Perhaps more unsettling than the movie itself was the crowd of white teenage boys circled up in the lobby afterwards, replaying their favorite fight scenes, “Dude, I couldn’t believe he did that!” (excited laughter) “Man, that was the best!”
Any movie dealing with interracial relationships and slavery is going to fill the internet with complaints. I don’t need to simply add one more voice calling out the disgustingly gratuitous violence of a Tarantino film…and frankly, I saw it knowing what I was getting in to.
Instead I want to point out a criticism that I’m not hearing. Where are the scared white people? Shouldn’t a movie all about “killing white folks and getting paid for it,” freak the white community out? But instead my local theater full of white people reveled in the gore, and the teenagers panted with pleasure.
A movie about slavery that doesn’t force white folks to look within? Not worth much. One subtle commentary can be found in the ethnicities of Django’s collaborators: his German partner and the silly Australian guards are the only white people who contribute to his flourishing. Why, in antebellum America, are foreigners the only white people who can see Django’s humanity? But this is too subtle for the folks in my theater.
Just like so many people want to say that racism is over now that we have a black president, all sorts of folks who don’t know their history are watching Django Unchained feeling that through this single hero, blacks are symbolically vindicated. This is grossly erroneous, but our symbols do matter. Obama’s election and reelection haven’t brought equal opportunity to blacks in the US, but our minds have been opened a crack, and our hearts hope a little stronger. As ridiculous as his heroism is (how did he become a sharpshooter overnight?), Django satisfies a need for power in an era in which black men’s impotence was strictly enforced. Finally, the black man’s (you know) gun is firing full-force.
But who does this serve? We know who black men kill – Django Unchained may tell a different story, but black men are killing black men every day in this country, exponentially more than they are killing white people. Telling black men, white men, all of us, once again, that power is found in violence fuels the self-destruction devouring so many black families and communities.
Now I certainly appreciate the ways this movie is unique. A black woman’s value is at the center of the story (though she is romanticized in silly ways, and her worth is continually noted in contrast to the other black women of the movie). Finally, the love between a black man and woman stops the world. The white sidekick sacrifices himself, while the black hero and his love ride off into the sunset. These inversions stretch imaginations, as mainstream movies never portray black characters in these ways.
But when do we stop believing that progress is achieved when we finally let everyone play the same old screwed up game? When do we get creative and simply change the game?