- By Tim Hackman
- 16 January, 2013
- 5 Comments
Tarantino’s film opens with a subtitle that incorrectly states the beginning year of the Civil War, a subtle cue that what follows isn’t to be taken as historical fact. (Or, perhaps, that the action takes place in some alternate historical universe, much like 2009′s Inglourious Basterds.) There are no such cues at the Confederate History Museum, unless you count the pickup truck in the parking lot with the bumper sticker that features a Confederate flag and declares, “I’d rather be historically accurate than politically correct.” Nevertheless, the first thing our guide pointed out, after introducing himself and informing us that all of the museum volunteers had ancestors who fought for the Confederacy, was a handful of photos of black men in Confederate uniforms. “Now all you hear in the media,” he explained, “is that the Civil War was about slavery. But it wasn’t about slavery. It was about states’ rights.” I didn’t want to start an argument at the very first exhibit, but I wanted to ask: exactly what rights were the southern states fighting to keep, except the “right” to keep people as property? Interestingly, I heard the same “states’ rights” line from one of my high school history teachers, and more or less believed it until I got to college and found out that that line was usually the domain of Confederate apologists and/or historical revisionists, if not outright racists.
Some reviewers on Trip Advisor wrote about docents painting a picture of a “victimized, racially harmonious south,” or drawing unfavorable comparisons between Lincoln and Obama. We didn’t get that, though it may have been present in some of the displays that I skimmed over as I grew increasingly uncomfortable. We did hear the tour guide refer to Jefferson Davis as “my president,” and proudly show off a portrait of Nathan Bedford Forrest, who is famous as a Confederate general but even more famous for his role in founding the KKK, and we browsed the bookstore/gift shop, which featured t-shirts that could probably get you killed in PG County where I live and books with titles like Lincoln’s Marxists, The South Was Right!, and Lincoln Unmasked. So the relationship between the Museum of Confederate History and historical fact is problematic at best, blatantly dishonest in the service of a racist ideology at worst. I don’t necessarily mean that the “Sons of Confederate Veterans” who run the museum are racists, but their narrative of Southern victimization and unjustified Northern aggression certainly needs to soft-pedal the South’s brutal, racist history in order to be palatable in 2013.
As implied by that opening subtitle, the relationship between Django Unchained and Southern history is just as complicated, but for different reasons. Like most of Tarantino’s work it’s an exploration of genre film (the Western, obviously, but also Blaxploitation and the Buddy Action Comedy), and an entertaining popcorn movie. But for the first time he also seems to be up to something more. The film lingers over images of brutality and degradation, almost to the point of fetishization: men and women in chains, muzzles, and spiked collars; a man being torn apart by dogs; a naked woman dragged from a “hot box;” slaves battling to the death in “Mandingo fighting” for the entertainment of whites (the term is Tarantino’s invention and homage to a 70s blaxploitation pic, but the practice was real enough — see the famous “battle royale” sequence in Ellison’s Invisible Man or one of the big family secrets at the center of Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom.) There’s also an image that turns those more historical images on their head – Jamie Foxx as Django, in frilly aristocratic garb, taking a bullwhip to a white overseer. Along with all of that comes more use of the N-word than any movie I’ve ever seen, probably more than the total artistic output of Ice Cube (the solo and NWA years combined.) In fact, when it’s not concerned with killing people the dialogue is almost entirely concerned with slaves and money, and the uses of one to gain the other. But they’re rarely called slaves; almost without exception they’re called by that other term which, being white, I have neither license nor confidence to use in a blog post.
Now my purpose here is not to examine Tarantino’s relationship with that word, which Spike Lee has called an “infatuation.” That’s been done already, including a defense by Randall Kennedy in his 2002 book. For the record, Kennedy thinks (and I agree) that the word should be open to exploration by artists of every color: “Instead of cordoning off racially defined areas of the culture and allowing them to be tilled only by persons of the “right” race, we should work toward enlarging the common ground of American culture, a field that is open to all comers regardless of their origin… [Lee’s critique of Tarantino] focuses on the character of Tarantino’s race rather than the character of his work – brilliant work that allows the word nigger to be heard in a rich panoply of contexts and intonations” (104-5).
What I am interested in is the effect of hearing the word repeatedly, incessantly, (maybe obsessively?) over the film’s 2 ½ -hour duration. The first two utterances, which come in the scene where the slave trader that Schultz has just shot and pinned beneath a horse tries to command his human cargo to help him, are jarring. And I think that’s what Tarantino has in mind — to use the language in the same way he uses the images of violence and degradation, to build up a portrait of Southern villainy so airtight that whatever happens to the bad guys, no matter how violent, seems appropriate and justified. (That’s an old movie trick, used by everyone from Kurosawa to Sylvester Stallone in the last Rambo movie. It’s transparent but it certainly works; a good portion of the audience with which I saw Django broke out in applause at the film’s explosive ending.)
After 20, 30, 40 (and more) utterances of the N-word, though, I found it had the opposite effect: it lost its impact and faded into the background, became as much a part of the mise-en-scene as the cotton fields, horses, period dress and firearms. I (almost) stopped hearing it. That bothers me a little bit, for the same reason that Tarantino’s depictions of slavery-era brutality also bother me, because it raises a question to which I do not have an easy answer: Is it OK for a (white) writer/director to put the N-word into a script 100+ times, to dress up black actors (some of whom, presumably, had enslaved ancestors) in chains and slave garb and make them pick cotton in the Louisiana sun while being degraded by white actors on horseback, for the sole purpose of creating villains that he blow away without qualms? To be clear, such things certainly happened and they were certainly terrible, but Tarantino’s project is creating a satisfying villain, not, as established by that opening subtitle and by Tarantino himself in interviews about the film, representing historical fact or raising consciousness. So although they are a world apart in terms of ideologies and purpose, Django Unchained and the Museum of Confederate History do this have this in common – they appropriate US history in general, and African American history in particular, for their own ends. I’m not arguing that the two are equivalent. The Confederate History Museum’s aim is to replace real history with a version of it that advances their social and political agenda. Tarantino’s aim is merely to entertain, and is that reason enough to restage the atrocities of slavery?