Blaxsploitgettiwestern, Anyone?

This week marks the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, which most of us might vaguely remember as the thing that freed the slaves. But the thing that freed the slaves was in fact the passage of the 13th Amendment, two years later.

The often-dirty, passionate, behind-the-scenes machinations over the passing of that Amendment -- which outlawed slavery all over the country and hastened the end of the Civil War -- is the subject of “Lincoln,” Spielberg’s smart, respectful movie.  

At the end of December, there was a special screening of "Lincoln" in D.C. for members of the Senate. The bipartisan audience ate it up. It offered all the self-justification they could ever need for their abysmal behaviors: The movie showed that 150 years ago, politicians played far dirtier pool. 

And then along comes “Django Unchained,” another movie covering roughly the same period of time. But as opposed to the encyclopedic, presidents-with-golden-top-hats primer provided by “Lincoln,” this is a brutal, head-down-in-the-dirt version of slavery set in Texas and the South, two years before the Civil War. 

Suffice it to say that “Django” (“the D is silent”) will never be shown in the Senate. As with all of Quentin Tarantino’s work, the movie is also a ferocious mix of his obsessions with black culture, B movies, '70s television, 1960s spaghetti westerns and theme songs, violence, vengeance, blood, his previous movies, and the n-word.

A Blaxsploitgettiwestern?  Call it whatever you want, but the mushed-together-genre film provoked a media firestorm even before it was released.

Most prominently, director Spike Lee announced that he would not see it because it disrespects his ancestors: “American Slavery Was Not A Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western. It Was A Holocaust. My Ancestors Are Slaves. Stolen From Africa. I Will Honor Them,” he tweeted.

Indeed, I can understand that for African-Americans, the fact that this out-there white guy thinks he’s a bona fide brother who can really get down with the language and culture is infuriating.

I felt the same way when I heard about “Inglorious Basterds.” I couldn’t stomach the idea of “lightening up” the Holocaust. For sure, the treatment was made-up, a-historical -- and, I had to admit in the end, brilliant.

“Django” is a harder pill to swallow. Of course it’s offensive and immoral to think of slavery as the subject of an exciting new action-entertainment genre for Tarantino to use for fun and profit.

But the ironic thing is that unlike the very respectful and respectable “Lincoln,” “Django” has really gotten audiences talking about the onerous subject of slavery. Perhaps because of -- rather than despite -- all of its anachronistic pop cultural add-ons, the film becomes more accessible to audiences, and provides a violent, oddball, bloody -- and at times, yes, funny -- context through which the misery and brutality of slavery becomes clearer. It offers much to chew over and fight about.

Of course, you have to get used to the lightning-quick switch between horror and hilarity. Like after the sadness of seeing a chain gang of slaves transported, you watch the introduction of Christoph Waltz as a German dentist turned bounty hunter. We know this fancy-spoken and beautifully dressed character used to be a dentist because he has a giant tooth bobbling on top of his wagon.

The character of Dr. King Schultz, however, allows Tarantino to set up a moral equivalent between bounty hunting -- getting paid for human flesh -- and slavery. And Schultz proposes to free Django so that he can teach him to become his assistant. He explains it this way, and I couldn’t help hearing the director’s own guilt in there: "On one hand, I despise slavery. On the other, I need your help, and if you're in no position to say no, all the better. I'm going to take advantage of the situation. But I feel guilty."

Eventually, Jamie Foxx, who does a great job going from abused slave to gunslinger, says: "Kill white folks and they pay you for it? What's not to like?" The second sentence especially is one of the contemporary phrases that Tarantino puts in his mouth that never would have been said in the 1860s. But it also sets up the whole mythic vengeance ending.

The film contains no delicate nuances in character. In two of the most horrific scenes, Tarantino shows that in Django’s quest to find and free his slave wife (Broomhilda von Shaft -- that name might be a little much) he can become as cruel and inhuman as the white overseers. And there’s Stephen, the head house Negro, in what might be Samuel L. Jackson’s best performance ever, as a snobby, diabolical, purely self-interested Uncle Tom.

The point is that the movie attacks and deconstructs from all sides, and takes on topics that you’d never dream of as comical. 

One scene in the beginning is closer to Mel Brooks than QT -- and literally rips the lid off the idea of fierce Ku Klux Klansmen. It shows a proto-white-supremacist group going out for a lynching ride. The joke is that their hoods are so ill-fitting that most of them are riding blind. And when they pull those incredibly scary things off their heads, they are mostly sweaty young idiots (like Jonah Hill) with hat-hair underneath. Still on horseback, the group dissolves into fights about how badly one of the wives sewed the headgear, and her husband takes umbrage.  Talk about deconstructing the face of evil!

The movie does go on too long, and could have had three good endings before the final frame. (Some say that’s because Tarantino’s longtime editor died suddenly before he started shooting.)

It might be taught in school that “Lincoln freed the slaves.” But what struck me from watching both “Lincoln” and “Django” was that emancipation is a process that took an impossibly long time, and is not finished. It was another hundred years of strife before President Johnson’s Civil Rights Act of 1964 -- which integrated public accommodations, like hotels, restaurants and water fountains -- was passed. And obviously, the stain of slavery affects us to this day.

