I don't know if I've ever seen so many white people this excited about a slave movie.
And from reading the thoughts of many others, a common belief seems to be that you're apparently *uncool* if you aren't damned excited about Django Unchained.
Well, I guess I'm *uncool.*
Since the trailer was officially released earlier this week, several folks have asked me for my thoughts on what we've seen thus far of Quentin Tarantino's revisionist slave revenge pic Django Unchained. I thought I'd already been clear about all that, sharing concerns I've had since first reading a draft of the script about a year ago, and posting my thoughts here.
To summarize, based on all I've seen thus far, this isn't the slave revenge movie I (and I know countless others) were hoping for.
And no, it has little to do with the fact that the director is not black, which I know has bothered many others. But that's not the point of contention for me.
I think I speak for a lot of you when I say that, when we first learned that Tarantino was making a slave revenge movie, we immediately thought, Inglorious Basterds Part 2, except the Basterds this time would be slaves, and the villains whose scalps are sliced off in full 35mm color glory, would be the KKK (or any supporters/enforcers of the face of white supremacy during that era).
I'd say there was some excitement about the possibilities. And then I read a draft of the script, and realized that it wasn't at all anything like what many of us hoped for; instead, call it the frivolity of slavery - superficial, exploitation cinema that would've likely been an easier pill to swallow 35 - 40 years ago. A blend of spaghetti westerns and blaxploitation cinema.
And any excitement I previously had for the project almost entirely vanished.
So what were many within the black audience hoping for?
Recall when I had Wendell B Harris Jr (Chameleon Street) on the Shadow & Act Livecast 3 years ago, in 2009, and he relayed a time when he pitched a contemporary lynching retribution film to studio execs, who, not-so-surprisingly weren’t interested. And in a later post, I made connections between Wendell's idea and another Tarantino movie (which hadn't been released at the time), Inglorious Basterds - the revisionist history movie on how WWII ended, set in Nazi-occupied France. It’s a revenge flick; as Jeffrey Wells put it: “a Jewish payback movie in which all kinds of brutal and sadistic killings of Germans are presented as not only righteous but delicious, because “them Nazis”… are viciously anti-Semitic and deserve it all to hell.”
Now repeat that last sentence replacing "Jewish" with "slave," "Germans" with "white supremacists," "Nazis" with "KKKs," and finally "anti-Semitic" with "racists."
Revenge in Basterds, unlike Wendell Harris’ lynching retribution idea, does not take place almost a century after the crime. It happens synchronously, in the era it references – essentially one man’s fantasy about what could have been, and not what actually was.
So, it got me thinking further - what if Wendell B Harris’ lynching revenge flick followed a similar storyline? Again, revisionist history, set during the days in which the lynching of black people were de facto commonplace.
Thus, like Tarantino’s Basterds, two story lines converge. Borrowing almost verbatim from the Basterds synopsis, with some obvious alterations made with purpose: One story would follow a ragtag group of black men (escaped slaves) whose mission is to take out as many offending whites as they can get their hands on. They ambush and kill white men responsible for the lynchings of blacks (whether members of the KKK, officers of the so-called law, and members of any white supremacist mobs usually found at the center of lynchings), unabashedly desecrating their corpses, always leaving one alive, so that he can tell others. And the second storyline follows a young black woman (also an escaped slave) who seeks to avenge the death of her family at the hands of white supremacists, by sabotaging the premiere of some supremacist group’s latest propaganda film release, by luring all the guilty parties and their leaders into her theatre, with the intent to seal them all in, and burn the building down, killing them all. And given the time the movie will take place, we’ll make the propaganda film within the film, D.W. Griffith’s Birth Of A Nation.
The title of Wendell Harris’s version can stay the same – Inglorious Basterds. It still works, right?
But that’s not quite the kind of film you’re going to see here, with Django Unchained. It’s not Inglorious Basterds with black Basterds, and white supremacists getting their skulls crushed with baseball bats.
Unless the script has changed drastically since the draft I read (and I hear Tarantino has rewritten parts of it). But all I can go on is what's been revealed so far, which doesn't appear to be very different from what I read. Specific sequences may have have changed, but the overall idea that Django exists in a white protag's shadow, before being able to eventually come into his own and "claim what's his in the end," still appears to be at the heart of the story.
Therein lies the problem I believe many of us have with the film, and which some still don't seem to quite understand. That and the fact that Django's bride, Broomhilda, reads like more of a prop in the draft of the script I have seen. For all intents and purposes, she’s the lead female in the film, but, returning to the Inglorious Basterds comparison, she’s no Shosanna. The black female "lead" here doesn’t get the same kind of stately treatment that Tarantino gave Shosanna in Basterds. Not even close.
And in anticipation of those who will comment on how true to life the story is, and how representative it is of the time it takes place, my response will be - what part of the term "revisionist history" don't you quite understand? Last I checked, Adolph Hitler didn't die from gunshot wounds, in a Paris movie theater set ablaze - a plan orchestrated by a Jewish woman calling herself Emmanuelle Mimieux (after assuming a new identity in France, to protect herself).
Tarantino had countless options with Django; but he went with the most obvious, uninventive choices here, in my humble opinion. American history is littered with black slave rebellions and insurrections that took place during the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, and most of them didn't require a white mentor figure to essentially teach them and show them way.
Unlike Marcellus Wallace in Pulp Fiction, Django doesn't get to call up on a few "hard, pipe-hittin' niggers" to go to work on their plantation masters "with a pair a pliers and a blowtorch." There are seemingly no obvious opportunities to "get medieval" on whitey's ass here, because, given all he and Broomhilda are put through in the film, I think some of us would prefer if he (or rather THEY - enslaved women did also rage against the machine) went all id, in psychoanalytic terms.
I've obviously not seen the entire film; no one has - a fact that makes it all-the-more strange that there are some who seem intent on suppressing the voices of those with concerns about the upcoming film, as if they themselves have already seen it. Let's face it, we're all basing our thoughts on available data, and every opinion, as long as it's adequately supported, is valid at this point.
And no, I'm not a Tarantino "hater," but I wouldn't call myself a "fanboy" either. This is simply not the slave revenge narrative I hoped for; and given the likelihood that we'll see another one - especially of this scale - is quite slim, it's too bad.
Aside from this seeming thus far be more of a fanboy's wet dream, I'll certainly still see Django Unchained; I have to, given the work I do here on Shadow And Act. Maybe plenty has indeed changed from script to screen (or at least, since the draft that I read last year), and I'll be pleasantly surprised. And if that happens, I'll eat crow.
But if you're asking me (as many have) what I think of what I know of the project so far (again, based on the script I read, the trailer that's been released, the bits and pieces revealed by the cast and crew over the last many months), these are my thoughts.