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Unwrapping Django Unchained

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I read with great interest the Facebook trend-lines of conversations about writer/director Quentin Tarantino’s new movie Django Unchained. I found that most black people who saw the film and wrote about it on a Facebook trend-line seemed to like it. Nevertheless, there were varying opinions. Some thought the violence in the movie was overdone; other recognized the violence as a Tarantino trademark. Some people thought the word “nigger” was overused, while others thought its repeated usage authenticated the period and is also another Tarantino film characteristic.

I also found that opinions even formed along generational lines. Older African Americans tend to be offended by what they regard as a disrespectful exploitation of our holocaust, and some of them are refusing to see the film, based on word-of-mouth descriptions of it. Younger blacks seemed to have more acceptance of slavery as a proper subject matter for exploitation.

I suspect that this generational chasm exists because those blacks who lived through the Civil Rights period are more knowledgeable about racial oppression from a standpoint of personal involvement. The struggle for voters’ rights and basic civil rights gave them an intimate link to slavery. None of this is true for many African Americans born after the period of the movement; thus this cold and distant detachment from our past, which allows them this extravagant tolerance.

After seeing the movie for myself the first thing that came to mind was the wish that the Niggers” (and Wiggers) who see this movie have some kind of historical reference point from which to judge the movie. A slave (Jamie Foxx) is separated from his wife after a failed attempt to escape. On the trip to his new owner, Django is freed by a German bounty hunter (Christoph Waltz) named symbolically Dr. King Schultz, and after spending a winter making some cash killing white outlaws, the two hook up to find Django’s wife (Kerry Washington) who is named Broomhilda and speaks German. They trace her to a plantation in Mississippi called Candyland ruled by Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) and overseen by a one-named old nigger named Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson).

Throughout the movie Django proves over and over again through the magic of the screenwriter’s pen that he is no ordinary Nigger. The movie is a farce; a feel-good absurdity of revenge, pulpy, revisionist and entertaining. It is not history, and though that is an obvious point, there will be some who will confuse it with the reality of slavery. So knowing something about slavery would give the viewer a proper perspective on the movie – knowing where to file this shit is important.

Moviegoers familiar with David Walker’s Appeal will know that the kind of carnage that they see visited on whites in Django was called for by this free black man in the autumn of 1829. David Walker called for Southern blacks to rise up and overthrow their masters in his pamphlet which had to be smuggled into the South by black merchant seamen who passed through Walker’s shop in Boston. The pamphlet was banned and a price was placed on Walker’s head.

Another source of historical reference would be knowledge of Herbert Aptherker’s book Slave Revolts which details American slave revolts from the very first to the very last, drawing from congressional records that exist today. There are many slave narratives that would lend a more complete understanding of where to place this movie in term of historical relevance. In fact, there are voice recordings that give accounts of slavery from people who were slaves. The ex-slaves who were recorded were, at that time, in their 80s, 90s, and 100s; the tales elicit tears and anger. These recordings were made during the Depression era when out-of-work writers were paid by the government to document the conditions of the period. These recordings are available at the Library of Congress to citizen listeners and documentarians alike. Some of this knowledge would help the proper digestion of the feel-good righteous payback dealt to whites in this movie.

I stopped using the word “nigger” in 1969 after I titled a collection of my short stories How Many Niggers Make Half a Dozen and Una Mulzac, the owner of the Liberation Book Store in Harlem, New York, refused to sell it because of the title. I never used the word after that except when it comes out of the mouth of some character I’ve created. So, it was difficult hearing it over 100 times in this movie – many times forced and needlessly.

Other than that, I have no quarrel with the movie; I understand it to be an absurd fantasy with some high-priced talents, and who could play a groveling nigger servant who loved the master even more than he loved himself better then Samuel L. Jackson? Tarantino cheats went he overdoes usage of Samuel Jackson’s signature pronouncement of the word “motherfucker.” No one has become as identified with the phrase as is Samuel L. Jackson and in those instances Tarantino was trying to bolster his work with Jackson’s popular usage of the word.

The one thing I liked about the movie is that it depicted the brutality of slavery. There were scenes with slaves battling to the death for the master’s amusement; a scene of a slave torn apart by the master’s dogs; and a scene of the enclosure in a box that recaptured runaway slaves had to suffer through. There are scenes that should offend all viewers to the point where they demand that the United States Government pay for the inhumanity it participated in and sanctioned in the past.

But that wouldn’t happen. The white power structure will get another pass on that one as it has on all other wrongs it legitimized against blacks in the past. Here is an example of how they get away with their wrongs. Take this with you: A white man, a black man and a Jew were stranded on an island. One of them kicked opened a bottle and a genie was released. The genie offered to grant each of them a wish for setting him free. He started with the black man. “I want all of my people to go back to Africa and live free,” the black man wished. “It is so,” the genie said. The Jew wished that all his people would be sent to the holy land to live free. “It is so,” said the genie. Then he turned to the white man. The white man said; “Let me get this straight: the niggers are all in Africa?” “Yep,” said the genie. And the kikes are all in the holy land?” “Yep” said the genie, “now what do you want?” The white man said, “Shit, in that case I’ll have a martini.”

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About Horace Mungin

  • Osei Terry Chandler

    Well written Mr. Mungin. My sentiments exactly. Thanks,
    Osei T. Chandler

  • Dr Dreadful

    An excellent article, Horace, candid and thought-provoking.

    While I’d like to see Django Unchained, I’m personally under no illusion that it represents history any more accurately than 99% of Hollywood’s output. But then that’s not why we watch movies, is it? :-)

  • Portia Cobb

    You left out the opinions of artists and other filmmakers. Mine is pretty straightforward. I could enjoy it for its dialogue (not so much the use of the word “nigger,” but in my estimation, it belonged to the time and the genre). I also enjoyed that Tarrantino made light of the KKK and the other oppressors-by constructing their characters as complete imbeciles. That made me laugh…cause we all know they had to be quite inhuman and ignant to torture other human beings in that manner. And I applauded along with Kerry Washington’s character at the end when the big house exploded. So many innuendos occur that make it quite a work of art. The use of music to transport the violence we are watching-which is depicted in a remote past-into the present. Made me consider if all gun wielding maniacs hear hard core rap or hip hop in their heads. I am sure that also offended many folk. Story, treatment and artistic license with history. Complex and it has us talking. Tarantino should just utter the words he penned in this script: “Baby, I’m back.”

  • Portia Cobb

    Oh and one more thing…we need all remember that film is fantasy.