Comedian Katt Williams threatened to punch Tarantino. Spike Lee made his usual grumblings about the film's N-word count. And I know this is one of those situations (“Oh, hey, white boy defends the use of the N-word”), but the idea that a white filmmaker should have some limit on the number of times he can have characters use a word is, on its face, silly. It’s further discredited because “Django” is a film about the antebellum South. To remove the N-word out of sensitivity would mark the same kind of backwards whitewashing that has come to typify America’s relationship to its darkest historical chapter (more on this in a moment).
I’ll first just point out that “Django Unchained” is a remarkable, brilliant film—strange, entertaining, hilarious, dark, and disturbing all at the same time. The entire cast mesmerizes, from Jamie Foxx’s title character to Christopher Waltz as his gunslinging German mentor to Leonardo Dicaprio’s despicable plantation owner. If Samuel L. Jackson doesn’t get an Oscar nomination for playing the most evil Uncle Tom ever depicted in cinema, it’s pure robbery. Combining a spaghetti western with a slave narrative is as bold and dangerous as it sounds, and yet Tarantino pulls it off with virtuosity. “Pulp Fiction” is one of my favorite films, and yet at its core it’s an old-school gangster flick. “Django Unchained” however, actually wrestles quite impressively with the most controversial and divisive of subject matter.
Spike Lee's criticism of the film and his on-going beef with Tarantino is truly unfortunate because it makes Lee look incredibly small-minded and lacking in self-awareness. Lee has made two of my favorite movies ever ("He Got Game" and "The 25th Hour") and countless others I've enjoyed, but his weird phobia to Tarantino is disappointing. He took to Twitter, writing, "American Slavery Was Not A Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western. It Was A Holocaust." My first reaction was, "Dude, you made a caper film about the Holocaust. It was called 'Inside Man' and it was pretty damn good." The idea that there are politically correct creative limits to any subject matter is so incredibly mistaken, one hardly knows where to begin.
The fact is there are not very many good movies about slavery. Even though I thoroughly enjoyed “Lincoln” it was a film entirely about the political moment that ended slavery that managed to deal with this very core subject in a completely sanitized way. Spielberg’s “Amistad” comes to mind as a film that treated slavery with verisimilitude, and yet it felt even more sterile than “Lincoln.”
Part of the problem is that American slavery really was as weird and horrifying and barbaric as a Quentin Tarantino film, replete with near limitless examples of torture, rape, and sexualized violence visited by the southern white population upon the black population held in legal captivity. You can read about it without ever actually wrapping your mind around it. American history, as it was taught to most of us, does little to put the visceral terror and inhumanity of slavery in a perspective that you can feel as a human being living in 2012. In two or three particularly disturbing scenes, “Django Unchained” does just that.
I once had a perfectly kind, perfectly liberal friend, whose ancestors included slave-owners. This obviously made her uncomfortable, but she also told the story of how they were compassionate owners, and after the end of the Civil War some of the slaves chose to stay and continued to work for the family until their deaths. She never understood why I found this story totally repellent.
Because whether the story was true or not, actual events, entirely plausible, or a white-washed family legend, there has long been a movement—still very much alive in Deep South where they’re always trying to sneak it into history textbooks—to water down the history of slavery.
Stories like “Django Unchained” and the ubiquitous us of the N-word are not dangerous. Stories like my friend’s are dangerous: that slavery could be beneficent, that people in bondage were not deeply traumatized, terrorized, and psychologically damaged by it. The most hideous tales of the antebellum period—stories of rape, torture, and murder by the most savage methods—were the most common, and yet they have been herded into a corner and almost sequestered from our historical understanding. We find these realities unpleasant and we seek alternative routes around them.
It’s bizarre then that a revenge fantasy brimming with slapsticky, blood-splattered shootouts like “Django Unchained” could come the closest to dramatizing the historical reality, and it’s a testament to Tarantino’s weird, wicked brain that he could so successfully realize it.