william steig drawing

February 20, 2013
Kartina Richardson

Django Unchained

django

djangounchained

I’m off to focus on my own films now.

Here is my last post, my thoughts on Django, completely unedited. This is what something I write looks like before it’s anywhere close to being finished. Before I’ve toned it wayyy down or toned it way up, all out of order etc. I better get out of here before I start making disclaimers up the wazoo.

***

Blood is so red. Thank god for its color. Thank god for blood’s redness and thank god for red blood in Django. In January. Its good to see guts in the wastelands of winter.

In winter, the exteriors of everything rub on the exteriors of everything else. Coats pass other coats. Gloves shake other gloves, and the sole of every shoe treads on the outmost layer of a sleeping frog’s bunker.

I’ve never before understood the beauty of violence in a film the way I have when watching Django in January next to a brittle Christmas tree. Django was guts, the insides. and pointed out how we’ve been skulking around the outsides of slavery.

In movies about race especially, the form of the film is now more important to me than the content. If a film comments on race but is traditional in terms of narrative structure, casting, aesthetics etc in one way it’s defeated its points already. Fighting inequality is about changing a way of thinking. It involves locating the systems, large and small, that support tradition, and smashing them. A movie’s worth is directly related to how effectively it disrupts ways of thinking. The less power you have in the world, the more necessary this disruption is for your identity.

I’ve never been called a nigger and I keep this in mind when writing in favor of Django. Though I’m half black most people looking at me see my Malaysian side, and so don’t immediately recognize me as a negress, or even, as an angry but eagle eyed commenter once put it, a “tragic mulatta”. But though my ancestors were Virginian slaves, my experience with racism is different than a dark-skinned friend of mine who walked out on the film. This might seem like a strange  distinction but it’s important to know whose immediate external character is on the line (how the outside world sees you immediately regardless of if its right or wrong). It’s certainly not the director’s.

Everything’s worth (friends, food, art, clothing) can be evaluated by whether it helps dismantle a constructed character or does it it coddle us into believing the process doesn’t exist or has been heroically, and most beautifully solved and soared beyond.

Hollywood allows black stories only in certain contexts. These are mainly historical dramas, comedies, or inspirational feel-good ___. Blacks are allowed to exist in our imagination in the appropriate places. This makes all these movies frustrating.

It’s frustrating that Django was made by a white director, someone who can play with black images at no risk to his own identity. White people telling black stories with black bodies is aggravating, unfair, infuriating, tiring, boring, and every other adjective. All are true. But maybe it takes Tarantino’s pulp aesthetic to revive slavery from the ‘ghost we handle with kid gloves’ way Glory, Lincoln, made us familiar with, to a real live thing that will be regarded as matter-of-fact.

It was a matter of fact reality for 400 years. Its that frankness that makes white audiences uneasy and causes black viewers pain. It is painful to remember that this brutality was a real every day occurrence. And that the threat of this violence was present every second of every day. Kerry Washington’s tiny perpetually rigid and tense frame communicated this so effectively, I cried nearly every time she appeared on screen. In Django no soaring music or somber negro spiritual plays while a slave is whipped or torn apart by dogs. We don’t have that magic carpet of emotional manipulation to come sweep us off our feet to hold us hovering at a safe distance from the horror. “Hush” the magic carpet usually says, “Yes, Denzel is being whipped, but he sheds a single tear in a way that’s dramatized just enough to allow you to feel deep sadness but not be overly traumatized. Hear the lone oboe play. Close..but not too close… now up up and awayyy!”

