Day Forty: An E-Mail Conversation with my Dad about Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained

by Tom Noonan

He Wrote:

I found the following story on the NPR iPhone App: very interesting views in the movie you guys saw.  Dad

The Big Picture: The Takeaway From ‘Django Unchained’

NPR – January 14, 2013

Quentin Tarantino’s latest film is proving to be one of his most controversial. Django Unchained has drawn admiration and condemnation from critics, and has sparked debates about history, race and violence. NPR’s Celeste Headlee reads from a variey of opinion pieces about the film.

Sent from my iPhone

I wrote:

I’ve actually read a bunch of these Op-Ed’s, and I think this is the most important part of this “event” of a film: that we’re talking about all of this stuff we usually consciously avoid.  What I struggle with, and what I think is the most questionable of stances taken on the film, is this idea that a white man should not make a movie about slavery or about racism.  History isn’t something that is owned by certain groups and relegated for them to tell.  It is something we all share, Tarantino as much as Spike Lee.  Some feel it more than others, and I cannot say I relate to perspectives other than my own.  However, I don’t think this makes history belong to any one person in this country more than it belongs to another.  I am white.  My ancestors were of Irish descent and did not live in this country during the ugly period of slavery, but I was born an American citizen and, as such, inherently accepted this nation’s history as my own.   This movie, for all its faults (which are few and even fantastic in their own way) and anachronisms (which is honestly an absurdist stance to take, that this movie is less important because of the historically inaccurate inclusion of things such as swinging saloon doors and dynamite) is something more than these critics are making it out to be.

This is not a period piece.  It is instead a modern film about a historical evil.  It is revisionist history.  It is not attacking whites or blacks or any other race; it is attacking our sensibilities about slavery.  The film is meant to break us loose from a stasis, one that seems to set in when talking about this particularly shadowy and uncomfortable area of our national soul.  Django is not meant to transport us to a certain time as much as it is meant to contextualize the modern conversation.  When you watch the movie, you are constantly bombarded with imagery that is both ugly and impressive.  Even Rick Ross and John Legend weigh-in via the jarringly modern soundtrack.  This is a movie about where we are today told through an unhinged display of where we were.

The thing I hold onto from this NPR piece is the comparison made to Lincoln, which I think is an exceptionally apt observation.  Our national narrative of the final months of slavery, as is told in schools as well as in Mr. Spielberg’s film, is one of whites, and one man in particular, freeing slaves.  The reason Lincoln is so great is that it makes this narrative more difficult to discern by portraying the man as conflicted in his decisions yet “all men are created equal”-moral above all else.  Of course, he was the man to make it happen, but the movie leaves out significant chunks of slave history as well.  It leaves out the slaves that wreaked havoc on southern plantations during the Civil War, making slavery become less and less sustainable.  It quickly pushes off camera the black soldiers who aided in the fighting, and of course the dying, that lead to the film’s conclusion.  More than that, the black characters can feel at times less human than symbolic, meant to remind us of what the white men are fighting for.

Of course, this too is a product of the times, and Spielberg is smart not to mess with his very-close-to-factual historical script delivered by Tony Kushner.  But why then is Tarantino taking hits for portraying violence towards slaves in the symbolic form of Mandingo fighting?  Sure, whether it existed at all is somewhat murky but seems to be leaning towards “There was no such thing ever”, but the violence towards slaves was also much worse than what is portrayed on the plantations in the film (there are, of course, displays of what slave owners were capable of, but even that seemed somewhat sanitized, relatively).  Again, this is revisionist history.  This form of organized fighting is a manifestation of the orchestrated violence between slaves that was brought about by their masters, violence that may not have been existed physically but more abstractly within people resembling Samuel L. Jackson’s Uncle Tom-type character.

Essentially, I struggle with many of these arguments based on a few short points that this movie does a great job challenging.  I’m not sure if Tarantino answers them all, but I’m also not convinced that he should or even could.

1. Who owns history?  Can we really decide who gets to tell a story?  And why does that story have to be somber and respectful at every turn?  Like it or not, there was ugliness on all sides of slavery (clearly the white side was worst on senstibility alone, but Tarantino makes this point again and again throughout the film, so what the hell is he supposed to do?)  Basically, I’m concerned with the notion that Spike Lee put forth that making this film is “disrespectful” of his ancestors.  Perhaps I am wondering why whites with a slave owning past would be ridiculed for making a similar claim, seeing as their ancestors are mass-murdered in a jovial way.  This is not an argument to be construed as the protection of the motives of white characters in the film or those who perpetrated “America’s original sin”; it’s a challenge to the notion that a filmmaker can’t write on his country’s history.

2. Most of this criticism seems to miss the point of a Tarantino film, which is particularly shocking considering the movie critics sampled in the NPR piece.  His films are meant to place highly uncomfortable story lines in familiar situations in order for his audience to struggle with how they feel about what is appearing on screen.  It’s not exploitation as much as it is constantly disorienting (in the best sense of the phrase).  His films can’t exist in a vacuum, they must be digested with our country’s body of popular culture surrounding them.  People who only see a Western when they look at Django Unchained are simply seeing the light before it goes through the prism.

3.  Why is no one up in arms about Lincoln, a movie about the end of slavery where all the slavery happens off-screen?  Sure, the movie is about the man, but it takes credit for the ending of our worst sin as a nation without fully confronting it.  Some may brush this off, but I think it’s interesting to consider.  Especially when the major black characters in the film are defined by their ability to properly walk away from a situation or walk back into it.

4.  But, most of all, I’m pumped that the film brought us here, to this dialogue.  It put the N-word out there and said, “Yeah, it’s time to deal with this now.  It’s been to easy to hide from it for this long.”  I don’t know, there’s something noble and inherently important in that even if you hate everything else about the film.

Let me know what you think.