres, films, images. Django Unchained is not about how Americans perceive slavery, but rather how various films (mostly American) create and distribute a perception of slavery — indeed, how they profit from an emotional economy predicated on certain representations. It is not a systematic nor a scholarly deconstruction. It swims in the swamp.
The emphasis in Cobb's question ought to be not on actually, but perceive. The machineries of our perceptions are Tarantino's topics and tools. He revs them past the red line and lets them explode, then revels in the explosion.