“The Negro needs the white man to free him from his fears, the white man needs the Negro to free him from his guilt.” Martin Luther King Jr.
I’m usually more of a Malcolm X guy…
An angry black man goes on a morally vindictive spree against the perpetrator of his historical oppression. Unfortunately that’s not the backdrop to Django Unchained, but a scenario that plays out every time a movie about slavery doesn’t try to stoke white guilt. Congratulations Spike, you revealed your chains.
Quentin Tarantino demonstrated yet again his profound understanding of the subtlety, complexity and incoherence of American violence, through characters that embody the duality of their condition, and their stakes in their own liberation. That narrative is recurrent from True Romance to the aptly named Django Unchained.
Remember Inglorious Basterds? Israelis went wild for it according to Haaretz. Rabbis, who loved the movie, praised it for it’s take on history, but questioned the moral and religious justification of revenge in relation to Jewish values. None tried to label it as anti-Semitic, or disrespectful to their ancestors. Rather, there was elation at vicariously getting a sense of closure against Hitler. Cynics will say, what do you expect from Zionist colonizers, but they’d miss the point: Schindler’s List made me weep, Inglorious Basterds made me cheer.
By drawing the slave narrative outside of slavery, and turning the victim into a victor, he exposes the moral contradictions that are the mark of a truly liberated mind, free from its chains and free from his own victimization.
This freak of history, influencing yet withdrawn from his historical narrative, allows the viewer to take a critical look at the other African American characters in the movie, and rather than judge them through the prism of American victimization, look at them as characters responsible for their own choices. Does Stevens need to suck up to Candie? Probably not, at least not that bad. Does Bersheeba care that other slaves are getting whipped when she sasses Massa: “I knew you didn’t mean me?” Does Django have to let Dartagnan get torn to shreds? No, but he is no longer a slave not just physically, but mentally, thinking with a hive mind, he is a man who makes his own choices, regardless of who or what the person standing in front of him is. At that moment Django is truly unchained. Ironically that what liberates Django, seals King Schultz’s fate.
Criticism ranges from undue violence to gratuitous use of the word Nigger. Gratuitous violence in satire is Tarantino’s stamp of excellence, revealing the ugly underbelly of racial political incorrectness is also his hallmark, unless Spike Lee assumes that Edward Norton’s tirade at the end of the 25th Hour is anything but that, or that his portrayal of every race he so choses in any condition he so choses, as his right and his right alone. With African-American rappers and directors using Nigger as a legitimate rhyme and punctuation, you gotta wonder what would shock them about Antebellum slave owners calling their slaves by the name they coined for them. History doesn’t rhyme.
On the flipside Jamie Foxx joked about killing all the white people on the plantation on national television. Leonardo di Caprio did not joke about using the N word to his heart’s content. He should have, it would have been funny. But he can’t, and that’s the point.
The racial debate rages over the fact that Tarantino is white and should know better, or feel adequate shame and deference when portraying black people. Spike Lee wishes he had unchained Django but he can’t see past his own, Samuel L. Jackson has. Unless the “Negro” frees the White man from his guilt (of which Tarantino feels NONE), then he hasn’t freed himself, and he will always be afraid.