It has taken me a week even to begin this reflection. That’s how affecting and polarizing – even within myself! – the experience of Django Unchained is.
You see, I am wrestling with so many arbitrary feelings of obligation regarding the movie, I hardly know what to say – or if to say anything, or why I would be saying it. I think I read and heard too much about it before I saw it, and now all of those very strong opinions are swirling in my head, each beckoning me to its own side of the field.
As a critical viewer of films, I feel pulled to expound on Django‘s weaknesses, which are glaringly obvious and easy to target. It plays fast and loose with historical record, a considerable distraction for many. Its narrative is long, and just circuitous enough to be unnecessarily confusing in spots. It exaggerates and manipulates and unnerves, purposely shocking the audience for its own benefit.
As a white woman of the twenty first century, I feel pressure to stay out of it. I wasn’t there. I have no point of reference for the material, and the only person who looks remotely like me in the film is the sister of the enemy, who simply goes along with her brother’s way of life and enjoys all of its perks with an aggressively persistent smile and blind eye. Then again, she pays a heavy penalty for not using her voice, so…
As a moderate member of Generation X in the Obama era, I desperately want people of color to know how wrong I believe racism is and how colorblind I want us all to be. I spent a great deal of my time in the theater gauging my own reactions with those of the African-American couple behind me. I laughed, then listened to see if they did. I bobbed my head to the music, then wondered if I looked like I was trying too hard. When I encountered the lady of the couple in the bathroom after the show, I started to ask her how she felt about the movie, but hesitated and ultimately left in silence lest I should offend. This is the legacy that some of us are trying so (too?) hard to erase. Thanks, forbears!
You get the picture of my conflict, I suppose, so let me throw all of that to the curb and just react authentically as possible as myself.
My first and most lasting impression – and it is impossible to overstate this – was that the soundtrack is bangin’ (industry term). It’s a little bit western, a little bit gangsta’ rap, a smattering of latina, and a whole lot of fun. The music was practically a character, and perhaps my favorite one.
As for the Oscars at stake, I am now even more torn about Best Supporting Actor. Christoph Waltz is so charming and good in this movie it’s hypnotic. I just wanted to hug and thank him when it was over. I think I still want Tommy Lee Jones to win, but it’s a seriously tough call.
I am not sure that I would give this movie best picture, but I think it ties with Argo for incorporating myth into its narrative, with Zero Dark Thirty for being unflinchingly true to itself, and with Silver Linings Playbook for ensemble chemistry. Mostly I can’t see how Django got nominated but Tarantino didn’t; his films are defined by his directing to the point where it’s impossible to separate them.
And, for the record, Leonardo DiCaprio was robbed. His was the biggest snub of the season after what he did in this movie. Amazing.
Django Unchained works best for me as a symbol. At face value, it is a revenge fantasy with a protagonist bent on his own vision alone. He has no compassion – or even eyes – for any other slave but himself and his wife. His bonds are tenuous and his redeeming qualities muted by what seems to be selfish, survivalist obsession.
Taken with Story in mind, it becomes somewhat of a parallel to the common journey of one who is overcoming addiction. We see Django then as a slave being driven through the wilderness who is suddenly and violently set free by a gentleman with wisdom and vision beyond his time. He is surrounded by others who do not understand his freedom and they resent him for it. His actions ultimately open doors for others who are enslaved, but he respects their right to choose freedom or not. He seeks reunion and reconciliation with his wife, wreaking devastation on the enemy (the addiction) who would torture, restrain, and re-enslave him. It’s a helpful metaphor.
Finally, I must address the de rigueur violence that is so typical of Quentin Tarantino. As long as you go into it expecting to see a two-liter’s worth of red spray and flying pork chops at every gun shot, you’ll weather the shoot-outs just fine. The more personal violence – Mandingo fighting and a slave sent to the dogs – I didn’t see, because I purposely closed my eyes. Is it all over-the-top and indulgent on Tarantino’s part? Absolutely yes, but here’s the thing: Slavery is still alive today. Atrocities like these are happening now to children, women, and men all around the world, and closing our eyes to them is a sin. Whether Tarantino had that in mind when he wrote such scenes I do not know, but he did depict human-on-human violence in an intentionally visceral manner so as to hurt our hearts for the subject.