The issue of slavery is a difficult subject to have open discourse with people about. It’s a raw nerve for most, and the idea of speaking about it subjectively can be nearly impossible. Whether it’s due to a certain amount of sanctimony(Spike Lee, comes to mind…) or plain old fashioned “white guilt,” as people it’s a subject that is usually broached with too much indignation or temerity to have a discussion of any real merit. All recent atrocities always seem to be approached from a purely emotional stand point. The problem with this, however understandable it is, is that “emotions” are a purely instinctual part of our psychological make up. The last time something drove you to tears did you take a moment before you started crying to consider whether or not it should make you cry, or did you just cry(Excluding all you dutiful sociopaths out there, of course.). Coming at any topic from a purely emotional place doesn’t really ever bring about much clarity, and further than that, rarely ever brings us to any better understanding of what is being discussed. Now, I understand that all that may seem pretty cold, but that is not my intention at all. This posting is merely an extension of the conversation that this film and I have been having since I saw it a few weeks back. Oh yeah, I’m talking about Django Unchained, by the by.
Django Unchained is probably the most entertaining movie I saw all last year(Well, actually that may be Looper, but whatevs, you know?), but it’s not just the most entertaining. No, not at all. It’s also one of the most well written and pointed movies of the year. It has a clear message that it’s sending to it’s audience, but it does so without ever being preachy or condescending( Remember Crash, anyone?). It allows for all the obvious injustices that come along with the very idea of slavery to be just that. Unjust and obvious, because that’s, you know, what it is. The mere act of just showing us a person being whipped or forced to engage in mandingo fighting, is more than enough to prove it’s point. There’s no need for a morally conscience character come out and say, “This is wrong y’all. This ain’t no good. No good at all,” as a single tear runs down their face. It handles the material in probably the most fair and even keeled way that I’ve seen in a movie about slavery in America. Nothing in the film is “black vs white”, this is more of a story about “good vs evil.” It just so happens that the “evil” in this movie is represented by white people, because you know, white people owned slaves. Even then, though, it’s not quite that simple. Well, mostly. We’ll discuss more on that in a bit.
One of the larger complaints about this movie is the running time, but I feel like the people that make those complaints are missing an important part of what that running time allows. It gives us, the audience, the time to really take in the world that we are being presented with. What makes this important is that it gives us context. Now, you may think the context is simple or “black and white”(HAHAHA! Oh my… I’m sorry. I’m done.), but you’d be ignoring some of the more subtle social complexities of the time period that this context provides. The thing that this film, very subtlety mind you, brings into the discussion of slavery, is much more than just the superficial act of it. It speaks to a larger societal issue, and how through certain forms of societal conditioning, slavery had been justified.
The acceptance of slavery ran deep in the society of the time. Even amongst the black community of slaves. The film makes mention of black slavers, and through the character of Steven(Samuel Motherfucking Jackson!) shows how deeply engrained the idea that black people are less than other walks of humanity is engrained in all the people of the time. I wouldn’t categorize these characters, or the people who engaged in this activity at the time, to be self loathing, or anything like that. No, in my opinion, it has to do with the accepted forms of conditioning of the time period. If for your entire life you’re told that you are something, then you may just live up to that criteria. The ideology that allows slavery to exist is like a virus of thought, and perspective. Perspectives are developed by exposure to information and experiences. So, what happens when the prevailing thoughts of the time lead to this type of existence? Everyone is affected by it, and we can’t haphazardly go around throwing blame on people that are born into a disadvantage, in terms of their rearing. There is something to be said about the nature of ignorance, but can’t we lay the blame at the feet of the uneducated and misguided. Oh, that doesn’t mean there isn’t any blame to be tossed around. There is some blame to be tossed about for sure.
To frame this discussion of slavery in a larger context, it’s important to think about the prevailing thought processes of those that do the enslaving, and I’m not talking about the hired help. Slavery is not just a dark(Nope, not going to do it…) part of America’s past, but rather a dark(You better not be laughing, racist!) part of human history in general. There has always been contingents of all human societies that have justified the notion of enslavement. It’s born out of a place of elitism, arrogance, and hubris. A truly dangerous concoction. I find blindly believing in the leaders of “popular opinion” to be an extremely dubious affair. Those that claim to be part of the “intelligentsia” of any given time period, usually have the before mentioned qualities. If the history of how academia has justified things like slavery, and eugenics, all throughout history is any indicator, it seems like pretty sound advice to me. The way the film touches upon this is through the concept of phrenology. It was a bull shit… I’m sorry, pseudo science of the time period, that was developed by the academic community, to justify slavery. That is an over simplification of the actual concept as a whole, but I’m only talking about how it was used in terms of slavery. So, there… The short and sweet of it is that through the definition that phrenology provided, some races were just plain and simple born to be slaves, or to be controlled, because that is the way their brains naturally develop. Now, this is obviously ridiculous, but it is what people actually thought. Pseudo science created by pseudo intellectuals. You got to watch out for those “smart” people, you know. I was really impressed that the film had these elements in the movie. So, like I said, I felt like it was the most honest and mature way to handle the subject matter. It’s fair, and creates the environment for actual fruitful discussion, rather than being leading and biased.
I’ve been reading a lot about this movie over the past few weeks, and I keep seeing the same thing. Obviously, much of the writing(and speaking, I suppose.) about this film, and it’s dealings with slavery, have all over simplified the larger social commentary that’s in this movie. In my opinion it’s selling the movie short, and is disingenuous. Again, “smart” people, you know? I’ve read entire articles and message board posts on the movie’s use of the “N” word(Got it? Good, moving on). Honestly, stuff like that makes my fucking head hurt. Remember earlier when I was talking about sanctimony and indignation… This movie has more than that to offer. I would even go so far as to call it “important,” not a label I throw around carelessly, especially when it comes to films, but in this case it may be appropriate. It’s doing what good art should do, and that is engender discussion amongst those that experience it. So, for that, I am appreciative, because I think this is a topic that could use more discussion in a less “entrenched in a specific opinion” sort of way. For the observant viewer, this film brings about context that isn’t usually delved into, and that is the issue of slavery in general. How the self declared “intelligentsia” makes moral decisions. Now, I realize you have to dig deep to get that out of this film. It’s a raucously entertaining movie, but it has a lot more than that to offer.
So, I obviously enjoyed this movie quite a bit. It has excellent performances all around. The cinema photography is fantastic. The writing is smart. The editing, and pacing are great. I would say that even if you are not a big Tarantino fan that this movie is worth your time. Sure, it has a lot of his obvious flourishes, but this movie is more akin to Jackie Brown, than Pulp Fiction or Kill Bill. It is one of the more “Un-Tarantino” movies he’s made. Also, just as a side note. If you read this and you feel that I’m dead wrong, or maybe even that I am racist myself, that may be do to the “rusty” nature of my writing ability, and please leave a comment. I would love to talk about this stuff more in depth with strangers on the internet. I mean, you could also just be stupid too. So, there’s that… Again, thanks for reading strangers!