This, the ninth film directed by Quentin Tarantino, and a doozy. In order to discuss this, I have to look at it from two different positions: as a movie separate from cultural context, and then, as a cultural artifact.
In a pure sense, Tarantino is a mash-up artist of humongous scholarship and skill. He doesn't make movies about reality, he makes movies about the movies we love, making meta-commentary on the myths we devour and the images that shape our perceptions, especially of the shadow worlds of crime and violence. In PULP FICTION he demonstrated an ability to twist time lines to create moments of tension (remember Butch and his girlfriend on the motorcycle? I thought for sure Jules would jump out and "pop" them...but no, he'd already left the business, if you look at the sequence. Wow.) as well as pull all kinds of bizarre subtexts up to the text level, and give us maps of the inner worlds of these low-lifes that we'd never seen before. A stunning movie, tht somehow created a context in which things I'd never imagine could be enjoyable became hysterically funny. (Ving Rhames and the hillbilly. I'm just sayin'...)
While DEATH PROOF was nothing other than a C-movie romp, KILL BILL 1 and 2 had an emotional line and impact that I'd never seen coming, and made me start to think about him differently. But it was still about movies, not human reality. INGLORIOUS BASTERDS was fascinatingly misunderstood by many. It wasn't a movie about WW2, but rather a movie about movies about WW2. A hybrid of an art-house film about a Jew seeking vengeance, and a bad WW2 "men on a mission" romp with terrible acting as part of the image system. And the two worlds slowly wound together, getting closer and closer until in one memorable scene, you actually watch Christopher Waltz and Brad Pitt engage in a Bad Acting Contest across a table, and I was in geek heaven. But over under and around the fun, there was something else going on, a righteous indignation that cinematic sins had never been addressed in the Tarantino fashion--bloody vengeance for payback of extraordinary evil.
I think he basically asked himself "If I were a Jew, what would I want to see in a movie?" And being the kinda guy he is, that meant watching Jews wreaking havoc on the Nazi High Command. And if it didn't happen in the real world, by God it was going to happen in his. Whatever one thinks of I.B. as a movie, it was audacious as hell, and not quite like anything else I'd seen.
We'll get back to that. DJANGO UNCHAINED is a mash-up of several different genres or films, chief among them the Spaghetti "revenge" western, Blaxploitation, and the "slave plantation" film. Basically, Django is a slave trained as a bounty hunter by a German dentist (you have to see it) who seeks to rescue his wife--who has been sold onto a Mississippi plantation. Pretty straight through-line, in some ways a story we've seen a thousand times before. It is played out with verve, beautiful cinematography, some hysterical comedy, and wonderful performances up and down the line (especially when you realize that these people are pieces of movies, not real people.) If I were an alien from another planet, watching film without any human tribal filters, and Django was slotted into the festival I'd consider it fun, bloody, and better by far than most of the movies it copies. I might put it in the top ten Spaghetti westerns I've ever seen, just on that count.
But there's a bigger issue here. And that is that if you compare films about slavery from the slaves' POV with films about, say, the civil war, or about slavery treating slaves as humans rather than animals, you'll see the extraordinary level of avoidance of this most deeply poisonous aspect of American history. Human history, really, but contrasted with our national myth, it is extraordinary. For an institution that lasted 250 years, followed by another 100 years of Jim Crow and segregation (which was still alive and well in my youth) to have been documented in dramatic form so infrequently (compare the 5 years of the Civil War. Compare films made about the Holocaust. Hell, compare films about Jewish oppression in Biblical times) suggests a level of avoidance, aversion, guilt and fear that distort the national discourse to this day. You don't depict the rape, torture, and murder necessary to keep a people in bondage. You just don't.
And dear God, you don't even imply that there is an unpaid debt in blood. At the end of "Roots," you had the absurd sight of Chicken George refusing to whip the overseer who had tormented his family for decades, a "that would make us no better than him" absurdity on the level of Batman refusing to kill the Joker, even though everyone knows Joker will simply escape Arkham Asylum and kill again. Period. We all know that's an artifact of the Comics Code, and the need to preserve a neat-o villain, but has nothing to do with the real world.
And we all understood that Chicken George's action was pure Hollywood Don't Scare The White Folks stuff. Black people aren't like us, the image said. They wouldn't want the kind of revenge we ourselves would seek out.
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