My thoughts on Django and black male agency

I watched Django Unchained last night, and in one word, I thought the movie was epic. I’m not even really that into westerns and I think it’s a classic, hands down, the best movie of 2012.

Simply put, I was satisfied with Django.

I have heard a lot of critiques about Django and I do understand and respect Spike Lee’s perspective, which is that the movie is disrespectful to his ancestors and to the legacy of slavery. He also takes issue with usage of the n word. Another critique that has emerged in the past few days is Django received praise because the director is white, whereas had he been black, whites would have been up in arms about it. And I don’t necessarily disagree with all of this. However, I deliberately went into Django without having read any commentary beforehand, because I didn’t want someone else’s opinions tainting my own viewing experience. And I’m glad I did that.

There definitely was lots of casual usage of the “n” word and plenty of blood and violence, which made me cringe. But I thought about the historical context; it would be historically inaccurate, and just plain weird, for a movie set during slavery to not include the “n” word. If anything, the excessive and casual usage of the “n” word demonstrated to me the reality of the very racialized, normalized and violent language – accompanied with physical violence – blacks experienced, have experienced, and still do to this day (both institutionally, and on the interpersonal level). The violence and violent language made me feel very uncomfortable, as it should, and that’s why I think the movie did it’s job. Even if not completely accurate in its historical portrayals, I think that if Django is taken as a work of art, it actually helps put things and history into perspective. It makes our brutal history a little bit more tangible.

Another critique of Django that I’ve heard is Tarantino’s justification of black-on-black violence, which can perpetuate the myth that blacks are naturally inclined toward violence, and that the only way black people know how to settle differences is through violent retributive justice (gang-mentality stereotypes).

To that, I say four things: a) again, no movie or work of art is ever going to be perfect or completely accurate, b) look at other media, music, and movie portrayals of black people; Django is hardly the worst in my opinion, c) the idea that retributive justice in itself is morally wrong I think is a flawed idea. Real-life black heroes such as Malcolm X preached retributive justice against oppressors and aggressors, because it’s a form of agency for a historically oppressed peoples robbed of their agency and identity. However, I do think this critique requires a bit more nuanced interrogation; and d) it’s a WESTERN. Of COURSE there’s going to be excessive violence. Heck, there was white-on-white, black-on-white, and white-on-black violence too. I understand that not all of those instances of violence may speak to the reality of racialized, structural systems of oppression, but again, it’s a movie. Also, it’s Quentin Tarantino. Violence is Tarantino’s style, so I’m not sure what else people expected (I guess this goes back to the criticisms of Blaxploitation films in general though, debate I don’t want to get into right now).

The lack of female agency in the movie is another critique I have heard. This one basically argues that Brumhilda is a stereotypical damsel in distress, and Django’s role of rescuing her robs her of agency as a black female character. All of the other female characters had minimal or no roles to play, and those that had a role had very few lines. As a black woman, yes, I struggle with this… But I think this critique – as do the others – takes away from the point of the movie, which is to highlight the brutality of slavery and white-on-black violence, enslavement, and black genocide (yes, genocide) — particularly in the South.

The point of the movie, as a work of art, was to have a black male hero, doing his thang saving his wife from Southern white muddasucking racists, and get even on the slave-owners who did him wrong when he was a slave. The movie is mocking Southern white mentality vis a vis a black male getting even as the protagonist/hero. That is an editorial and artistic decision the editor made. Why is Tarantino getting criticism for that? There are so many other things I feel we could be criticizing, and I think people forget this is a work of art and that ultimately, some things do get left out.