That famous scene from Glory was an extremely sad one to watch. If something is ancient history, long gone, and is presented in a way that respects its place in history (with all your traditional period piece trappings) we can feel sad safely and we can mourn safely. Time grants us that buffer. We feel “sad for” the slaves and maybe we feel “sad for” our country. We’re more than familiar with experiencing sadness when watching films about slavery, but in this context, Slavery Sadness keeps the viewer at a distance. Slavery Sadness, has always allowed us hold ourselves at bay from the subject, perhaps because it’s too horrifying a truth to face. If we are feeling “sad for” something that means we are not right there with them. Not only are we somewhere else, perhaps on the other side of the room, but we are viewing them through time, sadness is slower to manifest in the individual after receiving violence, and our sadness is informed by history. Ferris Bueller feels sad watching Denzel, we feel sad watching Denzel, but Denzel himself feels fear, number one, then pain, humiliation, and anger. Sadness is too small an emotion. Despair, grief, numbness.

But if slavery is suddenly wrenched from the holy bosom of history that Lincoln, Glory, Amistad, etc cling to, and the appropriate historical trappings and negro spirituals are discarded with, replaced instead with blaxploitation camera work, dialogue with the cadence of modern speech, and contemporary music, it instantly becomes more immediate and we’re faced with other unexpected emotions. In a flashback scene where Django and Brumhilda are captured attempting to escape, an Anthony Hamilton/Elayna Boynton song plays. With the sound of barking dogs behind then, Brumhilda’s face trembles with terror. She kisses Django hard on the mouth and they run on. Captured, Django pleads unsuccessfully for his wife to be spared the whip. She is strung up by each hand and as the whip meets her back her mouth contorts. She screams in pain and fear. When watching this scene, I felt not only Brumhilda’s terror, but in that hard kiss, the pain and helplessness of being parted with the one you love, and the inability to protect them. There has never been a depiction of slavery that has made me feel so immediately connected to the emotions of the individual slave herself, not of my emotions about “slavery”, as an institution.

The gruesome Mandingo fight scene may have been historically inaccurate, but it depicted the despair, grief, control, and animalization of male slaves in a way I haven’t previously seen on screen. If historical revisionism in a film about slavery produces emotions more truthful to the actual experience of slavery (fear, disgust and anger not sadness), then it succeeds in leading us closer to the truth of our history and to ourselves. (every historical film compresses and combines ideas, emotions, and conversations in order to convey them in a 2 hour film)

When a person from the group in power employs historical revisionism to tell a story about the group with lesser power, it should always be regarded with suspicion. America has difficulty in understanding the facts of it’s own crimes. Many people fight everyday for their experiences to be respected as legitimate. The most destructive effects of racism is not the blatant, but each generations inheritance of the micro effects of dehumanization. I think there is fear that a tale where a slave rides off into the sunset after blowing up white people, will allow white viewers to happily trot off with him savoring a history that assuages their guilt by applauding their aggressive liberalism.

There is concern, a legitimate concern, that White Americans will take any opportunity to look away. And if they look away, we continue to be invisible.

I’m sure that Django is an effective escape route for many white viewers, but I’m okay with letting them go because I suspect that for many others, the film re-introduces something they’ve intellectually long understood as “tragic”, to produce a truer more immediate emotional understanding of it.

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17 Comments

  1. Kartina, you know I love you my little sister who is the best writer about movies ever, buy I’ve been called a nigger, many times. Been called a nigger as a little boy, as a high shcool, college and grad school student. Been called a nigger as a man in his Lieutenant’s uniform during the Korean War and as tallented as Tarantino is I won’t watch his damn film because my life experience tells me that Denzel’s tear isn’t real and he’s getting a big bundle to make people feel something that can’t really be felt unless you can suck it up and allow yourself to feel like you’re being treated as a nigger yet again. Im coming up on my 84th birthday and, honestly, I’ve long been tired of people calling us niggers even obliquely in a vehicle designed to make some white folks rich no matter what the audience feels. Bottom line: when the lights come up in the theatre many in there will go out and use that word in a hurtful way again as if licensed to do so. Sorry to sound so vitriolic, but your words always make me go deep and I’m thankful for that. Be Blessed!

    Reply
    • Gerard McNeil de Robinson

      If art must be held responsible for people misusing it and ignoring what the movie is centrally about then it cannot survive.

