January 28, 2013 — I began Martin Luther King Day on my couch, watching the second inaugural address of America’s first black President and ended it at the Davis Theatre, in the company of Quentin Tarantino’s escaped-slave-gets-justice film, Django Unchained. A pair of redemption stories that, though separated by two centuries and the boundaries of reality, stand side by side as complementary narratives at the heart of Dr. King’s dream of racial equality.
As Django begins, Schultz, a bounty hunter masquerading as a dentist (Christoph Waltz), comes across a band of slaves on a forced march “somewhere in Texas.” Schultz is looking for a slave named Django (Jamie Foxx), who may be able to help him track and kill a trio of baddies called the Brittle Brothers. Django’s masters don’t comply with Schultz’s request, but two gun shots and a clumsy horse later, Schultz has his man, and the two are off on a bounty-hunting journey across the pre-Civil War South.
It turns out that Django doesn’t just know the Brittle Brothers, he holds them responsible for torturing his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), and separating the two by force at a Mississippi slave auction. The Brittles don’t last long in Schultz and Django’s sights, and after the bounty has been collected, Schultz decides he’ll repay Django by helping him find Broomhilda. Together, they track her to Candyland, the most notorious plantation in all of Mississippi, where a hideously evil Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) lies in slithery wait.
On Django and Schultz’s journey through the South, extreme violence and abhorrent language dot the landscape as plentifully as dirt roads and cotton fields. Countless bullets are strewn and numerous bodies dropped; when slaves and their abolitionist allies die, the violence is gruesome, gritty, impossible to watch, but when the slave masters bite it, the deaths turn cartoonish, with single shells exploding skulls like fireworks. In addition, the n-word is placed liberally in the mouth of almost every character in the film.
Predictably, Django Unchained has drawn criticism for the violence of its images and the offensiveness of its vocabulary. From critics like Slate’s Dana Stevens to fellow filmmaker Spike Lee, Tarantino’s detractors charge that, on both counts, his extremes are attempts to shock and titillate which are, at best, ineffective and, at worst, irresponsible and racist.
Before I continue, I need to take a moment to qualify my thoughts. I am a 31 year old white guy. I consider myself a moral and political progressive. I voted for Obama (twice), I read Mother Jones and I shop at Whole Foods. But the pain of slavery is not my pain. And the legacy of centuries of non-white oppression is not my mountain to climb. So, like Tarantino, I can only honestly approach the topic as a respectful outsider.
That said, if I feel I’m watching a carefully considered piece of art, you can scare me, spook me, bore me and shock me, but it is almost impossible to offend me. I’m aware that is, in good part, my privilege talking. My ancestors don’t have a slavery or Holocaust in their past to be exploited by irresponsible artists. But I think that, in focusing on Django‘s broad strokes, the film’s naysayers are neglecting to notice some of the subtler touches which convince me Tarantino is deeply interested in illuminating and eliminating oppressive attitudes.
Note the critical scene where Django, in order to maintain the ruse under which he and Schultz have been able to enter the Candyland plantation, is forced to turn on his fellow blacks, barking harsh slurs and even allowing one runaway slave to be killed by dogs. This scene communicates a deep understanding of internalized oppression, where members of oppressed groups are turned against one another as the only means to win their oppressors’ approval. This nod to internalized oppression is introduced with the “mandingo fighting” scene, deepened with Django’s decision to allow the slave to die and brought full circle by Candie’s servant Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), who sells out members of his own race to curry the favor of his master.
Early in the film we learn that the German Schultz knows the legend of Broomhilda as a German fairy tale wherein the valiant prince Siegfried must battle through rings of fire and scale a mountain in order to save his princess. Harmless, right? But look closely, and note that Schultz doesn’t offer to help Django save his wife until he understands their love within his own cultural context. This is a powerful idea when considering how Anglo-Christian narratives still dominate our cultural ideas about words like hero, love and justice.
