Django Unchained

Django Unchained

Reigniting his feud with Quentin Tarantino, Spike Lee shot out at Django at the end of last year:

Lest we forget that Lee is behind some of the greatest films ever made, I expect Tarantino would quietly admit that his contemporary has eclipsed him in terms of cultural importance and any artistic merit he can aspire to. With that said, Lee has clearly forgotten the inscription of Mario Van Peebles’ Posse which stated that, in fact, 1 in 3 cowboys were black. The figure is hugely surprising – from John Ford to Leone, from Wayne to Eastwood, the individual white male has dominated the silver screen’s West.

Curiously, exploitation films can provide an answer. Existing (until the rise of Tarantino, Rodriguez, etc) outside the mainstream, they form part of a counter-culture. Blacksploitation films in particular lent a voice and visibility without having to ever-so-nicely ask Whitey capitalist. Visibility is a key issue here. When important black figures and movements are increasingly erased out of the history books in favour of white-friendly Uncle Toms like Martin Luther King, when the dominant myth is that a solitary white man ended slavery and an ongoing plethora of white-people-solved-racism movies are released to critical acclaim, the act of actually showing the slavery America is trying to forget is on a basic level significant.

As a white director, Tarantino is almost talking through Christoph Waltz’s German bounty hunter when he explains to Django,

On the one hand, I despise slavery. On the other hand, I need your help… In the mean time, I’m going to make this slavery malarkey work for me.

This self-consciousness undercuts the potential reading that Dr King Schultz is the noble saviour of Django (and by substitution all ‘African-Americans’). To be a true blacksploitation film, Django has to emerge as the empowering, badass hero. And ultimately, of course, he does. But Unchained differs when its protagonist is forced to make compromises, even play the black slaver he despises, and is pitted against Samuel L. Jackson’s house slave.

It is here that Tarantino’s film is at its most uneasy, and is thus at its most valuable. It reflects upon a future of assimilation, the destruction of black culture and history in favour of integration into the very same capitalist democracy that enslaved the blacks, that economically exploited and exploits them with an horrific persistence. A synopsis of the film might go as follows: Django is unchained, but his problems aren’t over.