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Thursday, January 10, 2013

The Original Sins (and Pleasures) of the Movie About the Original Sins of America: Talking About Django Unchained

Posted by on Thu, Jan 10, 2013 at 12:47 PM

I haven't seen Django Unchained yet, and as soon as I can, I'm going to take the advice of Anthony Lane that I should make a double bill of it and Lincoln. (Which should come first? Tips?)

My hunch is that the best thing to come of the movies is probably not going to be the movies themselves, but rather the conversations about the movies. Paul already linked to David Brothers' daily posts about Django Unchained over at 4th Letter, and yesterday I came across a thought-provoking essay on The New Yorker by Jelani Cobb, a professor of American history who writes that this may be Tarantino's most clever film, but a hugely problematic one given the stereotype that real-life African Americans didn't fight back against slavery.

In my sixteen years of teaching African-American history, one sadly common theme has been the number of black students who shy away from courses dealing with slavery out of shame that slaves never fought back.

It seems almost pedantic to point out that slavery was nothing like this. The slaveholding class existed in a state of constant paranoia about slave rebellions, escapes, and a litany of more subtle attempts to undermine the institution. Nearly two hundred thousand black men, most of them former slaves, enlisted in the Union Army in order to accomplish en masse precisely what Django attempts to do alone: risk death in order to free those whom they loved. Tarantino’s attempt to craft a hero who stands apart from the other men—black and white—of his time is not a riff on history, it’s a riff on the mythology we’ve mistaken for history. Were the film aware of that distinction, “Django” would be far less troubling—but it would also be far less resonant. The alternate history is found not in the story of vengeful ex-slave but in the idea that he could be the only one.

Django’s true nemesis is not the slaveholder who subjects Hildy to cruel punishments but Stephen, the house slave devoutly allied with the slaveholder. The central conflict is not between an ex-slave and a slaver but between two archetypes—the militant and the sellout. ... We’ve come a long way racially, but not so far that laughing at that character shouldn’t be deeply disturbing. ...

On the hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, it’s worth recalling that slavery was made unsustainable largely through the efforts of those who were enslaved. The record 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. The primary sin of “Django Unchained” is not the desire to create an alternative history. It’s in the idea that an enslaved black man willing to kill in order to protect those he loves could constitute one.

 

Comments (31) RSS

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31
@7: What a surprise, a republican with no context for history, just a series of modern memes spouted uncritically.
Posted by dumb as ever, Bacon on January 11, 2013 at 12:36 PM · Report this
sirkowski 30
I'm really starting to hate the word "problematic".
Posted by sirkowski http://www.missdynamite.com on January 11, 2013 at 12:35 AM · Report this
29
@24, can't speak for that other guy. But usually when people go on superficially about how racist Lincoln was, they'll follow up with saying that he didn't really want to end slavery, then the Civil War wasn't really about slavery, then the South had a just cause, and all that revisionist bullshit.
Posted by GermanSausage on January 10, 2013 at 10:02 PM · Report this
28
@15 Exactly. Saying that Django Unchained is creating a alternate history is bizarre, it is just a fantastic story taking place in a historical context. Nothing new there. I think that Jelani Cobb is mistaking what some people are saying about the movie (that it presents and alternate history) with what the movie actually is. It could be that following up on Inglorious Bastards it is just lazy thinking to say that DU is another in the same category of Tarantino rewriting history.
Posted by thejerkstore on January 10, 2013 at 9:31 PM · Report this
27
@24, as far as the "sideshows" are you talking about what people have posted here, or about what the movie "Lincoln" says about him? Or all of the above?
Posted by g on January 10, 2013 at 7:05 PM · Report this
26
@11,

Great post. Wasn't aware that Lincoln evolved so much over time on his stance towards Black citizenry.

Posted by Patricia Kayden on January 10, 2013 at 5:24 PM · Report this
25
24: Except Coates is 100 percent wrong about slaves and knows perilously little about the passivity of slaves. He basically says violent revenge-driven revolts never happened, and that's categorically false.
Posted by Jizzlobber on January 10, 2013 at 4:54 PM · Report this
Fnarf 24
Ta-Nehisi Coates, as always, has it exactly right:
I'm not very interested in watching some black dude slaughter a bunch of white people, so much as I am interested in why that never actually happened, and what that says. I like art that begins in the disturbing truth of things and then proceeds to ask the questions which history can't.

Among those truths, for me, is the relative lack of appetite for revenge among slaves and freedmen. The great slaughter which white supremacists were always claiming to be around the corner, was never actually in the minds of slaves and freedman. [...]