And most importantly, pay attention to how Django and Schultz’s quest ultimately resolves. After months teaching Django the tools and skills of the bounty hunting trade, Schultz’s plan brings the two within a whisker of safely transporting Broomhilda to freedom. If Tarantino had ended the film here and the men had succeeded behind Schultz’s cunning alone, the filmmaker would have shamefully reinforced the ‘white savior’ trope common in films like Dangerous Minds and The Help. But Tarantino is smarter than that. He sacrifices Schultz so that Django, in order to finally bring Broomhilda down from the mountain, must be heroic in ways even Schultz was unable, using skills only he possesses and, in doing so, becomes the rightful hero of his own story.
If Django Unchained were merely an irresponsible, slap dash revenge fantasy (as it has been called here, here and here), the story would be complete in thirty minutes with the death of the Brittle Brothers. But Django and Tarantino have deeper plans. Django won’t rest until he’s saved Broomhilda from bondage; Tarantino until he’s not just reunited the lovers, but offered a singular, applause-worthy image that blows slavery’s most powerful symbol to smithereens.
So what does all this have to do with Barack Obama and Dr. King?
In April 1964, Malcolm X gave a speech in Cleveland he called “The Ballot or the Bullet.” In the midst of the national debate over what would become the Civil Rights Act of 1964, he praised the vote as a necessary, unalienable right which was an essential measure of racial equality. But at the same time, X left no doubt that he believed merely demanding equal rights would fail to bring change, and insisted that for a cause to be successful, the opponents of that cause must know that its fighters are willing to die in order to achieve freedom:
Let them know your eyes are open. And let them know…It’s got to be the ballot or the bullet. The ballot or the bullet. If you’re afraid to use an expression like that, you should get on out of the country; you should get back in the cotton patch; you should get back in the alley…It’ll be ballots, or it’ll be bullets. It’ll be liberty, or it will be death. The only difference about this kind of death – it’ll be reciprocal.
I won’t pretend I’m fully comfortable with rhetoric that, at times, brushes up against a direct incitement to violence. But I think I understand what Malcolm was saying. In the speech, “ballot” means freedom and a “bullet” is the willingness to put one’s life on the line in order to get that ballot. And he’s saying that if one group has been forcefully oppressing another for centuries, they’re not going to stop just because of a good speech and some tightly worded laws. They’re only going to change because they have to change. They’re going to stop because if they don’t, there will be consequences. There’s no ballot without the bullet.
Fifty years and millions of ballots later, just a half century after black Americans were granted full legal access to to the ballot box, Barack Obama offered his second inaugural address, an achievement unthinkable when Malcolm X spoke those words in Cleveland. Ballots have been awfully good to Barack Obama. He has never lost a general election and more ballots have been cast for the Presidency in his name than for any other in the history of our country. He represents a true and inspiring story that would be impossible without the ballot – without all Americans having equal access to the ballot as a result of the sweeping changes enacted during the Civil Rights Movement.
Renowned as perhaps our finest living orator, and already winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, Obama used his historic inaugural platform to say this on the subject of freedom:
Through blood drawn by lash and blood drawn by sword, we learned that no union founded on the principles of liberty and equality could survive half-slave and half-free…Our citizens, seared by the memory of those we have lost, know too well the price that is paid for liberty.
No reasonable person thinks that the proper remedy of social injustice is for an escaped slave to turn bounty hunter and blow up a hundred dudes and then nuke their house. But Obama’s message, and Tarantino’s, is that words and laws and statutes are not enough to bring freedom, but that for every Civil Rights Act there is a Selma and for every marriage equality amendment a Stonewall. And that’s why I vastly preferred Django Unchained to another of this year’s Best Picture nominees, Lincoln. Steven Spielberg’s film is about legislation. Tarantino’s is about liberty.
In my fifth grade history class, we were stupidly taught that Dr. King and Malcolm X were oppositional adversaries, but the reality is that couldn’t be any farther from the truth than saying that Obama and Django are fighting two adversarial struggles. Malcolm’s words belong on Dr. King’s day, and Obama and Django are part of the same fight.
For me, the most moving line in Obama’s inaugural came when he spoke of the generations-long fight for economic justice and said that “While the means will change, our purpose endures.” Martin, Malcolm, Barack, Django: Different means, same purpose. A week after that historic day, I wonder if the only problem with Malcolm’s recipe for freedom is that, like the Brittle Brothers, it divides two things that belong together. Maybe the real thing can’t be had without the ballot and the bullet.
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