Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Some Thoughts On Django Unchained

So, I got this interesting email today. It came from a college student who had read my article on why Blazing Saddles couldn’t be made today and she asked if I thought that Django Unchained was an effective racial satire. I thought I would share my answer with you folks and see what you thought. Here goes.

As a general rule, I've found Tarantino's work to be brilliant. He has both a gift for dialog (particularly seen in Public Fiction) and a gift for figuring out how to take things that should shock and disgust us and instead turning those into funny and often enlightening moments. Unfortunately, I think these gifts failed him in Django Unchained, and rather than making a clever racial satire, he ended up making what really amounts to a revenge film.

Where Brooks and Pryor succeed so brilliantly was in pinpointing things that a lot of people still believed were true either out of fear, stupidity or ignorance. They then twisted these stereotypes to expose how silly they were. A great example is when the "superior" white cowboys running the rail crew tell Clevon Little and his friends to sing a black "work song" and they sing "I get no kick from champagne." This mocks the white stereotype that poor black people sing spirituals, and it does so by showing them singing a high-class elegant song sung by Cole Porter. Basically, it shows that black culture has aspects that are very high class indeed, and it thereby disproves the stereotype. Then Brooks goes further and has the white cowboys proceed to make fools of themselves trying to explain what they perceive to be black culture as the blacks laugh at them. This mocks the intelligence level of the people who bought into the stereotype in the first place. The end result is that everyone laughs and the white audience feels ashamed if they had thought like the cowboys did.
Prior's satire is similar in the sense that he points out stereotypes that obviously aren't true and then he essentially says, "we're just humoring you dumb people." Again, everyone laughs and the people who bought into the stereotype feel stupid and ashamed to re-assert it.

The keys in both cases are (1) stereotypes which are the result of ignorance, (2) and which clearly are not true or which can be debunked easily, and (3) turning the joke so that anyone who claims to believe the stereotype will feel stupid and ashamed for doing so.

Tarantino doesn't do this.

First of all, the characters Tarantino uses are not unintentionally racist because they are ignorant. They are intentionally racist because they are vicious and hateful and they view blacks as less than human. No one sitting in the audience will identify with those characters. That limits the ability of the film to make people re-evaluate themselves. By comparison, there are many characters in Blazing Saddles or in Pryor's routines that anyone can identify with. Moreover, it changes the film from being a satire about race in our culture to being a satire of hateful racists.

Secondly, Tarantino doesn't really expose modern stereotypes. Instead, he attacks an entire era. So whereas Brooks and Pryor picked out things modern whites may have wrongly believed about blacks, Tarantino really doesn't address modern themes. Hence, while Brooks and Pryor are saying, "Wow, does anyone really believe this anymore?" Tarantino is saying "Wow, were the people in the post-Civil War South rotten." That's a big difference.

Third, rather than showing us the error of our thinking, as Brooks and Pryor did so well, Tarantino just has the main character brutalize the racists. So rather than having a film that constantly asks us, "You weren't stupid enough to think like this, were you?" Tarantino instead gave us a film where the hero runs around killing everyone whose views he doesn't like. And while this may be satisfying for some people, it doesn't ultimately change any minds. To the contrary, I would suspect that it actually is more likely to go the other way by confirming to people that they should be afraid because "those people hate you." (With "those people" being both the whites who hate the black hero and the black hero who gets revenge against the whites.) In other words, whereas Brooks and Pryor told us that we better change our thinking because everyone is laughing at us, Tarantino is telling blacks "whites are racist" and telling whites "watch out or blacks will start killing you."

So ultimately, I don't see Django Unchained as being an effective satire about race.



Patriot said...

Andrew......I thought the film was a typical "blaxploitation" flick set in the 1800's, with Tarantino smug in his ability to have the main character going about killing whites and saying "nigger" every chance he gets.

I think his themes are getting worse and worse these years. I loved "Inglorious Basterds" could barely finish Django due to the above, and made it through about 20 minutes of "Hateful Eight" before I got sick of the language and violence against the female lead. I just really don't need to pollute my life with that trash.