I am certain that my earliest attractions to the USCT had everything to do with the presence of guns, and the possibility of vengeful badassery. I found very little of that. I did find a lot of courage, a lot of humor, and a lot of pain over family divided by auction blocks. [...]

It was the same with my studies of the Underground Railroad. If you read William Still's compendium of escapes, you find very few revanchists. Instead you see an incredible number of people who escaped, not because of the labor or torture of slavery, but because a relative was sold or because they, themselves, were about to be sold to family. Slave revenge has the luxury of making slavery primarily about white people.

http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment…

http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment…

It would be cool if people paid attention to history instead of bullshit revenge fantasies or sideshows like "what Lincoln really thought about black people", which is always brought up for the purposes of trying to discredit Lincoln from either the left or the right, same difference.
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Posted by Fnarf http://www.facebook.com/fnarf on January 10, 2013 at 4:35 PM · Report this
23
There were many violent slave revolts, I mean, freedom fighting by enslaved persons.
In 1810 in Louisiana about 500 were marching down the river to get to new orleans led by two enslaved persons who'd been princes in african warrior tribes. the French planters managed to get it together to attack them and put it down, then they put their headson stakes along the river for about 100 miles. the american troops were busy elsewhere at the time -- it was a near thing. there were also revolts in virginia and elsewhere. Basically, there was never any period of time in which enslaved persons were simply obedient, the fight included not just running away and sabotage but also rising up whenever they could, followed by terrible reprisals. The image of the southerner as a "colonel" as in clnl Sanders comes form the fact the entire white population was organized in a militia of night riders on patrol every night -- to keep them down by active violent force. Afican Americans and all of us (me, a white) should celebrate these rebellions as part of the long march to freedom and indominatable human spirit. Instead, our history books have whitewashed them off the pages of history and they are forgotten. When you add in the massive santo domingo revolution and the ten thousand refugees from there that fled to new orleans in what, 18020 or 1825, yes, the entire South knew slave revolution was always about to happen and had to be violently oppressed, and they violently oppressed it at all times, evilly, vilely, and cruelly. django unchained is a prettified representation of the level of actual violence that was involved which was massive, daily and unrelenting. also of note at any one time about 25% of the enslaved persons had just arrived from africa -- they were foreigners who knew well what freedom was.
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Posted by slave rebellions frequent on January 10, 2013 at 4:32 PM · Report this
Josh Bis 22
I may have been in a bad mood when I saw it, but Lincoln felt like an overstuffed star-studded made for cable television community theater production. I was glad that I saw it and appreciated where it was going in terms of showing the sloppy side of politics, but some scenes in it are just so embarrassingly corny and scenery chewing. I agree with Christopher, if your double feature turns out to only include one three hour movie, Django Unchained is the way to go. It's more fun and much smarter.
Posted by Josh Bis http://www.thestranger.com/seattle/Author.html?oid=3815563 on January 10, 2013 at 3:58 PM · Report this
21
They're both morality plays, one (as riz notes) clearly out for fun, the other cloaked in solemnity.
Posted by gloomy gus on January 10, 2013 at 3:51 PM · Report this
20
Oh one other thing - @7, in the Lincoln-Douglas debates, Douglas went full white supremacist and Lincoln threw black people under the bus in disgusting ways in order to reassure his audiences "Hey, I'm as racist as that guy, don't worry!" It's kind of funny how those debates are considered such a high point in our national discourse, because seriously. So racist.
Posted by planned barrenhood on January 10, 2013 at 2:53 PM · Report this
19
Lincoln was an overall good film, but with a lot of flaws. I really don't think it's Oscar worthy, with the exception of Daniel Day Lewis's performance. Maybe Tommy Lee Jones for supporting, it's the best work he's done since No Country for Old Men.

And it's the best work Spielberg's done in years, though that's not saying much. He's barely adequate. A few nice flourishes, but that's it. The whole ending was completely unnecessary, and nearly ruined it.

It falls into the same stupid trap that a lot of historical films fall into, namely famous historical figures talking about how important they will be in history, and wonder what people will think about them in some sort of 'magical moving-picture theatre' of the future. There's one scene where Mary Todd says to her husband "they'll remember me for being crazy and ruining your happiness." She might as well have turned to the camera and winked.

A few other lesser problems. Soldiers are way too fat. I thought Traveler was going to buckle under the guy playing Lee. These were people literally dying of starvation, and it looks like like they just hired some obese modern enthusiasts who had been enjoying one of their battlefield recreations.