Ultimately, what I got out of Django wasn’t the lack of female agency, but rather the presence of black male agency. We live in a society where black men are both hypersexualized and emasculated on the regular. By emasculation, I mean state-sanctioned violence through police brutality, the war on drugs, and institutional discrimination of black men whether through racial profiling, unequal access to education, unfair job hiring practices, etc; I also think of racism on inter-personal levels, such as white women clutching their purses when they see a black guy on the street, and other degrading assumptions people tend to have about black men as criminals, outlaws and thugs. That ish is degrading and dehumanizing, yo. And Django, in my opinion, counters all of that

Ironically, Jamie Foxx’s character is an outlaw and in many ways a “thug,” but not in your typical sense. He is actually the good guy, the protagonist, the hero. His violence is justified because it is righting the White Man’s wrongs. He is the underdog getting even. This is not something we ever see in either movies, pop culture, or real life. Django is straight winning throughout the film; he eventually rescues his wife, kills all the bad guys and their empathizers, and then burns down the entire plantation as he’s doing so, like a mf’n G. He even outlives the other white characters in the movie (including his German partner Dr. Schultz) and kills his white antagonists; I can’t remember the last movie in which I’ve seen that. In short, the movie Django is powerful and satisfying because it counters the dehumanizing and emasculating perceptions and realities of black men in America. When Django succeeds on his mission and demonstrates his agency, especially at the end of the movie, you feel a sense of triumph with him. And that, to me, as a black female viewer and racial justice advocate, was simply satisfying. :)

A movie where the black protagonist busts white slave-owners’ brains and guts out and poses as a slave-owner/Uncle Tom while doing so (ohhh the poetic justice!)? A movie that doesn’t recycle predictable white-protagonist/black-sidekick stereotypes, and the black male actually has agency and is the hero? A movie in which you have an original blend of everything – action, comedy, romance – with themes of retributive justice and racial justice? Just perfect. I mean come on, anything with white slave-owners’ brains getting busted as retribution for their heinous crimes against black people is just instant classic material in my book; I would pay to watch that again. I think any racial justice advocate or person with a moral compass would feel satisfied by such a plot. I was still high on my adrenaline rush for hours after watching it, which I haven’t felt after watching a movie – particularly an action movie – in a very long time.

All in all, I think Jamie Foxx outdid himself as Django, and DiCaprio was of course amazing at playing the creepy megalomaniac. I think that if you hated Django after watching it, you probably already decided you hated it before watching… If you’re still struggling with your critiques, I think you’ve missed the point of the movie entirely. I just don’t get why this needed to be such a huge controversy. It was amazing action, amazing comedy, amazing plot, and if you — like me — are into retributive justice, (non-corny) love stories with a racial justice touch, Django is totally for you.

Some other quick random thoughts:

  • I think Tarantino cleverly used humor to offset the violence which was great.
  • The plot was crazy unpredictable (which I LOVE – I absolutely hate predictable plots).
  • For those paying attention, Django was a love story — the non-corny kind, the best kind in my opinion. Check out Toure’s commentary on that aspect.
  • That scene toward the end where Django returns to the Candie plantation on his horse, toting a rifle, and then busts the door open to rescue Brumhilda and says, “It’s me baby.” I literally *swooned*! I’m sure all you ladies feel me…lol… ’nuff said about that. And then the scene where Django shoots Monsieur Candie’s servant – the real Uncle Tom in the movie - played by Samuel L. Jackson in the knee caps, and burns the whole house down….so bawssss.
  • That other scene at the dinner table where Monsieur Candie says he sees hundreds of black faces on his plantation every day and ironically asks, “Why don’t they (black people) ever kill us?” That is a pretty powerful moment in the film, and speaks to both the mental conditioning and fear black people were subjected to as slaves. However, I think it poses a timeless and relevant question to us today: What really would happen if those who are oppressed took up arms and stood up to their oppressors in this day and age? This speaks to the timeless start a revolution vs. work with the system/ballot-or-bullet question. And I think Tarantino clearly answers that question for us through Django’s decisions and actions.

Man. I think I might have to watch Django again actually. That adrenaline rush at the end was just too amazing lol.

Also in the Daily Planet: "Django Unchained in Minnesota: On northerners seeing (and not seeing) the south" by Jay Gabler

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    Lolla Mohammed Nur's picture
    Lolla Mohammed Nur

    Lolla Mohammed Nur (lolla [at] tcdailyplanet [dot] net) is Community Engagement Editor of TC Daily Planet. You can find her on twitter @lomonur.