The Big Picture: The Takeaway From 'Django Unchained'
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.
CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:
Quentin Tarantino's latest movie "Django Unchained" is proving to be one of his most controversial to date. It's set in the Antebellum South, a few years before the start of the Civil War. In the film, a freed slave joins forces with a German bounty hunter, and they set out to together to find Django's wife, who is herself enslaved by a sadistic slave owner. And in classic Tarantino style, of course, much violence ensues. The film has drawn a lot of criticism for its historical accuracy - or lack thereof, also for the use of racial epithets and the use of violence. Here's Tarantino himself explaining that violence on NPR's FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "FRESH AIR")
QUENTIN TARANTINO: What happened during slavery times is a thousand times worse than I show. So if I were to show it a thousand times worse, to me that wouldn't be exploitive, that would just be how it is. If you can't take it, you can't take it.
HEADLEE: We want to do a roundup of various op-eds relating to this movie. But we're wondering if you have seen the film: What do you see as the takeaway? Give us a call at 800-989-8255. Our email address is firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION. We already have one response from Sonny in Point - Fort Myers, Florida, who says: It seems to me Tarantino has shown a light on the hideous violence done to slaves. The images were horrifying to the point of nausea and will stay with me more vividly than any depiction since "Roots."
But then going on to some of the critical response that has been written, one of the most scathing critics of the movie came from the writer Ishmael Reed. Among other things, he questioned Tarantino's ability as a white man to tell the story of slavery. Here he is writing in the Wall Street Journal. He writes this:
To compare this movie to a spaghetti Western and a blaxploitation film is an insult to both genres. It's a Tarantino home movie with all of the racist licks that appear in his other movies. The debate about who should tell the black story is an old one. Benjamin Drew collected the stories of ex-slaves who'd fled to Canada in an 1855 anthology. One section is entitled "As Told by Themselves." Black leaders have protested the films "Birth of a Nation," "Gone with the Wind" and the musical "Porgy and Bess," all of which, like "Precious" and this movie, have been praised by mainstream critics. W.E.B. DuBois once discouraged a white writer from writing about blacks.
And Ishmael Reed goes on to say this: I think some whites do very well when writing nonfiction about slavery. Tarantino isn't one of those, but the business people who put this abomination together don't care what I think. And then we have this from Daniella Gibbs Ledger from the Center for American Progress and a self-professed Tarantino fan. She defended the film but said: It does bring up interesting questions about who gets to tell this story. She wrote this in Essence magazine:
"The question I'm more interested in having is this: Could a black director have made this movie? Controlling for factors like Tarantino's film credentials and ability to have strong openings, if you had a comparable black director, could he or she get this movie made without going straight to DVD? Would he or she even be able to pitch this kind of idea to a major studio head without getting stopped at the development door? I don't think so.
And to me, that's a bigger issue. Tarantino can make this because he is who he is but also because he isn't black. It's related to the age-old issue that many screenwriters and directors of color hear from studios: Will white audiences go see a movie about and featuring nonwhite people? Since they still make up the majority of the movie-going audience, green lights and decisions are still made with them in mind. And, yes, in 2013, this is still an issue. So I could only imagine the conversation if a black director tried to get "Django" made with the backing of major studio: Um, I'm not sure audiences would enjoy a movie about a black slave killing a whole bunch of white people." End quote there.
And again, we're taking a look at the diversity of opinion on "Django Unchained." If you want to add your opinion as well, give us a call. If you've seen the film, of course, call us at 800-989-8255. Our email address is email@example.com. You can join the conversation at our website, npr.org. We have a call here from James at Columbia. Just to be sure, James, you've seen the movie, right?
JAMES: I have seen the movie. I thought it was well-made and well-written.
HEADLEE: OK. So you're take away from it is?
JAMES: You know, one of the things, I mean, objectify people, you turn them into objects, it's amazing and easy to do very bad things to them. And the suffering and the pain that comes from that becomes generational. It's impossible to break that cycle. And to say that it's something that is racially only for certain people, I think, is wrong, because slavery effective people like too. Looks what goes on in the South now. I mean, I've just driven from Tampa through Atlanta, and I've seen more confederate flags than I have in a year. That's not right.
HEADLEE: So it's still with us. That's a good point. That's James calling from Columbia, Missouri. And we also take in a call here. I hope I pronounced this right. Is it Kiana(ph) in Boston?
KIANA SCHMIEDL: Yup. It's Kiana Schmiedl(ph).
HEADLEE: And you have seen the film?
SCHMIEDL: I have seen the film.
HEADLEE: And what's your take away?
SCHMIEDL: My take away was that the parallels that it drew between bounty hunting and the antebellum South were very interesting. I liked the juxtaposition that it kind of put in your face. But I also...
HEADLEE: You're talking about the moment when Christoph Waltz's character says slavery is about dealing in human flesh and bounty hunting is dealing in human corpses. Is that what you're talking about?