Haven't seen Django. Looking forward to it. I'm amused Spike Lee is so butthurt over it. "Slavery was our holocaust." I wonder if he's familiar with a film called Inglourious Basterds.
Posted by GermanSausage on January 10, 2013 at 2:52 PM · Report this
scary tyler moore 18
i vote for Lincoln. and see it the way i did: with african-americans.
Posted by scary tyler moore http://pushymcshove.blogspot.com/ on January 10, 2013 at 2:48 PM · Report this
17
@13: Your geeking benefited strangers like me, so I'm glad you did! Yeah, that struck me as odd too. It's worth watching, but felt overly simplified (yes, this subject has to be simplified for a movie, but not necessarily with the nuance stripped out quite like this). I ended up seeing both the same weekend - not in a premeditated way based on subject, but it just happened that way. Made for some interesting discussions! I'd love to hear your take on them both...hopefully you'll post in here somewhere when you see them.
Posted by g on January 10, 2013 at 2:34 PM · Report this
16
@13, thank you. I've gotten kind of into this whole sesquicentennial thing lately??? I started reading the NYT's Disunion blog and realized that the Civil War is actually way more interesting than all the battle names and maneuvers I learned in school. There was so much going on there, societally, culturally. I decided I had to educate myself.

I haven't been able to see either movie yet, I live overseas. But I'm looking forward to both. I can tell you this, I am already irrationally mad that Frederick Douglass isn't in the Lincoln film.
Posted by planned barrenhood on January 10, 2013 at 2:24 PM · Report this
keshmeshi 15
The history of the thing aside, I think it's ridiculous that any movie that includes slavery as part of its narrative must absolutely be historically accurate in every way. When Hollywood makes a movie about one man fighting a larger power in a historical context, do you see people raging that that's not the way it actually happened? That, if you want to make a movie set during the period of the American Revolution, you must present it in its correct historical context of it being a movement involving thousands of people?

If Tarantino had set this spaghetti western in any number of other historical settings, no one would say squat about it. But, since it's about a Very Serious Issue, we must all rend our clothes about the dramatic license that he took. Cry me a fucking river.

Django Unchained is still one of the most uncompromising movies about slavery I've ever seen, depicting the way slaves were dehumanized and the depravity that infected every single white person involved with it.
Posted by keshmeshi on January 10, 2013 at 2:24 PM · Report this
14
@10, I wouldn't discount Cobb's examples of resistance, but in 1859 it would have been pretty impossible for a free black man, let alone a slave, to ride a horse or carry a gun in the South. Especially after the Haitian slave revolt, whites were paranoid as hell.

Also don't forget attempted revolts like Nat Turner's or Denmark Vesey's. I think that our impression of the passivity of slaves is absolutely false.
Posted by planned barrenhood on January 10, 2013 at 2:20 PM · Report this
13
@11: interesting post! What did you think of the film?
Posted by g on January 10, 2013 at 2:20 PM · Report this
12
Slaves, especially in the Deep South where their numbers were large, were controlled EXTREMELY tightly. They were constantly being watched, prohibited from any irregular movements whatsoever without permission. When they didn't fight back, it was because they could not, not because they didn't really, really want to. And when the war disrupted the South and breached those control systems, the slaves took full advantage.
Posted by I have always been... east coaster on January 10, 2013 at 2:17 PM · Report this
11
@7, you should look farther into what Lincoln thought about black people! Pre-war, he was a free-soiler who thought slavery was wrong but who did indeed advocate colonization abroad for American blacks. To him this seemed like an attractive solution, and stated that this was because he didn't think whites would ever be willing to get along with blacks or give blacks equality. He even met with representatives of the free black community during the war to push the idea of colonization, which they rejected as ridiculous. At the same time, he was trying to get the border states to go along with the idea of compensated emancipation, but that was rejected too.

By August 1862 he had a draft of the Emancipation Proclamation sitting in his desk drawer and seems to have been convinced that emancipation had become a military necessity - that in order to get the South back, he would have to wage total war on southern institutions including slavery, destroying the labor resources and immense property value that the slaves represented to the South. This was also intimately connected to the policy of raising black Union regiments, which Lincoln and others believed would be a total nightmare for Confederates. (It pretty much was)

Here is a letter he wrote which suggests his thinking post-Emancipation Proclamation: http://showcase.netins.net/web/creative/…

And of course, at the end of the war, just a few days before his assassination, he gave signs that he had changed his position even further. He publicly advocated suffrage for some ("the very educated" and soldiers) black men, which at the time was an extremely radical position: http://showcase.netins.net/web/creative/…

As you may know, that last speech incensed John Wilkes Booth enough to convince him Lincoln had to die. Wilkes' exact reaction: "That means n*gger citizenship. Now, by God, I'll put him through. That is the last speech he will ever make."