      Reply
  2. You’ve got to follow your dreams. Here is a poem Henry David Thoreau wrote. He uses the word man in the poem but it applies to both men and women. I thought you might like it.
    “If a man (or woman) does not keep pace with his (or her) companions,perhaps it is because he (or she) hears a different drummer. Let him (or her) step to the music he (or she) hears, however measured or far away.
    I do have movie ideas if you are interested. You can contact me through my Facebook page.
    Wishing you the best of luck!
    Doug Bruner

    Reply
  3. the other mike

    good luck with your new endeavours. will miss your writing. by the way, you put words together beautifully.

    as for django i look at it on two levels, one as entertainment. on that level, i give it 4 outta 5. might even be higher after i watched zero dark 30 and lincoln, which were both so boring i couldnt even be bothered to take any lessons from it.

    the second part is more comlicated. people i respect enormously have polar opposite views. i think it comes down to this. do i trust tarantino? he has hired black actors and i am happy about that. that is no small thing when you look at how the hollywood system works. and while many high brow director/auteurs hide behind ” i’m telling my specific story” to exclude black people, QT deserves plaudits for at least trying to engage our community.

    the problem comes with his portrayals of black people. the black men are always cool but wicked. think of all of samuel jacksons characters in his films. think about the character QT himself plays in Pulp Fiction and his pointless use of the word nigger. its just seemed like a white hipster who is obsessed with viloent rap music and gets off on it and who is not aware of his white privelage. i think his heart is in the right place, and that is better than nothing, but ultimately, still not good enough. harsh but fair?

    it doesnt help that he poses in W Magazine with a naked objectified black woman. i guess we dont know if we are being laughed at or not.

    Reply
  4. Max Oblivion

    When one door closes another opens, or so they say. I hope you enjoy your new adventures. You did cause me to rethink issues I thought I’d resolved long ago and there’s nothing wrong with that. I do regret that I never was able to draw you out and into a little bit of dialog. I did try.

    I hope you’re able to overcome the shyness you say inhibits you. During the early part of my life I was painfully shy and introverted as a result of some early childhood abuse at the hands of a much older sister. It took me probably 40 years to work all of that out and become the charming extrovert I am today. Some stuff like that just requires a little time. To be your age again with my whole life ahead of me would be sweet. Good luck.

    Reply
    • Kartina Richardson

      “You did cause me to rethink issues I thought I’d resolved long ago and there’s nothing wrong with that.” That is really all I could ever ask for. I am really honored.

      Oh Max Oblivion, I will miss all your comments. Even the worst ones, but just wait til you see my films. You’ll be so mad! You’ll comment like you’ve never commented before.

      Reply
      • Forgive me my bad manners and vitriolic burst re D’jango. I’m afraid I didn’t think to wish you all the best in your new direction. I’m not much of a movie goer however, of late I’ve been content to enjoy film through your reviews or to relive the pleasure of a film when you review one of the oldies that I’ve seen. I’ll certainly be looking forward, however, to your film work. The best of luck and good wishes. You’ll be one of the greats I’m sure.

        Reply
      • Max Oblivion

        Maybe when you’re on the stage accepting your first Oscar and about the time you’re thanking your family, cast and crew you could give a shout out to Max Oblivion. No one would know what the fuck you were talking about but that would be a genuine thrill for me. Just imagine what a moment that would be.

        Reply
  5. Thanks Kartina. My two obsessions with cinema in the past two or three years have been this blog & Nathaniel Dorsky’s essay “Devotional Cinema” (though currently I am indulging in Mark Cousin’s “The Story of Film”). I still processing your holy/deadly cinema post – and will wait eternally for “part 2″. :) Although, I have to believe that all this will be integrated into your own films – of which I am looking forward to experiencing. Thanks for the rough thoughts on Django. After two viewings, I am still trying to process my own emotions. My immediate process was “Wow…Lincoln made me feel really good about my being white. Django, however, did not. Why? and Why is that an important distinction/discussion?”. Your thoughts here obviously speak directly to those questions. You liberate me to acknowledge my experience & process my emotions – while also challenging the (race/gender) nature with which we approach the history of cinema. -All of which now comes with me to the theater. So grateful.