SCHMIEDL: Yes. And I just - I think the way that it's kind of put in your face, but then also in those moments when it feels, like, OK, this might be too much, then there is something riotously funny that happens after it. It's just good cinematography.
HEADLEE: OK. That's Kiana in Boston, Massachusetts. And again, give us a call with your opinion. I want to get here another critique from a critic. Many critics have questioned the historical accuracy of Tarantino's film. Here's Scott Reynolds Nelson. He is a history professor at the College of William and Mary. So, I guess, he'd know. He wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education: Is "Django" historically accurate? Not at all. Reynolds Nelson writes: There's no such thing as the Mandingo fighting depicted in which black men died fighting each other for sport. Dynamite wasn't invented until after the Civil War and saloons with swinging doors were a creation of post-war Western towns, to name just a few howlers. As in most of Tarantino's films, counting the anachronisms on every frame will make your head explode.
But this story of a big, black, bad man is in a certain way, and, perhaps, inadvertently, truer to the folkloric source material about the end of slavery than the heroic white man story in "Lincoln." "Django" expresses part of the lore that black men and, perhaps, some women created, to turn the last years of slavery, now just 150 years gone, into a usable past. To fight against the man was suicide, but it was a beautiful death.
And then this from Henry Louis Gates, Jr., director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research. He called "Django" one of the first, if not, the first, post-modern feature film about the enslavement of our African-American ancestors.
And he wrote in The Root. Here's what he said, throughout my career as a cultural critic, I have done my best to defend the right of filmmakers, visual artists and novelists to take liberty in their depictions of historical events. Feature films, for example, are not documentaries; and the generic differences between them should always be kept in mind. What's the difference, at least in this context? I think of it this way: Feature films are about what could have happened, while documentaries ostensibly are about what did happen.
That's Henry Louis Gates there. But I want to get your opinion as well. If you've seen the film, give us a call at 800-989-8255 and here's Hayes in Houston, Texas. Hayes, you've seen the movie?
HAYES: Yes, I have.
HEADLEE: What's your take away?
HAYES: Well, in my own personal opinion of the movie, it was - cinematically, it was great. But the language was nothing different than what you hear on TV nowadays, than you hear in hip-hop lyrics. And I'm an a fan of hip-hop, but, I mean, you hear his type of language in black communities all the time. A lot of the...
HEADLEE: You're talking about the use of the N word, I assume.
HAYES: The use of the N word, exactly. So I don't understand why people are all up in arms about it. I mean, because everyone is using that word, it doesn't matter what race they are - every one is using it now. The other thing that I took away from it was the - a lot of the stereotypes in the movie still - are still in black communities. I'm from the South. I'm from the South. I was growing up under grandparents who were from slave tradition and I've seen a lot of what happens in these types of situations between black and white. So for me, it was just the reality check, but I did enjoy the movie.
HEADLEE: All right. That's Hayes in Houston, Texas. Let me take another call here from Noah in Durham, North Carolina. Lots of phone calls here from the Southern part of the country. Noah, you saw the film? What was your take away?
NOAH: My take away was that it really was a movie about the filmic representation and creation of a hero, and that Tarantino is trying to encourage us to get back to the old style of movie-going, where you go see a movie and then come out and debate it and talk about and question it. So the generation of the dialogue is, in a way, part of the point.
HEADLEE: That's interesting. In fact, thank you so much, Noah, calling from Durham, North Carolina. That's another point that Henry Louis Gates made in his piece for The Root. Gates wrote this: Whether you liked "Django's" post-modern take on slavery or not, one of its most salutary effects is that it's generated a greater conversation about the enslavement of our ancestors than any that I have witnessed, perhaps, since "Roots" because our society has long been in denial about African-American slavery, America's original sin since well before its abolition. I would hope we all might agree that this is a very good thing, a necessary discussion that is long overdue.
And then we have this writing from Jelani Cobb, who's the director of the Institute of African-American Studies at the University of Connecticut. She called "Django Unchained," Tarantino's most clever film to date. But he said, the premise of the film propagates historical myths about slavery. He says this in The New Yorker: Is this how Americans actually perceive slavery? More often than not, the answer to that question is answered in the affirmative.
It's precisely because of the scant mythology of black subservience that these scenes pack such a cathartic payload. The film's defenders are quick to point out that "Django" is not about history. But that's almost like arguing that fiction is not reality. It isn't, but the entire appeal of the former is its capacity to shed light on how we understand the latter. In my 16 years of teaching African-American history, one sadly common theme has been the number of black students who shy away from courses dealing with slavery out of shame that slaves never fought back.
That's a really interesting point. Again, if you want to give us your takeaway, what you took away after watching "Django Unchained" - and only people who've watched it, by the way - give us a call at 800-989-8255, or email us, firstname.lastname@example.org.
And here's Peter(ph) in New Castle, Virginia. Peter, you watched the film. What did you take away from it?
