Angelic stranger, Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) grants freedom to hapless Texas slave Django (Jamie Foxx). Schultz, a kindly German dentist-turned-bounty hunter, provides Django with employment, trusting friendship and his first handgun. Django is reborn as a slave-turned-bounty hunter, becoming a vengeful black American superman on a dangerous and deadly mission to free his lovely German-educated wife, Broomhilda von Shaft (Kerry Washington), from a Mississippi cotton plantation.
Django Unchained, directed by Quentin Tarantino, is a fascinating and troubling movie about slavery, freedom and violence in America. With a little extra viewer study, it could become an important film experience.
In 1858, Schultz and Django ride from Texas to Mississippi, collecting bodies and bounty checks, cash and promissory notes along the way.
"This is my world! And my world has gotten dirty," laments Schultz, after another bounty-winning bloodletting day.
Schultz and Django encounter plantation Big Daddy (Don Johnson) a charming slave-owner with added interest in constructing a destructive future Ku Klux Klan. Continuing to Mississippi, Schultz and Django arrive at a much larger plantation, Candie Land, owned by the very wealthy and sophisticated Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).
Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), a docile appearing house slave, serves slyly as Candie Land's ultimate overseer — a slave commander plus a decipherer of truth, goodness and evil — an authentic African Obeah (or Obi) transformed to an African-American monster. From 1858 to long beyond slavery, Stephen will live on in many American households, like any favorite uncle: Tom, Remus or Ben.
Django Unchained is irreverently violent, often reproachfully racist and so much like D.W. Griffith's 1915 Birth Of A Nation, the two films should ideally play back-to-back someday. Its lead character comes from the 1960s Italian film series, Django, starring Franco Nero, a gunman drifter who dragged a coffin on his violent journeys. Django replaced Sergio Leone's leading "man with no name" character (Clint Eastwood) as spaghetti Western box office favorite.
Laden more with schnitzel and beer than pasta, Django Unchained is influenced much by Karl May, the 19th century German novelist. May (pronounced My) wrote popular books about Germany's incremental spread into the global colonial world, including Asia, Africa and America, and German encounters with indigenous peoples. As a child, Germany's 20th century emerging artist-turned-Führer, Adolph Hitler, immensely enjoyed May's romantic conquest fantasies, in addition to trusting authentic historian accounts about the American expansion of the West, from sea to shining sea.
German production companies started Spaghetti Westerns in the late 1950s, filming Karl May-derived scripts in Italy as the surrogate American West. One powerfully repugnant scene may reawaken the late Fuhrer's delight and disgust, as a sadistically entertaining mandingo-canine mismatch nauseates the German, but not the more fearless Django, who then becomes Schultz's mentor.
"I am just a little more used to Americans than he (Schultz) is," intones Django, as he edges toward his very possible ancestral namesake, Shango (Xango), traditionally invoked by believers for male potency, fertility and war. More powerful than any handgun or rifle, Foxx's dynamite Django vaporizes Eastwood's charmingly destructive original.
Samuel L. Jackson's superbly delivered Stephen reminded me of a favorite unpublished slavery screenplay, The Drinking Gourd, written by playwright Lorraine Hansberry in 1959. Commissioned by NBC as a teleplay, it was judged "superb" by one network official, but dropped, essentially because of Hansberry's firm storyline opinion that slavery was wrong. The Hansberry play contains a Stephen character, too, whom she named Coffin.
Her surnamed Hansberry grandparents were slaves from Mississippi. In an unpublished letter to the Village Voice, she connected the American slave experience with the Holocaust:
"I have long since learned that it is difficult for the American mind to adjust to the realization that the Rhetts and Scarletts were as much monsters as the keepers of Buchenwald, they just dressed more attractively and their accents are softer," Hansberry wrote, adding, "The slavocracy was neither gentle nor vague; it was a system of absolutism: he who stood up and preached 'discontent' directly had his courageous head chopped off; his militant back flogged to shreds; the four points of his limbs fastened down to saplings, or his eyes gouged out."
