After enjoying much of Django Unchained (when I wasn't asking myself, should I be liking this?), I wondered how to enter the critical fray when I hit upon the nicely detached critical word "representation." Some critics have been understandably offended by the movie while others applaud Tarantino's willingness to engage with the difficult subject of slavery. Is Django Unchained "ethically serious" as A. O. Scott puts it, or does it exploit the sufferings of slaves for cheap sensationalistic entertainment? Tarantino appears to do both simultaneously. The director/writer takes an image such as a slave torn apart by dogs, or a band of horseback-riding men wearing masks and carrying torches, and then he finds ways to further complicate our responses by adding on layers of satire or cheesy spaghetti western film technique (abrupt zooms) or allusions to loaded movies such as Griffith's innovative but racist The Birth of a Nation (1915). Should one make jokes in sharp juxtaposition with the representation of the degradation of a slave? Does the subject demand a serious respectful treatment, especially given the way Americans still have not fully come to terms with slavery?
I don't know the answers to these questions, but I find it useful to compare Django Unchained with Pulp Fiction (1994), especially Samuel L. Jackson's roles in both films. The quintessential scene of Tarantino's career is still the one where his hitman character Jules Winnfield [Jackson]says these words that he claims come from Ezekial 25:17:
"The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the iniquities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is he, who in the name of charity and good will, shepherds the weak through the valley of darkness, for he is truly his brother's keeper and the finder of lost children. And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who would attempt to poison and destroy my brothers. And you will know my name is the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon thee."
Then Jules and Vincent (John Travolta) summarily execute several drug dealers in their apartment. This delightful equation between revenge and old testament judgment, what others might call the Law, characterizes much of Tarantino's work. It helps dramatically justify the slaughter of villains (as in Inglourious Basterds (2009)). It makes Jules look oddly ethical even though he later admits that "I just thought it was a cold-blooded thing to say to [someone] before I popped a cap in his ass," but Pulp Fiction often entertains these ethical conundrums where gangsters humorously meditate on questions of retribution. Both Pulp Fiction and Django Unchained concern an African American and a white guy teaming up in the classic Huckleberry Finn American dream of racial friendship. In both films, Tarantino has the (spoiler alert) white guy die, leaving the possibility for the African American's redemption and triumph at the end, especially since Jules considers walking away from his criminal world altogether. Pulp Fiction's tightly interwoven time-reversing structure also calls attention to Django Unchained's sloppier story configuration. My friend was bothered by the way the movie was unnecessarily elongated with two climaxes, not one, with an unlikely twist that makes the film far less plausible (with Tarantino appearing in a minor role as if to distract us from the structural flaw).
DiCaprio) plantation, an Uncle Tom figure who looks exactly like the Uncle Ben of Uncle Ben's rice, a man who oppresses other slaves by incorporating within himself all of the loathing of his master. Stephen appears in the movie by exclaiming "What's that nigger doing on a horse?" when Django (Jamie Foxx) rides up with Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) along with Calvin and his entourage. Tarantino manages to find subtle ways to complicate Stephen's character by hinting at Stephen's small rebellions against his master (he appears to forge his master's signature on a check, for instance), but Stephen is still a drastic change for Samuel L. Jackson, and I wonder how much he enjoyed playing this minstrel-like character (like Aunt Jemima), a man who must act the way whites wanted to perceive African Americans at the time.
So, I guess the larger question of the movie boils down to this: does Django's final revenge against all of the figures of oppression of Calvin Candie's plantation aesthetically justify scenes in which slaves are degraded beforehand? Are the semi-ironic, self-aware, and cheesy film techniques of the spaghetti western appropriate for this subject matter? Can Tarantino convey outrage over the injustices of slavery and joke about it too, often within the same scene? The film evokes the complicated representations of slavery in Herman Melville's "Benito Cereno" (1855), but whereas that story gives the reader time to examine the underlying assumptions of its characters, Tarantino's movie may be too busy entertaining the viewer to adequately question the moral quandaries that it raises.
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