In the end, “Django” provides a lens (and a distorted one, surely) through which to view a very tough subject and talk about it. Everyone from Matt Drudge to Louis Farrakhan has weighed in so far. Amazingly, both said the same thing: that the movie will foster a race war. 

Bringing together the far right and the far left over their mutual hatred of your work is an accomplishment. Props to you, Quentin Tarantino. 

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11 comments about "Blaxsploitgettiwestern, Anyone?".
  1. Jonathan Hutter from Garrand , January 3, 2013 at 3:13 p.m.
    I can't provide a review because I haven't seen either movie. I can only say that Spike Lee is also a guy who thinks he actually helps the Knicks win games. Really.
  2. Casey Quinlan from Mighty Casey Media LLC , January 3, 2013 at 3:16 p.m.
    Perfect parsing of a movie that could, on the surface, seem to be something for everyone to hate. I think that "Django" will go miles further toward making the horror of America's racial history crystal clear than all the well-intentioned reverence of "Lincoln" - in Spielberg's version of history, white folks are the saviors. In Tarantino's world, we're all on our own, and have to fight for our own liberation. Which is more true to anyone's actual life experience ... ? Mega props to QT, and to the verbal fisticuffs he's once again kicked off.
  3. Barbara Lippert from mediapost.com , January 3, 2013 at 5:18 p.m.
    Well said, Casey! Spielberg's version is embalmed, except for Tommy Lee Jones! And Jonathan-- when he first said it, I just thought it was a battle of two egomaniacs. And Q is treading on his territory. But I think it backfired and created more interest in the movie.
  4. Feminista Fan from The Past, Present and Future , January 3, 2013 at 7:31 p.m.
    This reminds me of the TV show "All in the Family". When that ran in the 1970s airing the dirty secrets of racism in America through the character of Archie Bunker, everyone said the same thing. "It will inspire race wars!" But just the opposite happened. It held up a mirror to the most absurd thinking and exorcised the devil of bigotry. Americans are not as intimate with their history as they should be. For many people who see this movie, it will be the only opportunity they have to see the brutality of slavery, a very real and horrific chapter in our history. On one hand, how can I not agree with Spike Lee's sentiment? On the other hand, not everyone is as enlightened as Spike Lee but everyone needs to learn the lesson of enslavement and redemption. Tarantino does a better job than Spielberg bringing the truth about this shameful era to light.
  5. Barbara Lippert from mediapost.com , January 3, 2013 at 7:40 p.m.
    FF- Right on! I find myself continually thinking about the movie, and giving QT more credit for being smart than I had previously.
  6. Rob Frydlewicz from RAF Consulting , January 3, 2013 at 11:13 p.m.
    Being that we are a nation with an unquenchable thirst for extreme violence and vulgarity, the popularity of Tarantino's movie doesn't surprise me. What I'm very surprised by, however, is the popularity of Spielberg's film. Who would have thought such a slow-moving and cerebral movie could gross $150 million (and counting)?
  7. Charles Jamison from Footsteps , January 4, 2013 at 9:20 a.m.
    It is amusing in this discussion of "Django Unchained" to read about the sideshow of history repeating itself in the form of Spike Lee playing W.E.B. DuBois and Quentin Tarantino posing as Carl Van Vechten. That aside, the genius of Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln" was that it made an elitist subject matter (how our laws are made) accessible to the masses while Mr. Tarantino's "Django Unchained" approach to the uber subject matter of the same historical era as "Lincoln" is so irresistibly and self-referentially pulpy that elitists can not stop themselves from falling in love with (e.g., Blaxsploitgettiwestern...lol). I, for one, would rather think of these two movies as perfect metaphorical bookends for looking at radical social change: some of us have to work within the system for change and some of us have to be in the streets bringing change about by any means necessary. An aside: Did no one laugh out loud while watching "Lincoln"? I found a number of scenes as funny as anything that was in "Django Unchained."
  8. Barbara Lippert from mediapost.com , January 4, 2013 at 11:19 a.m.
    Charles-- wow. brilliant historical point. In Lincoln, I absolutely loved every moment that Tommy Lee Jones was on screen and laughed often. The whole idea of laughter in the Tarantino movie is also being discussed on the blogs a lot-- the discomfort with watching the difference in black and white audience response. In my screening, the African Americans laughed loudest.
  9. andy deaza from McCann , January 4, 2013 at 5:06 p.m.
    I fell asleep 20 min into Lincoln. This post would have helped me bypass it completely. Thanks to you I now know "Django" is an unchained version of the same tale (see what I did there?), and I'm going right for the hard stuff. As for Spike Lee... He's more of a movie critic then a director these days anyway, and we all know what they say about critics. "Those who cant do, are Knicks fans" Thanks for the wonderful post Barbara.
  10. Barbara Lippert from mediapost.com , January 4, 2013 at 5:21 p.m.
    Thanks, Andy! I see what you did there! (Are you a fan of Craig Kilbourne, too?) Tarantino imposed a few too many mythic hero imprints on the script, but it sure is lively and fosters endless talk.
  11. Feminista Fan from The Past, Present and Future , January 7, 2013 at 3:32 p.m.
    I have to agree with Andy on Lincoln. I really wanted to like it but what a snooze fest! It's over-wrought and over-thought.