Hansberry studied slavery from materials at The New York Public Library's Schomburg Center for the television project.
I have not spoken to Tarantino but his interview by The Root's editor-in-chief Henry Louis Gates offers important insights into his cinematic mission.
"I think America is one of the only countries that has not been forced, sometimes by the rest of the world, to look their own past sins completely in the face," Tarantino said.
Gordon by Mathew Brady Studio, active 1844-1894, National Portrait Gallery"And it's only by looking them in the face that you can possibly work past them."
Great Americans named Douglass, DuBois, Wells, Bethune, King, X (Shabazz), Baldwin and Hansberry fundamentally argued that America's ugliest disfiguring was the self-castration of its own humane ideals.
Likely, Dr. King and Malcolm X would be with Spike Lee and Tarantino, in part, on this film. In his autobiography, Malcolm X expressed an unnamed partnership on the root cause and outcome of generations of fanciful national history:
"When the white man came into this country, he certainly wasn't demonstrating any 'non-violence.' In fact, the very man (Dr. King) whose name symbolizes non-violence here today has stated: "Our nation was born in genocide when it embraced the doctrine that the original American, the Indian, was an inferior race. Even before there were large numbers of Negroes on our shores, the scar of racial hatred had already disfigured colonial society. From the sixteenth century forward, blood flowed in battles over racial supremacy.
We are perhaps the only nation which tried as a matter of national policy to wipe out its indigenous population. Moreover, we elevated that tragic experience into a noble crusade. Indeed, even today we have not permitted ourselves to reject or to feel remorse for this shameful episode.
Lest We Forget: The Triumph Over SlaveryOur literature, our films, our drama, our folklore all exalt it... It was upon this massive base of racism that the prejudice toward the nonwhite was readily built, and found rapid growth. This long-standing racist ideology has corrupted and diminished our democratic ideals. It is this tangled web of prejudice from which many Americans now seek to liberate themselves, without realizing how deeply it has been woven into their consciousness."
[From Autobiography of Malcolm X, As Told To Alex Haley, by Malcolm X, 1965 / MLK Jr. excerpt from Why We Can't Wait, by Martin Luther King Jr., 1964]
In 1960, American star Henry Fonda agreed to plans for the The Drinking Gourd and negotiations with Claudia McNeal and British star Laurence Olivier were underway when NBC abruptly passed on the script. In 1967, radio station WBAI commemorated the second anniversary of Hansberry's death, broadcasting two scenes from the script, voiced by Cicely Tyson, Will Geer, James Earl Jones and Rip Torn.
When my Moore family arrived at the Manhattan movie theatre, my sixth grade son passed up the opportunity to see Django Unchained with his twelfth grade brother, mother and me. Instead he went with his aunt Imani to see The Hobbit.
"You all look exhausted!" my younger son exclaimed as we walked wearily toward him after the movie. We were tired of all the killing. Make-believe killing is tiring, even in an important and valuable film. My wife, Kim Yancey, who introduced me to Lorraine Hansberry's works, liked the performances but she was just plain tired by the violence. My older son unequivocally enjoyed the movie, but he was weary, too (thankfully!) from the so lengthy killing stretches. He is a video production intern and he is learning that movies are never the last stop in the learning curve, but can be the first step. We have a few books at home and I figured a trip to the library would help translate Django Unchained from a potential waste of family time.
Spielberg's Lincoln cinematically constructs the Thirteenth Amendment. Many viewers may see that Tarantino's Django Unchained deconstructs the Second Amendment. Django Unchained is Historical Literacy 101 (with or without popcorn). Syllabus: Hansberry, Malcolm X, MLK Jr.
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Chris Moore is author Fighting For America: Black Soldiers, The Unsung Heroes of World War II and co-author Standing In The Need of Prayer: A Celebration of Black Prayer and Jubilee: The Emergence of African American Culture.