And it was.

I don't think that Lincoln should be declared a saint or some kind of anachronistic 19th century anti-racist. He was racist. But you do him an injustice by focusing on his colonization advocacy. There's a lot more there - and without his evolution, I don't think we would have had emancipation or the 13th Amendment.
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Posted by planned barrenhood on January 10, 2013 at 2:10 PM · Report this
10
All of her examples of slaves fighting back come during the war, when fighting back was possible due to the presence of the Union army. Django Unchained takes place in 1859. I think it would have been pretty hard to fight back at that time, when doing so meant torture and certain death. Trying to portray the occasional "accidental" barn burning as evidence of meaningful widespread resistance strikes me as an understandable, but probably inaccurate attempt at revisionism.
Posted by matt! on January 10, 2013 at 2:10 PM · Report this
9
"black students who shy away from courses dealing with slavery out of shame that slaves never fought back."

Doesn't ring true to me. Slaves fought back as much or more then Jews in Nazi Germany or Native Americans in this country yet. I don't know a lot of Native Americans but I know a lot of Jews and none of them have ever taken a course in the Holocaust. I doubt the main reason is shame over not having fought back. Maybe some people are uncomfortable with dealing with the pain of hearing what happened to your people in graphic detail. Maybe some just have other things on their mind and want to leave the pain of the past to the past.
Posted by james a on January 10, 2013 at 1:53 PM · Report this
8
"..shame that the slaves never fought back"?!
What a horrible bullshit thing to carry around.
Posted by tacomagirl on January 10, 2013 at 1:51 PM · Report this
Cascadian Bacon 7
You should also look in to what Lincoln though about black people. He was not fond of them and wanted to repatriate the slaves to Liberia.
Posted by Cascadian Bacon on January 10, 2013 at 1:29 PM · Report this
6
Interesting that this whole essay could apply to most of "Lincoln" too...one man standing alone freeing the slaves out of sheer willpower. There are some good essays about that movie too, and about its own myths (Lincoln was a man of his time and has plenty of racist comments on the record, and the movie makes almost no mention of blacks' role in slavery ending...they're just waiting patiently for Poppa Lincoln to free them).

I really wanted to like "Lincoln" (and did, to a degree) but found it problematic for those reasons and others, and hype aside, just wasn't that impressed with Daniel Day-Lewis' performance and the way that character was written...the way he'd pause for a year before diving into a story, the historically-accurate pitch-wise and yet put-on-sounding tone of his voice...in some ways, "Lincoln" the man was almost as broad/predictable a characterization as the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. As much as "Django" stumbles with certain aspects of history, "Lincoln" stumbles more if anything, and is presented as straight history, not a spaghetti-western fantasy.
Posted by g on January 10, 2013 at 1:26 PM · Report this
5
Slaves of all ages fought back in ways large and small. Recently I moved from Seattle to Prince George's County, Maryland, just outside DC. The local African-American history museum includes the story of a local 14 year old slave girl, Judith, who poisoned her master's three young children. She was hung for the killings, but she certainly fought back.
http://www.gazette.net/article/20120809/…
Posted by Smartypants on January 10, 2013 at 1:25 PM · Report this
4
@1 I agree with that order, if one wants to see both. Lincoln's fine but it's a little waxy and wan (and long—feels LONG), whereas every single moment of Django makes your heart pound (and even though it's longer, it FLIES by). If you only end up seeing one of them, see Django.
Posted by Christopher Frizzelle on January 10, 2013 at 1:23 PM · Report this
reverend dr dj riz 3
jen .. you're gonna end up going in with more spoilers than any other movie you're likely to see and i think that might hinder your 'enjoyment' of it.. but seriously.. tarantino is getting waaaaay too much credit for being a historical expert or a cogent filmaker for that matter.. he's just funnin. he's always and only just funnin.
Posted by reverend dr dj riz on January 10, 2013 at 1:23 PM · Report this
2
As I've been saying over and over again at various places, there were violent slave rebellions. Every hear about Nat Turner? Why the fuck does this garbage argument against Djano continue to be made? Someone doesn't know their history of slavery, all right.
Posted by Jizzlobber on January 10, 2013 at 1:18 PM · Report this
Bauhaus I 1
See Lincoln first. It may put you in the mood to see Django, but I doubt seriously that Django will put you in the mood for Lincoln.

Lincoln's a fine film, Jen. I'm pretty sure you're gonna dig it.
Posted by Bauhaus I on January 10, 2013 at 12:54 PM · Report this

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