There is really only one movie I’ve truly anticipated for the year 2012. It’s one of those signs of how fast life moves after you reach certain ages that it’s almost upon us. This movie is Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained. I recall reading Tarantino saying a while back that he wanted to make movies on the great American issues such as slavery, but not make them as “issue films”, but as genre type action films. Of course, this is what 1970s blaxploitation era films such as Mandingo, and it’s sequel Drum, attempted to do, but their low production values, graphic sex and sensational plots turn some off (although those plots were largely based in truth, breeding WAS done in American slavery).
The script became avaliable earlier this year on the Internet, and I was very impressed when I read it, it seemed like the character of Django was given a great measure of dignity under the most undignified of circumstances. I know some will claim the plot is improbable, but those who make those claims don’t know a damn thing about this country or it’s history. Harriet Tubman, Fredrick Douglas, the settlement of Liberia, Denmark Vessey, Toussaint L’Overture and many other incredible things African Americans and Africans in the Americas performed DURING slavery seem equally impossible to today’s minds, but they happened. Django proposes to tell a story of a black man as a hero during the most diffult time in history for him to be so, and for that, Tarantino is to be applauded. I look at him as finally paying back some of the debt he continually claims to 1970s black popular culture.
That heroism, American, Black male, human, is the focus of this film is obvious from an article I read from one of the Hudlin brothers. The Hudlin brothers produced the classic hip hop film, House Party and one of the brothers is co producing this film. He said he told Tarantino when that him and his friends in the hood in the 1970s were disgusted by a character on Roots failure to whip his slave master when he had a chance. He felt this was part of the subliminal programming that in order to be good, a black man must be better, more sainlty, more forgiving than other American heroes, such as John Wayne, or any cowboy worth his spurs who fights for his. This may actually have truth in a land in which black people have suffered so much, but that is their country, but nobody wants to see that in the great American temple of vicarious atonement, film!!!!
So Tarantino set out to make a film that would do for blacks what Inglorious Basterds, did for American Jews: depict them as avengers and heroes in the circumstances of the tragedies they’ve faced as a people. However, from reading the script, Tarantino has once again chosen to depict black heroism in terms of an individual rather than in group terms. The jewish soldiers of Inglorious Basterds worked together as a team, Django works with a German guy. Over the years black folks have lamented our tendency to perform great individual feats that do not necessarily add up in advancement for the rest of us. However, the American myth is one of individual greatness, and it may be that blacks may epitomize this in America. But later for all that, it’s one film and it isn’t even out yet, the facts are, I can’t wait!
There was one scene in the script I really dug that I’m hoping makes it to the final cut. Samuel L Jackson is in this movie plays the ultimate self serving “Uncle Tom” figure, and it seems Tarantino will go deeper to show this Uncle Tom character as not just a misguided black clinging to a little piece of power (as Malcom x sometimes described this person) but as an actual co conspirator with his slave master with whom he’s so close. But there is a scene where Django and Dr. Schultz are coming to stay at the big house, and Jacksons character, although black himself, furiously objects to have a “nigger” sleep in the house where white people sleep. You can see in the subtext, all the Uncle Tom pathology, his horror that another black would be able to enjoy the status that he feels he does, and the challenge that another free black would provide to his own standing. The character confides to Django “touch all this shit you want, ’cause we burnin’ it soon you leave here.” I’m not quite sure that self hating, self serving viciousness has ever been shown in an American film and it shows Tarantino has done his homework.
Also it seems James Brown’s funk classic, The Payback will be featured in this film and I’m excited about it. The Godfather of Soul’s song has long been taken to be some sort of black militant anthem that speaks to years of oppresion, but the truth is, it was written for a blaxploitation film, Hell up in Harlem. It never appeared in that film however, and it speaks powerfully to the circumstances of the Django character and anybody else seeking retribution. The lyrics of “took my woman and ran amok”, in particular fit the movie. This type of fusion across decades and generations could make for a truly transcendant film moment in Django that all Americans should (but probably won’t) savor as a contribution to understanding our history, and the current moment, from the fast food kitchen of pop culture.