There are very few movies that had/have the impact that Blazing Saddles did. Your points are spot on on the differences between the two regarding blacks and whites.

PikeBishop said...

As a film I loved the first hour of Django, absolutely loved it, but then in the second hour it bogs down with "Tarantino-it is" as scenes just get longer and more ponderous and the dialogue goes on and on, starting with the introduction of DeCaprio's character and that brutal fight they are watching. I swear that fight itself went on longer than the War of 1812, but I could be mistaken. I ended up hitting fast forward and then gave up on it altogether.

tryanmax said...

Tarantino seems to have forgotten how revenge flicks work. He needs to revisit Jackie Brown and refresh himself. Revenge films, while they consume the players' world, work best when they are small, contained, and intimate. It's that sense of intimacy that Tarantino injects into his dialogue, even and especially in those uneasy relationships, that make his otherwise outlandish stories seem real.

Intimacy is key to a revenge flick because without it there can be no betrayal. It is the sense of payback for betrayal that makes a revenge flick feel satisfying. Certainly, social themes may intrude on a revenge flick, just as they may intrude on any film, but when they take over and displace the personal relationships, you lose that satisfaction because no one is intimate with society.

tryanmax said...

Also, "wise up or you'll look foolish" is a far stronger message than "stop sinning or you'll go to hell."

ScottDS said...

...and rather than making a clever racial satire, he ended up making what really amounts to a revenge film.

I haven't seen the film but you almost seem to suggest that it HAD to be a racial satire. Of course, I haven't followed the film and maybe there are some soundbites in which QT suggests he was trying to do a satire... but there are multiple ways to tackle this subject: one director chose comedy, the other chose revenge.

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks Patriot! I agree with you about Tarantino. I am liking his films less and less of late because I get the sense that he's trying to live up to his reputation and go over the top, rather then just telling good a stories in creative ways. A lot of his recent work comes across as "trying too hard."

AndrewPrice said...

PikeBishop, I too thought the first half was rather good, but then it fell apart.

AndrewPrice said...

Gotta run, will comment more later.

Tryanmax, that's a fantastic observation...

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, There were a good number of critics who called it a racial satire. I don't know that Tarantino said that himself. In any event, there's no reason not to discuss why this isn't a racial satire whereas Blazing Saddles was.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, Revenge films... work best when they are small, contained, and intimate. It's that sense of intimacy that Tarantino injects into his dialogue, even and especially in those uneasy relationships, that make his otherwise outlandish stories seem real.

Great observation! That is something Tarantino does so well. He takes a larger than life situation and he makes it intimate by letting the viewer into a seemingly meaningless conversation between the characters. It's a great way to build tension and invest the viewer in the film.

social themes may intrude on a revenge flick... but when they take over and displace the personal relationships, you lose that satisfaction because no one is intimate with society.

Very true. It is hard to feel good about revenge when its aimed at a large and disparate group. Even worse, when it's aimed at a group like "whites" or "blacks," it feels unfair because we all know that not everyone in the group is guilty enough to justify the revenge and it can feel like an attack if you are in the group.

It is much better, if you have a point, to make it by telling people "see, people are laughing at you" than it is to say "I wish I could kill you." The first strikes people right where they tend to be weak, the second just makes you angry -- it also exposes the person making the statement as essentially impotent because all they can do is wish you harm.

AndrewPrice said...

Hello everyone! I'll be a little late this week with a film review. I'm sadly in the middle of a massive legal project.

PikeBishop said...

Seth McFarlane finally put out that restraining order on you to keep you from following him around and telling him what a genius he is and how you couldn't bear to live if he stopped producing works like "Ted?"

Koshcat said...

I never saw Django as a satire. There is no humor, irony, or ridicule. There is exaggeration but more along the lines of a typical Tarantino film.

I fear that the thought police will prevent us from enjoying future screenings of Blazing Saddles but it is an awesome satire.

"Excuse me while I whip this out."

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