Ahead of tomorrow's theatrical opening of the much-debated Django Unchained, let's take a quick rip down slavery-as-comedy-entertainment memory lane...
First, recall that French time-travel slavery comedy Case départ (Back To Square One) which got lots of coverage and generated lots of discussion on this blog, was met with much derision; not only on this site, but other sites that picked up on the story.
As far as I know, the film was never officially released here in the USA, although it was picked up for international distribution by Other Angle Pictures, a Paris-based company, with the possibility of a Stateside remake, as execs from Other Angle Pictures said in an interview given late last year.
No word on a Stateside release, or a remake, as of today. It could be that the rights owners are looking to the performance of Django Unchained to determine how or whether to act on either.
The film was apparently a hit in France.
As a recap... Half-brothers, Joel and Régis, have a father in common, whom they hardly know. Joel is unemployed and miserable. He feels France is a racist country, and is that the government is to blame for all his failures, because he's black, and uses that as an excuse for not actively looking for work. Régis, on the other hand, loves France, and essentially hates his black self, and blackness in general, refusing to acknowledge his African slave roots. In his words, delinquency and immigration go hand in hand. Both are soon called to the bedside of their dying father in the Antilles, when they are presented with a document that contains information on their ancestral slave heritage - a document that has been passed down through the generations. In trying to determine the value of the document, they accidentally destroy it - an act that they are punished for for by a mysterious old woman, who has been following them since their arrival in the Antilles; the punishment being to send them back in time, all the way to, of course, the Transatlantic slavery period - 1780 specifically - where and when they are sold as slaves. The two brothers then have to work together to find a way to not only escape from the plantation, but also to find a way to return to the present day.
None of us has seen the film yet, so there's no commentary to offer until that happens. But that certainly didn't stop early Stateside reactions to it.
“Slavery as comedy. Seriously???” was a common seemingly flabbergasted reaction to articles on the film.
If I may throw Quentin Tarantino’s upcoming Django Unchained into that conversation… a slave-revenge western, to sum it up in so many words; but it’s also a comedy – something that I’m not entirely certain is widely-known (the emphasis thus far seems to be on the percieved violence in the film, which I actually feel is being overblown; see my review for more on that HERE).
It’s certainly not what you’d call knee-slapping, laugh out loud humor (although, there are a few moments like that scattered about); but it can also be classified as a comedy, along with all the other labels it’s been assigned. This isn’t Roots nor is it Amistad; it’s not even Mandingo nor Drum, although both are certainly influences.
Django is purely superficial entertainment, in my not-so humble opinion.
But I'd like to consider 2 more films that I think deserve mention in this conversation, and that I’d say are maybe even closer cousins to Django Unchained than the aforementioned Case départ, or Mandingo, or Drum, etc: 1968’s The Scalphunters, which starred Ossie Davis and Burt Lancaster, as well as 1971’s Skin Game, which starred Louis Gossett Jr. and James Garner.
I say these are maybe closer cousins to Django because both feature that age-old infamous black/white buddy pairing; and, like Django, the pairs are, broadly-speaking, men on a mission; one of the films is also classified as a western; And, lastly, both are indeed comedies, first and foremost… films that take a far more flippant approach to slavery, even though slavery isn’t necessarily front and center in both; more-so in Skin Game than Scalp Hunters.
In the former, Gossett and Garner play hustlers during the 1800s, who travel from town to town in the south, pretending to be master and slave (sound somewhat familiar?), with Garner claiming to be a down-on-his-luck slave owner who is selling his slave (played by Gossett). After each auction, Gossett’s character is sold, Garner collects the cash, eventually Gossett finds a way to escape his new owners, the pair meet up later and split the cash.
You could probably guess what eventually throws a wrench into their lucrative scheme.
As an aside, this actually reminded me of one of Django's influences - the Spaghetti Western, specifically, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, which sees Blondie and Tuco team up and exploit a scheme that includes Blondie turning Tuco in (he's a wanted man, with a bounty on his head), collecting the reward, saving Tuco from hangings, Tuco gets away, and the two meet up later to split the cash.
If you really think about it, taking into account what we know of the period in which Skin Game takes place and the situations it depicts, the 2 men (Gossett and Garner) are playing quite a dangerous game, though you never really quite feel the gravity of their actions throughout the movie. They are eventually caught, and there is some retribution from those they swindled; but, again, it’s a comedy, so it tickles more than anything; even a sequence in which Gossett's character is treated for bloody wounds on his back, after he is lashed.
In The Scalphunters, a mountain man played by Burt Lancaster and his “educated slave,” played by Ossie Davis, track an outlaw band to retrieve stolen furs (also some similarities there to Django). The late Sidney Pollack directed this one, and it’s well put together as you’d imagine – portrayals of Native Americans and slavery aside… major asides, but this was also 1968.
Both slaves in both movies are so obviously well-educated; a point that is emphasized in each film. While Gossett’s slave was born a free man, Davis’ was previously owned by a family that stressed education – and apparently their slaves weren’t exempt.
Both were distinguished, but Davis’ slave was also what I'd call effete – more apt to use brains than brawn. It may sound like an odd comparison, but I kept thinking of C-3PO from the Star Wars movies in how he moved and spoke – slim, kind of stiff, likely to avoid any and all confrontation, and seemingly quite erudite; you’d likely laugh at him almost in the same way you laughed at C-3PO. Again, it’s a comedy!
But unlike Gossett, Davis’ character features less prominently. In Skin Game, I’d say there clearly was an attempt by the filmmakers to portray both men (Gossett and Garner) as equals, despite their faux master/slave relationship in the film. And unlike black/white buddy comedy/action flicks that came after it, Gossett’s character actually does get romantically entangled (as does Garner’s). Both men get the (their) girl in the end; in fact, somewhat like Django, what helps push Skin Game to its denouement, is the pair’s decision to save the slave girl Gossett’s character falls for in the first half - played by the lovely Brenda Sykes - who also co-starred in both Mandingo and Drum, which I mentioned earlier in this post.
Both Skin Game and The Scalphunters are on home video and worthy of a viewing – that is, if you’re not turned off by the idea of comedic depictions of slavery.
Looking ahead, if you'd rather see a much more realistic, dramatic story about slavery on film, then you probably would appreciate Chiwetel Ejiofor's star turn in Brit director Steve McQueen’s adaptation of Solomon Northup’s slave narrative, 12 Years A Slave, about a black man, educated, who was born free, but was later kidnapped by slave traders and bound into a life of slavery for the following 12 years – hence the title.
Expect a far more somber tale than the frothy Skin Game, Django, Case départ.