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Fast Food Tarantino: Self-Imitation and Racism in Django Unchained


Django Unchained Gen X ReviewDjango Unchained
is fast food. Cheap. Disposable. An imitation of the real thing, and oddly even less Tarantino-esque than a Big Mac is hamburger-esque.


If nothing else, this terrible film reminds us that what we like about Tarantino is not his sweaty obsession with ’70s shag-carpet culture. It’s not his kink for kitsch, violence and profanity, either. What makes Tarantino endearing is the way he breathes life into his characters.


How he used to breathe life into his characters. Django Unchained is a charmless puppet show with so few characters that it literally could have been generated by a computer program mimicking Tarantino directorial cues. It is Tarantino without Tarantino.


It’s less a movie than an excuse to blow things up. It’s also a rather sad film for those of us who have enjoyed Tarantino films not because of the gore and campy references, but because they were comprised of actual characters that made us giggle.


Set years before the Civil War, the film follows an ex-slave named Django and his bounty hunter friend as they attempt to rescue Django’s wife from a plantation owner. In order to buy his freedom, Django (Jamie Foxx) had to help Dr. King Schultz (Christopher Waltz) kill a series of bad guys and in the process the two become friends.


So they wander through the Deep South, eventually discovering that Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), Django’s wife, has been bought by Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), the proprietor of "Candyland," an infamous plantation. Calvin trades in “Mandingo fighting,” a sort of ultimate fighting sport between African-American slaves, and the pair pretend to be buyers to get close to him.


The movie attempts to insolate itself from claims of racism by stacking the dialog with the word “nigger” so often that it ceases to have much meaning. In this way Tarantino beats his critics to the punch, quietly insists that he’s reflecting historical reality, not playing the race card. This would be true if the rest of the movie resembled a historical reality or if other racist ideological symbols weren’t at play, but unfortunately neither is the case.


History is plastic in Django Unchained, just as it was in Tarantino’s last film Inglorious Basterds. There as here, the point is not to explore historic conditions and situations, but to use history as stage dressing to tell a story. Django Unchained might as well have taken place aboard the Death Star and many of the film’s finer details are just wrong, so there is no historical necessity for using the “N” word so often.


Tarantino’s obsession with lingering on slaves’ whipped backs illustrates not black agency, but the way white culture has written on black bodies. But this isn’t a critique of racism; it is racism. The film betrays the filmmaker, showing us not only what he wants us to see, but more importantly what he wants to ignore: the slave as human.


The film cannot look slaves in the face, not only because it has reproduced slave economy by representing them as rote stereotypes but also because the director is either unable or unwilling to imbue these characters with anything resembling personality.


It’s impossible to think this is a mere oversight. But it’s also hard to imagine that this epic omission is a failure of expression – that Tarantino doesn’t have the talent to create a memorable (and realistic) black character. It’s strange that a film ostensibly about slavery does not contain black characters who are not machinelike, childish or broadly drawn, but this is exactly the case.


Django himself hides behind sunglasses, closing himself off from the film’s gaze, disappears behind his actions, and becomes an embodiment of black rage as imaged by a white dude. Less a character than a real-life Ken doll for Tarantino to dress up.


But Django fits in perfectly in this world, which is to say he is as forgettable as any one of the other Negros stereotypes, vacillating between child-like wonder over simple things – the comic punch-line that when given a choice he chooses pimp getup is only marginally more offensive than the equally ridicules idea that Schultz teaches him to read just so he can understand wanted posters – and one-dimensional killer without stopping anywhere between.

Black women have it even worse. Broomhilda appears in only a handful of scenes. Her most important function is as a naked thing in a box, illustrating once more the brutality of white culture on inert black flesh. She is absolute object, de-sexualized until her nakedness ironically symbolizes not carnal desire, but how empty the human form can become when stripped of its humanity.


One could argue that Django can’t be racist since its white characters are as poorly drawn as its black characters. After all, it’s difficult to imagine a more stereotypical white plantation owner than Don Johnson playing Colonel Sanders of the Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise or the countless extra sadists who seem to have no real purpose in life beyond whipping helpless black women. But as stupid and rudimentary as characters like this are – and they can be quite stupid – at least Tarantino suggests that they have lives extending in the background.


A gathering of proto-K.K.K. cultists, for example, includes a not-so-funny dialog about one racist’s wife and Schultz is a former dentist, an emigrant with a background and liberal worldview. Compare this with Django, who has no past worth speaking of, no interests beyond killing, or the Mandingos, who barely utter one word to each other. From their grunts, it’s hard to believe they have had a life or identity beyond the cages that hold them.


Looking backwards (like the director himself) to characters like the cheap thug Vincent Vega (the character John Travolta played in Pulp Fiction), who could have died like any number of extras in Django Unchained but instead became someone we cared about, I think it’s hard not to lament the bad bargain Tarantino has made in this movie. Big booms are not as memorable as great characters.


I sense that Tarantino is convinced if he blows enough things up and cranks the noise loudly enough, you will hear the music. The rub is (of course) that there is no music.

 

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Worshiped like a film star by fans of his ultrahip and violent movies, reviled and condemned by the self-appointed guardians of mortality, Quentin Tarantino has become the cult hero of the nineties.

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