PETER: Well, I saw it in an audience - a mixed-race audience - and it reminded me of the experiences I had growing up in the '60s and '70s and seeing films like this that - it tends to bring people together. It addresses hard issues, but with entertainment, and there are clear-cut villains and clear-cut good guys in these movies.
And there wasn't anyone rooting for the slave masters. There wasn't anyone rooting for the violent people in the town. They were rooting for Django and his partner. And like I say, these movies, maybe subversively, tend to educate a little bit.
HEADLEE: That's a good point. Peter in New Castle, Virginia. Lots of you guys having very interesting points. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And we are talking about "Django Unchained" and what many of you took away from it, and we wanted to give you some of the takeaways that critics and historians have had.
"Django Unchained" is not the only blockbuster film, you remember, that takes on slavery. Steven Spielberg's film, "Lincoln," that was - was released just a couple of months before "Django," this time from the perspective of the 16th president. And in comparing these two movies, journalist Marc Ambinder called "Django" probably the best movie about slavery ever.
He wrote this in The Week: Quentin Tarantino's trademark style ensures that every historical point he wants the viewer to get is gotten, even to the point of ridiculous. And it is a ridiculous film. It is funny, Mark writes. The dialogue is spare and modern, the Southern accents not very well rendered, the visual effects hematologically generous, the soundtrack absurdist and raw. But this allows the director to show the viewer - well, force into the viewer's eyes and ears - the epic tale of slavery. It's precisely because the plot is so absurd and some of the characters so imaginatively drawn, that the stuff that fascinated Tarantino about the subject is intelligible. When off-the-hook characters do something, you notice.
And then Marc Ambinder continues with this: "Django's" plot is totally implausible, unlike "Lincoln," which pretty much happened the way Kushner described. But I think "Django" conveys a better gut sense of what slavery - and, by proxy, what the Civil War was all about. Both movies are great. One makes you cry: The white men did something right; the country realized its mistake and began to atone for it with constitutional amendments. The other makes your innards turn: You'll know how utterly evil, insane and unique the practice of American slavery was and why political and legal transformations are still, today, not enough to expiate our shame.
So I want to hear from Jay(ph) in Baltimore, Maryland. Where you wanted to get your gut check on "Django," what did you come away with?
JAY: I came away with two different points: one where Django was, you know, watching the slave being torn apart from the dogs and all, and he was able to deal with that, you know, that whole act and that kind of thing in order to get what he wanted.
And then the other point that I took away from it, was Samuel L. Jackson's character and his loyalty to his slave master, you know? And so that was just - it was kind of, you know, like they want you at different sides of the fence. But, you know, "Django," watching that had to be unbearable, you know, to watch the guy being torn apart that way. But, you know...
HEADLEE: And we should be clear: We don't actually literally see that in the film. Yeah. We hear it. Yeah.
JAY: Well, not - probably not completely. Exactly, exactly. Not completely. But I mean, you know, because you don't understand what was going on, you know?
HEADLEE: Exactly. That's Jay. Thank you so much for your call from Baltimore, Maryland. And he's touching on something that we also got an email from Devon(ph) in Austin, Texas. Devon writes this: There are predominantly two kinds of violence in the film: one, violence against African-Americans in the context of slavery, which is unflinching and brutally painful to watch - example, the Mandingo fight scene - two: violence against the perpetrators of slavery, which is gleeful and cartoonish and a grotesque catharsis against the brutal violence of the slavers. The feature they share is that they're contrived to move a plot forward and are pieces of the imagination with little reference to the real world.
And we got this from Cody(ph) in Oklahoma, who emails: I saw "Django Unchained" in theaters twice: once at a theater filled with a predominantly older white audience, once with a predominantly younger black audience. The vibe of the auditorium with the predominantly black audience made for a far more enjoyable movie-watching experience. We laughed together, we sat on the edge of our seats together and we cheered on Django together. But when I re-watched the film with an older white audience, there was no energy in the theater, no joy, no laughter and no relief. If I take away anything from a movie-watching experience, the audiences who felt offended were not my African-American friends watching it with me.
Wow, Cody, that is a great comment there. And you can send us yours. The email is email@example.com, or you can just call us at 800-989-8255. I wanted to read from one other critic writing about "Django Unchained," this time from Adam Serwer in Mother Jones. He writes this: "Django," like many Tarantino films, also has been criticized as cartoonishly violent, but it is only so when Django is killing slave owners and overseers. The violence against slaves is also appropriately terrifying. This, if nothing else, puts "Django" in the running for Tarantino's best film, the first one in which he discovers violence as horror rather than just spectacle. When Schultz turns his head away from a slave being torn apart by dogs, Django explains to Calvin Candie - the plantation owner played by Leonardo DiCaprio - that Schultz just isn't used to Americans.
You can send us your thoughts if you've seen the movie at firstname.lastname@example.org. We definitely want to get your takeaway. If you haven't seen it yet, you might want to go see it and join the conversation. Tomorrow, we're going to check in on the conflicts in Mali and Syria. You can join us for that. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.