If it hadn't have been for Spike Lee, I might have blissfully ignored Django Unchained, the much-talked-about Quentin Tarantino movie about a revenge-minded slave set in pre-Civil War America.
Granted, I'm not a big movie buff. I've seen several of Lee's films and, for the most part, left the theater underwhelmed by the enormous self-seriousness of his work. As for Tarantino, I've never troubled myself to watch the full run of what others have described to me as overly violent and profane films, including Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill (volumes 1 and 2), and, more recently, Inglourious Basterds.
But Lee changed that. Admittedly without viewing the movie, the outspoken and often-bombastic Oscar-nominated film director took exception to the film on racial grounds.
"I can't speak on it 'cause I'm not gonna see it," Lee said in an interview with Vibe shortly before the movie was released last month. "All I'm going to say is that it's disrespectful to my ancestors. That's just me "¦ I'm not speaking on behalf of anybody else."
Lee followed that salvo a few days later with a Twitter condemnation, writing that, "American Slavery Was Not A Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western."
Well, that was enough to get me into the multiplex to see what all the fuss was about. I wanted to be in on the au courant conversation that seemed to consume social media at the start of the New Year.
There's nothing like a race-based pop-culture contretemps to provoke racial chatter. In ways that politics and policy debates can only aspire to, a movie such as Django Unchained — or a proposed television show about a rapper with 11 children by 10 women, or a discussion of the nerdy sartorial style favored by black professional basketball players — commands public attention and sets tongues a-wagging about race like nothing else.
So I went to see Django Unchained — and I'm glad I did.
Clearly, as Lee's criticism demonstrates, this isn't a movie with universal appeal. Even my own take surprised me. I entered the theater with trepidation, and I came out conflicted about what I'd seen. The movie was unlike anything I'd expected or, to be perfectly honest, seen previously. But over the following few days, as I thought more about the movie, my appreciation for the film ballooned.
Similar to Lee, Tarantino is an artist and should have wide berth to make movies as he chooses. Patrons can also choose to pay for and watch their work — or not. Exercising that freedom shouldn't be a racial Rorschach test.
As much as I enjoyed the movie, I should first mention its two serious shortcomings. First, the n-word fouls this movie like too much salt in the soup. The use of that vile epithet shows up a lot in Tarantino's movies, leading some critics to complain that the white director must think he's black or that he has a pass to behave as if he were. Granted, if ever there was a place for littering pop culture with the n-word, a movie that takes place in the antebellum South would be it. But while some subtle restraint might have done more to sooth 21st-century feelings about slavery, Tarantino isn't one for light touches. In fact, nothing about Django Unchained is subtle — everything is an over-the-top excess.
Secondly, the film fails as a historically accurate representation of slavery and in its representation of the racial interactions of blacks and whites in the two years or so before the Civil War. There's no way a free black man and a white man would have traveled on horseback as equals in the parts of the country — Tennessee and Mississippi? Really? — as shown. The idea of a black man with a pistol on his hip, comporting himself as an equal to whites, was the biggest taboo of all in both the movies and the real world of that time period. Similarly, in one pivotal scene, it's unlikely that the Head Negro in Charge of the Big House would have sipped brandy in the library with his Master, no matter how loyal a servant he might have been. Such ridiculous touches signal that the movie isn't meant to be taken as a historical documentary.
But the film never claims to be a historical documentary, and seeking veracity in this movie is a quibbler's way to avoid enjoying an implausibly good story. At its heart, Django Unchained is a fantasy that features a love-struck black man doing whatever he must to save and be reunited with the love of his life, a black woman. That story is rare, and I loved the idea of it.
Beneath the surface, though, there are other stories and messages that are equally rewarding and subversive to those who look for such things in pop culture's racial messaging. Contrary to the conventions of Hollywood, Tarantino allowed the titular black hero (played by Oscar-winner Jamie Foxx) to live through the closing credits. The white sidekick, Dr. King Schultz (played by Christoph Waltz), was a catalyst to the title character's self-actualization. He wasn't Django's savior. It's a subtle thing, but one that turns the "noble other" motif of black or Native American sidekick on its head.
To be sure, the movie was a send-up of Hollywood — and Italian — westerns. For a convenient reason, those movies rendered black people nonexistent. Slavery was concurrent with the western expansion that undergirded the cowboy theme. Historically, filmmakers didn't know how to deal with Manifest Destiny and slavery at the same time, so they omitted the inconvenient parts of history. When did anyone see an African-American in a movie or television western with Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, or Audie Murphy?
Tarantino, on the other hand, wanted to put the two together, allowing the improbable storyline of a vengeance-seeking, lovelorn, black cowboy-turned-bounty-hunter, who confronts slavery, racism, and the other unmentionables of the Western genre. I loved that, too.
Movies aren't always letter-perfect truth telling. To make them so would wring the pleasure out of the story. Veracity often just isn't very entertaining. But Django Unchained is pure escapism. I found it shared more in common with another Western that featured an equally improbable black-cowboy leading character, Mel Brooks's 1974 Blazing Saddles — only Tarantino's film included heaps of blood-spattering violence.
About the violence that has become a hallmark of Tarantino's films: There's so much of it and the scenes are so splatter happy that I stopped being alarmed after the first 10 minutes. Of course, there's a danger in that reaction, especially in these post-Newtown, Connecticut, days. But that's not a racial issue as much as a contemporary cultural one.
The outlandish shootouts in Django Unchained resemble the scenes of Wile E. Coyote in a Road Runner cartoon being knocked off a cliff, run over by a truck, and having an anvil dropped on his head. When you see the amounts and kinds of violence in this movie, you become desensitized and stop taking any of it seriously. Unfortunately.
Indeed, toward the end there's an extremely gore-filled shootout that Django amazingly survives. It's utter fantasy. But wait."¦ There's more to come. The closing violence is so incredible as to be laugh-out-loud funny, even if a woman is among those shot dead.
Bottom line: Despite Spike Lee's objections, Django Unchained isn't as racially offensive as it is an entertainingly escapist and disturbingly thought-provoking movie. Isn't that what art is supposed to be?
Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Director of the CAP Leadership Institute. His work with the Center's Progress 2050 project examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.