Full House: Django Unchained & The Wretched of the Cinema

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FULL HOUSE is a new feature on LITHOC (@livingintheHOC) that dedicates itself to expanding our format of sociopolitical analysis beyond the lens of House of Cards and framing our commentary through classic and contemporary films. In our first installment we dive into Quentin Tarantino’s riveting, brave, thought provoking and controversial Django Unchained. 

“Violence alone, perpetrated by the people, violence organized and guided by the leadership, provides the key for the masses to decipher social reality. Without this struggle, without this praxis there is nothing but a carnival parade and a lot of hot air. All that is left is a slight readapting, a few reforms at the top, a flag, and down at the bottom a shapeless, writhing mass, still mired in the Dark Ages.”

― Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth

Django Unchained illuminates the artistic possibilities that exist when we break down the monopolies on suffering and oppression. In his latest cinematic outing Quentin Tarantino, a white Writer/Director, is having his usual fun but also working at new levels of complexity, subtext and courage. Tarantino declares that nobody owns any particular human narrative while adopting responsibility for reflection and myth making against the backdrop of one the darkest periods in American history. In his own idiosyncratic way, Tarantino tells us that as filmmakers and as artists, we can lay claim to any ideas or experiences we choose – including Slavery, Inquisitions, Holocausts, Naqbas and Genocides.

With art in particular, one does not require direct access to these disasters, through ancestry, ethnic affinity, or experience in order to comment or access the psychological and physiological imprint of human suffering and crime. This is why stories are written, why songs are sung, why music is composed, why paintings canvassed, monuments erected and films made. Through these, we can access and express experiences foreign to us in genuine and visceral ways. Even through the cathartic lenses of genre, kitsch, violence, pulp and comedy.

Failing all of this, we would wish that human empathy, as powerful as it can be, might be all that is needed to understand the horrors of something like Slavery. More often than not, it isn’t enough and nor is it guaranteed. Whichever the case – these experiences belong to all artists and we are responsible for them. By extension, these experiences belong to all of us, people, to address, reflect upon and provoke.

A shackle on the use of language is another kind of slavery in contemporary art and primarily in Cinema. Language, if it is to speak to truth, should by definition increasingly enrage – for the truth, just or otherwise, is always enraging someone somewhere. Which can be a great thing, for if history is any indication; offended sensibilities are often a prerequisite to enlightenment. Language, even the vile epithets of the oppressor, should be accessible to the artist as a matter of necessity and integrity.

Racial pejoratives, if they are to be weakened in their power, should be opened up to any art form and any artist willing to yield them like a Verbal Excalibur, articulating brutal realities imposed by people onto one another. And not only opened up for use by the victims of this language, but also to those who descend from its perpetrators. Through war, bondage and even love language must belong, unhindered, to the artist so that the audience may judge his merit from a place that is as close to truth as possible. Truth in an artistic context shouldn’t be confused with ‘fact’, for fiction can often more powerfully and profoundly reveal truths that reality cannot.

The proliferation of the N-word in Django Unchained, has offended many particularly because of the deep scars that it re-inflicts. Especially in the community of Black people – African-Americans and others — who feel it is theirs to control, contextualize and render disempowered in ways they see fit. While justifiably understandable, as an exercise in unmitigated revolt, if the ‘logic of offense’ or conversely the ‘logic of ownership’ is applied to language then why wouldn’t the same apply to the imagery and sounds of racism or American Slavery? The sounds of a slaver’s whip, the image of hounds ripping a runaway slave to shreds and the rows of chains dragged by rows of African-Americans through the mud and the dirt in a sub-human existence. Are these not equally offensive then as the words can be? If so, should they then be regulated only by its victims?

History belongs to the artist so that she may begin to offer up a present we can all understand and live with. Making exceptions and equivocating hinders our examination of the human capacity to inflict pain and horror in rather ingenious, industrious and bureaucratic ways wholly unique to our species. It also hinders our ability to provide cathartic therapy – and in many ways Django ‘getting paid to kill white people’, and doing it, is horrifyingly cathartic for all who have been discriminated against, oppressed or exterminated. To say that it wasn’t cathartic for me, an Arab Muslim in the age of the ‘T-word’ (Terrorist, Taliban, Towel Head) would be disingenuous. Mix this catharsis with the irony of shame that Arab civilization was one of the many that facilitated the global slave trade – African or otherwise – and you have a volatile potion of stirred emotions. A visceral reaction that illustrates how miraculously, through art, can someone like Quentin Tarantino unleash a war on the appropriation of language by colonized or colonizing communities, Blacks, Whites, Arabs, Asians, etc. An appropriation that only hastens to reinforce racism, not fight it.

In this regard, we cannot fear audiences. We cannot fear that audiences may come away without a proper understanding of the material. That audiences may misuse the artist’s content, a byproduct that is an unavoidable certainty with all artistic endeavors. It is the risk we always run with regards to the truth and with art. That said, it’s incumbent not only on the artist to be as informed as possible (only because it makes him more prepared to address those who will inevitably disagree with her), but it is even more incumbent on the audience to learn. This applies to all kinds of audiences, particularly those on the polar extremes — passive on one end and dogmatic on the other. These ‘extreme audiences’ are what all artists fear most, particularly when they are engaged with such heady and mortal material like slavery. It is because of this fear though that the artist must plow forward regardless.

One of the more provocative and fascinating portrayals in Django, (the marvelous Leonardo Dicaprio as villainous plantation owner Calvin Candy being one of these), is that of the house slave. Samuel L. Jackson’s Stephen is not just a tragically comedic character, but also serves as a narrative accounting for how greed, power and the ingenuity of self-interest can manifest itself in the ideas and behaviours of the enslaved. Also the corruptibility we are all susceptible to when the rules of engagement are not equal, or to our choosing, when another enslaves us – there is no choice in the matter. It is not only a giving in to our natural survival mechanisms, but also to our natural inclinations to maintain an order that gives us even illusory control over our destinies. The enslaved, through oppressive hierarchies, are forced to participate in the industry of enslaving their own kind – ethnic, racial and human – and themselves, soul and body.

Stephen is beholden to the whims of his master, but also the whims of his own delusions of grandeur. The minute Django arrives in Candy Land; Stephen sees Django as a threat not just to the order bestowed by Candy; but also to the order that Stephen himself has known his entire life and one that he now, after years of agony, subservience and pain, presides over. The tragedy of Django is that Candy Land is in part Stephen’s making, nightmare and punishment all at once. Therein is the sheer malice and pain of slavery. Further proof of Tarantino’s intention, that Stephen might be one of the worst kinds of Django’s many enemies, is that Stephen gets his comeuppance in a climax that serves to categorizes this iteration of the house slave among the other white ‘cinematic villains’ in the film. Stephen is in some demented fashion, also a member of the Candy clan. He is the oppressor and the oppressed, at once – again something uniquely human.

As for the issue of caricature, everybody in Django is portrayed in a hyper-real mirror of what really was. The manner of speech, dress and attitudes displayed by all characters – wretched, hero, evil or noble – can in no way adequately mirror the reality, only truthfully reflect its echoes. The brutality and triumphs portrayed in art can only be trumped by the brutality and triumph that actually is.

“When someone strives & strains to prove to me that black men are as intelligent as white men, I say that intelligence has never saved anyone; and that is true, for, if philosophy and intelligence are invoked to proclaim the equality of men, they have also been employed to justify the extermination of men.”

― Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks

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