Grappling with the Conundrum of ‘Django Unchained’

My Thursday column:

I don't mean to step on Chez Pazienza's toes as the unofficial The Daily Banter Movie Guy, but I wanted to take some time with the new Quentin Tarantino movie Django Unchained; partly because racial issues and the American Civil War are two areas that I discuss quite frequently, and primarily because it took me several days to fully grapple with my reaction to the movie.

Let's start with the obligatory qualifier: I'm a huge Tarantino fan. Kill Bill and Inglourious Basterds are two of my favorite films, and True Romance is one of my favorite screenplays. But more that any particular favorites list, I just really dig the fact that he has so much fun making movies, and it absolutely shows on screen. Even though he's been making movies for more than two decades, he's managed to retain the enthusiasm of a first timer -- only with lots of really big toys to play with. This can lead to self-indulgence, and Tarantino is absolutely self-indulgent, but in a good way because he rarely fumbles the creative latitude he's earned and therefore he rarely disappoints. Say what you will about him (derivative, too-wordy, etc...) but he's no slouch and he knows how to craft a movie.

Over the last several months, we've been treated to a lot of great movies. As Chez and I have discussed on our podcast, it's difficult to recall a period of several months that featured so many great movies week after week. But I can say without hesitation that of all the movies I've seen recently, Django Unchained initially confounded me... [continue reading]

  • IrishGrrrl

    “Maintaining the institution only pandered to a mentally ill demographic of lazy, cheap, sadistic white aristocrats”
    Bob, I strongly disagree with the use of the term “mentally ill”. Those slave owners (some of whom were my ancestors) were not crazy. They were greedy and arrogant. Don’t give them the excuse of “mental illness”. It does a disservice to those who do suffer from mental illness and gives the slave owners too much of an easy excuse for inexcusable behavior IMHO.
    PS: I have been hesitating to see this movie but your thoughts have put me in the “must see now” category, thank you.
    PSS: OT, I still can’t see comments when I browse with Chrome. I can see them fine with IE though. Anyone else having problems with seeing comments with Chrome?

  • Razor

    GREAT piece, Bob. I also have found myself scratching my head over the controversy. It is a brutal movie that goes from buddy comedy to brutal horror rather abruptly, and the word nigger is thrown around like “fuck” in Pulp Fiction, but what else do people think black folk were called before the Civil War? Or before the 1960s? Or now by white people today behind closed doors?

    I think the problem people have is that it’s a fun Tarantino movie that also makes them feel really uncomfortable, and in that way, it may be Tarantino’s masterpiece. Inglourious Basterds turned the holocaust into something almost farcical, but Django is a revenge fantasy against the backdrop of very real horrors. The horrors of WWII were kept to the background in Basterds, but in Django, they’re right there in front of you.

    So I get people feeling awkward during the movie, but that’s the point. It’s funny at times, horrific at others, but overall, excellent.

  • trgahan

    I’m just happy that after a long absence, we have two mass media period piece set in 19th Century U.S. (the other being Lincoln) that aren’t tacit hand jobs to “The Cause” mythology. Maybe some of the negative reaction isn’t so much over the language, but that it simply doesn’t have all the hallmarks that seem required of Civil War-era media production these days.

  • chris castle

    I have seen it, and I’m having a hard time understanding what the big deal is. I supposed one could legitimately quibble with the buckets of blood, but we all know that’s not really what’s pushing the debate. We revel in the glory (and gore) of Tarantino’s Holocaust revenge story, but get strangely uptight when the story is set in the ante-bellum south with slavery as its centerpiece. I wonder if the Germans are as uptight with Basterds as many Americans are with Django? Perhaps it’s because Django is our story and Race is forever embedded in our DNA, just as the Holocaust is something Germans will always have to deal with it. At any rate, the point I’m trying to make is that our feelings toward both films should be consistent, because they pretty much accomplish the same thing, albeit in a different time and place, IF we’re willng to be intellectually honest with ourselves. I, for one, have an academic background in Black Film (as in “the history of”) and I strongly feel that QT succeeded in blowing the black stereotype out of the water; I especially liked how he reversed the roles of the black and white lead characters in that, this time around, it was the white lead helping the black lead. The cherry on top, of course, was when the white lead sacrifices himself (part way through the movie no less!) for the greater good by killing the vile uber-plantation chief…

    • MrDHalen

      I’m having a hard time with people’s opinions on the movie as well. I have not seen the movie yet, but plan too. I will view this movie the same way I view most movies, as someone’s creative art. It’s not a documentary, so why should I expect iron clad historical accuracy? We watch sci-fi movies that are completely unrealistic and manage to be okay with it.

      I guess I’m annoyed with people expecting this movie to be historically accurate, less gory, less racial, and more educational. Whatever people’s issues with this movie, it’s a freaking movie! A Tarantino movie! It feels like a lot of the critics are sitting around sipping tea with their pinky sticking out saying “This Tarantino fellow should be ashamed of himself for such a lowbrow understanding of history and saying such awful words!” I find it so f***ing annoying. When people start saying “He should have”, or “it would have been better if”, you know what, go make your own damn movie!

      • chris castle

        I hear you. I was 23 (give or take) when Pulp Fiction came out and living in a college town. It was very amusing to watch “serious” academics and the local intellectual elite bend themselves into pretzels trying to justifying their enjoyment of the movie with stuff they claimed to be offended by (but probably weren’t). QT is the man, but I don’t think he’s had this kind of impact since Pulp Fiction, which, I wasn’t ashamed to admit, ALSO rocked my face off…

        • MrDHalen

          Yep, discussions about slavery, the south, and civil war,
          can cause all kinds of pretzel bending in this country.

          I see a lot of Tarantino’s movies as artistically capturing
          the imagined dialog and interaction between various human characters. It’s like when your imagination pops extreme pictures or sentences you don’t say or express; he makes those thoughts into a movie. They last a few seconds or
          minutes in our minds, the “What if” and “I wonder”, but he makes them into movies. That’s his art and I like it!

  • Michael J. West

    Why such deep fascination with the Civil War, Bob? Just curious.

    • Bob Cesca

      I grew up in Northern Virginia and spent a lot of time visiting Gettysburg as a kid and that sort of lit the spark. In fact, my great-great grandfather was in the 155th Pennsylvania and fought at Gettysburg. So that, too.

  • JimmyAbra

    Nice write-up. I have not seen it, but am hesitant because I am anticipating similar thoughts and trying to find a way to rationalize some of it. I do think your write helps with me putting a clear narrative around my anticipated thoughts, which may help me better enjoy the movie in the proper perspective.