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Life Arts

Movie Review: Django

By       Message Steven Barnes       (Page 2 of 3 pages) Become a premium member to see this article and all articles as one long page.     Permalink

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The problem is that we're not different. And therein lies a real, real problem. No payback. No vengeance against the perpetrators. Oh, that's great for the spiritually minded, but a quick glance at world cinema suggests that vengeance is understood just fine by a large enough percentage of the human race to make the omission glaring. That is what happens when one group can control the images used to depict another group. There is no humanity. You don't get the "full spectrum" of human response. You have very low level thugs and sacrificial "buddies" (any Dirty Harry film), and extraordinarily high level (Morgan Freeman can play God), but not the simple arc of growing up, becoming an adult, finding and satisfying sexual needs with honor, falling in love, raising AND PROTECTING family, growing old. The precise arc of human life which is most common, most often presented in film all over the world...the "what will my life be, Daddy?" question, the "how do I become an adult?" question that all world literature answers for its people...


This simply doesn't exist in mainstream cinema. I've often commented about the lack of simple human sexuality in successful films with black protagonists (zero percent compared to about 22% for white protagonists in films that earn over 100 million domestic--the basic standard of "success"), but there are other gaps, and among them the lack of payback, something so deeply held as a part of American mythology that in such movies as "The Gunfight At O.K. Corral" (which I was just watching last night) it was totally understood that clean-cut Burt Lancaster would throw his lifetime of legal service out the window to avenge a family slight. "He killed my brother." And that motivation--you mess with my family, I'll mess with yours--is understood as more than the Code of the West. It is part of every world culture you can find, anywhere.


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And blacks in America...well, they kinda got messed with. And I think Tarantino, watching Westerns, realized that black cowboys weren't represented at 1% of their actual statistical existence. They were barely represented in Civil War movies--except in a film like "Glory" where they got vengeance, but had to die at the end for the "sin" of daring to demand to be treated like men. And the cinema audiences bought it, and the Academy rewarded the performances...it was as close to a moment of pure humanity as we could get, in that sense. Other films about slavery and its after-effects tip-toed around the horror, from "Amistad" (which was about people on their WAY to slavery), "Beloved" (about people already freed from slavery), "Lincoln" (slaves off stage), "Gone With The Wind" (the most powerful image creator in the entire sub-genre, in which slaves apparently just loved being slaves), "Mandingo" (in which slaves were exotic animals) and so forth.


Oddly, one of the very best major films on the subject was the comedy "Skin Game" with James Garner and Lou Gossett (about two con artists, one white and one black)...and it is no mistake that almost half of "Django" deals with a deadly con game. But the basic question at the core of "Django" is a geek cinephiles's question: what would have happened if John Shaft, or Superfly, or Dolomite, or John Slaughter had been born a slave? And what if he had awakened to his true nature? In other words, what if the Avenging Hero as we understand him: the Rambos, James Bonds, Dirty Harrys, Martin Riggs--the human being who, armed with righteous rage and purpose can (in Shane Black's phrase) "Touch the myth" and become that irresistible force of nature necessary to bring balance to the universe?

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And who would be crazy enough to make such a film? A mash-up of "Skin Game," "Mandingo," "Gone With The Wind," "Shaft," and the titular "Django."  Gee, I wonder.


Tarantino has done something here that just makes me shake my head. I can barely believe it exists, and man oh man, is it in your face. Django starts as a slave, and ends as a mythic hero, the kind we've seen countless thousands of times on the screen. Except...we haven't. We've barely seen anything like this on screen, ever. At least for a generation. Remember: when "Shaft" was remade, they neutered him. We get angelic too-perfect Denzel and Will and Morgan, but no simple testosterone-driven male "thinking animals." You can say all you want about whether these images are important, but I can promise you the audience thinks they are. In fact, I don't think you can point to a single week in the history of cinema where where wasn't at least one such image playing in theaters. I submit to you that there is a hunger for them that is incalculably large, and consistent throughout all eras and most cultures--in fact ANY culture that has successfully survived contact with other, aggressive cultures. Don't have that energy? You get wiped the @#$$ out.


"Django" intends to correct that. It is a big, messy, sprawling, indulgent, violent revenge fantasy that DARES you to disapprove of the target of its violence: slavers. Watch the reactions people have, and you'll very clearly see who empathizes with slaves and abolitionists...and who empathizes with the owners and abusers. Oh my Gawd, the blogosphere has been buzzing with hate, fear, and hysterical joy. This movie plays with cultural images and forbidden archetypes in a way only the most successful filmmakers in the world could manage, or possibly get away with.

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It is FAR from perfect. I could make a considerable list of things I wish he'd done differently, or better, and yeah, it could have been trimmed by at least ten minutes. But that it exists at all is astounding. A simple story of a man seeking to rescue his wife from monsters. We've seen it countless times. Except this man is black, and the monstrosity underpins the single most persistent and attractive mythology in American history, as measured by GWTW's adjusted box office.


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Steven Barnes is a NY Times bestselling author, personal performance coach, and martial artist. He has lectured on creativity and human consciousness at UCLA, Mensa, and the Smithsonian Institute. Steve created the Lifewriting system of (more...)

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