Saturday, January 26, 2013

"Django Unchained: Who is afraid of a Black Siegfried? "

It appears everyone and their best friend decided to write a review of Quentin Tarantino's "Django Unchained." For some bizarre reason, I felt compelled to read just about every goddamn one of them. This one, originally published by The Toronto Media Co-op, is my favorite. (Disclosure, the author is a friend of mine.) 
“A Slave-owner who through cunning and violence shackles a slave in chains, and a slave who through cunning or violence breaks the chains - let not the contemptible eunuchs tell us that they are equals before a court of morality!” - Leon Trotsky, ‘Their Morals and Ours’
Quentin Tarantino’s latest flick has understandably caused a lot of controversy. It has been praised by many but also invited the ire and criticism on part of many others. The most strange-comical of these critics is the renowned African-American director Spike Lee who condemned the movie while admitting he has never watched it and never will!

Once again, at the center of discussion is the grotesque portrayal of violence in the movie, a feature of virtually all Tarantino hits. Now, a lot could be said about Tarantino’s use of slap-stick gun-slinging, blood-poring violence in his movies and this is beyond the scope of the present review. But if there is one positive aspect this portrayal has is to remind us of the massive violence that has gone in our history and that goes on today in the very fabric of our society. Those well-meaning critics who bemoan the blood that splatters from every corner in Tarantino movies miss the point of what art and cinema are all about. Great works of art are those who emanate from the actual conditions of life in the world we live in and portray, in one way or another, these realities while telling a sometimes utopian story about their possible overcoming.

If many of the violence depicted in such early Tarantino masterpieces such as Pulp Fiction or Reservoir Dogs takes place in the context of contemporary United States, that in Django is directly themed on a scorching issue at the heart of American history: Black Slavery and the fight against it. This is similar to his previous Inglourious Basterds which took the Nazi Germany, another horror of our recent past, as its background.

In these last two movies, we see a Tarantino that does an indispensable service to the contemporary audience by reminding us of the great violence that our current seemingly ‘peaceful’ conditions are built on. But he does much more by delving into that history and by empowering heroes that are ready to fight against the evils that make that violence necessary. A Tarantino movie is not there to merely and grotesquely portray violence to remind us how bad it is (or was) and to give out a cheap, shallow, moralistic and pacifist message that ‘violence is bad’. This is, in a way, what films like Oliver Stone’s Platoon does. Platoon depicts all the seemingly mindless and brutal violence of the Vietnam War but remains in the morally dubious position of pacifism. What we lack in this ‘anti-war’ movie are the stories of the real heroes of that war, the Viet Cong who fought against imperialism and for liberation of their country. For Tarantino, however, not every violent act is morally equal and this is most obvious in Django.

At the center of the movie, which takes place in 1858, two years before the Civil War began, is Django (Jamie Foxx), a slave that could choose an easy fleeing to the North where he could become a freeman but instead dares to delve in to the heart of Slave-holding South to emancipate Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), his wife and the love of his life. Accompanying him is a German Doctor-cum-bounty-hunter King Schultz (Christopher Waltz) who tells him the story behind Broomhilda’s name: The nordic legend of Nibelungenlied in which the dragon-slaying hero Siegfried is ready to pass through a great deal of danger and trouble to free his beloved Brunhild (The princess Broomhilda is named after.)

It is right then and there that our Django aspires to be a Siegfried; to pass every fire and slay any dragon to reunite with his beloved Broomhilda. He joins Dr. Schulz and learns best how to use a gun and sets out to the estate of brutal Calvin J. Candie (Leonardo Di Caprio) where Broomhilda is being kept in slavery, torture and prostitution.

Unlike what some of the critics would have you believe, the violence that Django bestows on his opponents is not a meaningless, irrational bloodletting. Quite to the contrary, he proves an astute and principled fighter that is determined not only to free his beloved but bring down the whole house of oppression that she is enslaved in. That he is ruthless in this vain only makes him an equal of all the great heroes of romantic stories.

More than once in the movie the protagonists are given the choice of an easy way out. After a whole set of drama, Dr. Schulz and Django could manage to leave the Candie estate with the now-purchased Broomhilda if only Schulz would agree to shake hand with Candie. He, however, can’t bring himself to engage in this symbolic compromise with the brutal slaveholder who is not averse of giving his slaves to dogs to be eaten or to have them fight each other to death, gladiator-style. He prefers to shoot Candie and is then martyred by his associates for his courageous stance. In one of the final scenes of the movie, Django could easily run away with Broomhilda who is finally in his embrace. But he goes on to first burn down the entire Candie estate after killing off all those complicit in his order of oppression. Significantly, he frees all the blacks before burning the place down, except for the Uncle Tom character, Stephens, (Samuel L. Jackson) who has served Candie for more than 70 years and who disrupted the earlier plans to free Broomhilda. He has to burn with the order he has served for this is ‘where he belongs.’

Those familiar with the history of African-Americans would not be surprised at the indignation that a determined, valiant Black hero, this Black Siegfried, has caused in the American establishment. Nothing sows panic within the American ruling class like the idea of a Black hero who is ready to stand up and fight against injustice. ‘Angry Black’ has been at the centre of the anxieties and paranoia of this class. It is not accidental that a great fighter like Muhammad Ali could only be accepted by the ruling elite after he contracted the Parkinson’s disease and so didn’t look as threatening anymore. In a recent article for The Atlantic, titled “Fear of a Black President”, Ta-Nehisi Coates explained how any strong gesture of affirmation on part of Obama, and any reiteration of his Black legacy, would be met by panic and condemnation by the American establishment. Here Django is all that the lame duck Obama has never managed to be: A courageous fighter not for his ‘race’ but for justice and freedom and a slayer of all those who stand in its way, whether white or black.

It is not for nothing that the marvelous acts of Django cause flickers of hope in the eyes of the slaves in several scenes in the movie. Here is a Siegfried that gives them ambition for what they, too, can be; That disproves the racist tales of Candie about submission having been written into the black skulls.
Those who bemoan the violence of Django need to be reminded that even the formal end of slavery didn’t come about by parliamentary intrigue and compromise as another recent movie, Spielberg’s Lincoln, claims. It was not President Lincoln’s reconciliation but his determination to fight a bloody Civil War that rooted out slavery. Even more crucial was the arming of more than 200,000 Blacks, long demanded by black abolitionists such as Frederick Douglas, who proudly fought under the star-spangled Union banner and expropriated the Southern plantations; a process stymied by the later compromises of the American bourgeoise after the assassination of Lincoln.

Django Unchained is a classic romantic hero story that bases itself on such great artistic traditions as Nordic fairy tales and spaghetti Westerns. Like the bests of these genres, we have a hero, unflinching in the face of dangers and determined to fight for what is right. Those who can only show disgust by the blood that pores in Django Unchained are betraying their inhumane capacity to look the other way faced with the very violent world we live in. They are like Lady Candie in the movie who can calmly play Beethoven on a harp while surrounded by the most obscene violence of slavery and domination, just as the Nazi officers played great compositions just after filling the gas chambers. One needs to be instead inspired by the humane, loving and courageous Django to fight against the system of exploitation that demands so much violence to sustain itself. It is only in this way that we could end the violence of humans on humans, once and for all.