    Eternal thanks for sharing your many Malick experiences with us. …and all the rest.

    Would be great to hear about your creative process with filmmaking sometime in the future.

    That’s all. :)

    blood is so red. thank god for it’s color.

    Reply
  6. Well now, haven’t you convinced me to not have a closed mind and go see Django. Will wait awhile though until I can watch it in a near empty theater in the daytime or late night. I really like that your review wouldn’t leave my head and eventually opened me up in a way I hadn’t anticipated. Nice.

    Reply
  7. Max Oblivion

    I think what I admire most about you is your courage. If I was a writer or filmmaker I don’t think I could be as open and genuine as you are and put myself out there for everyone to see. If you can make the film you have in your head it will be a “success”. Would it make any money? Is that important? I don’t know. Why some films generate interest and make money and others don’t is a mystery to me. Do it and I’ll pay money to see it.

    I’m wondering, who you would cast for the leads if money wasn’t an issue? I think Daniel Day-Lewis would work if he was a little prettier and a lot younger and Kerry Washington is very impressive but is she what you have in mind?

    Reply
    • Max Oblivion

      This post was intended for your “Greed” lookbook. That’s what happens when I try to watch the Oscars and operate a computer at the same time.

      Reply
  8. I liked this film a lot. I have a preference that in a film with violence, I want to see it as real as it gets. In a Scorsese film, if I guy gets shot in the head, it LOOKS like he got shot in the head. In this film, the torture scenes were shown in that style, and I thought them to be terrifying, nauseating, and very effective.
    I have noticed in every Tarantino film, the use of the n-word is all over the place. I can understand it entirely in a Spike Lee film, but with Quentin, I sometimes wonder if he sees a certain humor in it. I assume you stayed through the credits: At the very end of the credits, we hear Samuel L. saying, “Who was that Nigger?!” Was THAT necessary? It struck me as being in there to get a cheap chuckle, after a masterful work.

    Kartina, whether it be on FB or elsewhere, I wish you would do an essay on some of the Spike Lee films, or about his directing in general. At the risk of sounding like the big, corny white guy in The Jeffersons, Spike Lee films bring the dilemma of race home to me like no other. In, “Jungle Fever” when Flipper and Angie were doing some hard-ball playing around on the car, the cops rolled up. She starts complaining to the cops that they were treating Flipper unfairly. Flipper THEN tells he to shut up, because one of the cops threatened to blow his head off. Right then, and there, I GOT IT when it came to race. – At least as much as a white guy could.

    Dave Smith

    Reply
    • Max Oblivion

      Dave,

      What if you woke up one day and you weren’t a white guy anymore? Consider the possibilities.

      Reply
  9. I LOVE this piece. It’s brilliant. Translates exactly how I felt about the film (and I’ve seen it three times in theaters now). But I have one minor complaint: The song that plays during the flashback sequence with Django and Broomhilda on the run is not an Adele song; it’s “Freedom” recorded by Anthony Hamilton and Elayna Boynton specifically for the film’s soundtrack. I just wanted to add that because I love that song so much and they deserve the credit.

    Reply
  10. I guess it’s not good to generalize. Humanity is vile. I don’t think things ought to be reduced to white vs. black or this vs. that. I’m romanian and hatred against hungarians is hundreds of years old, not to mention against turks, who colonized us for centuries. Races have been divided within themselves for so long. It’s sad that there’s still so much hatred and racism around, and I wish it weren’t so. I just can’t stand it when people generalize and say “all white people were evil toward blacks” or “all blacks are inferior to whites.” They do nobody good. There are good people and not so good people is all I see it as.

    God bless all.

    P.

    Reply

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