I can’t recall the last time I ever read a more devastating shredding of a film than this dismantling written by Jesse Williams (mild-mannered actor, model, producer, star of Grey’s Anatomy by day; heroic blogger, teacher, Temple University grad, though-provoker, and movie-bullshit fighter by night). Today a tweet from Ava DuVernay led me to Williams 1500 word critique of Tarantino’s lazy insults on CNN.
The CNN essay throws a harsh spotlight on the worst of what’s wrong with Django but that’s nothing compared to the far more rigorous bitch-slapping Jesse Williams delivers in a detailed scene-by-scene dissection that runs more than 5600 words on his own blog. Anyone who dislikes Django Unchained as much as I do will relish seeing it so deftly dismantled — and I’ll be surprised if even the film’s biggest fans don’t see it differently if they take the time to read Williams’ formidable takedown. Check out some choice excepts after the cut.
We all have subjective experiences during and after viewing a film. Strong feelings about art are not easily transferred onto others. If you didn’t think it was amazing, or offensive, it’s going to be tough for someone to convince you that it was. We need to feel for ourselves.
Not “feeling offended” does not mean the material itself was not offensive. The most effective propaganda goes unnoticed. That’s kind of how it works. Neither damage nor ignorance require intent.
With that in mind, I offer a breakdown of the scenes that affected me. I may have missed something you loved, or been apalled by something you never even noticed.
…Without so much as a glance, Django walks directly away from his fellow men. The shackled men have just witnessed a truly incredible series of events, yet at no point in the entire experience do they ever acknowledge or communicate with each other. (Their entire existence is awash with violence, so it’s not a result of shock.) Dr. King throws them the key to their shackles and advises them to head north. These men literally hold the key to their shackles and they never try to free themselves, or even look at each other. They don’t consider or confer. They just stand there mouths agape, like shackled apes, and as if with one mind, they trudge forward on cue, to inflict violence upon the wounded white oppressor before them. This imagery is a choice that defies all survivalist logic. You have the key to the iron shackles that eat away at your raw ankles. Take them off. When first glimpsing freedom, they look not to each other or their own shackled ankles, but first to inflict violence upon the nearest white person. Which, incidentally is exactly what Django did when freed; physically assaulted the wounded white man by pressing the horses weight into his wound. Could the black men not have looked to North Star themselves? Displayed human initiative by assembling supplies from the wreckage or anything else a real, experienced adult man might do?
Django has lived and worked exclusively with enslaved black people for all 40+ years of his life, yet his behavior obstructs the viewers’ ability to empathize with these characters, and the millions they represent. They demonstrate absolutely no potential, no personhood. ..
If the slave is just that; some zombie slave, what can you expect of your audience when faced with their bondage? A shrug?
…You didn’t notice that the black people in this scene appeared lobotomized because that’s usually how slaves are portrayed. Black males on screen are consistently represented as dumb, incurious and/or prone to violence. If we want true progress, we have to stop sharing the same lack of curiosity displayed by Tarantino and his fictional slaves.
Django arrives to our first plantation just in time to be welcomed coldly by plantation owner Big Daddy Bennett (played by Don Johnson). This is a most bizarre slave plantation for a director who “wanted to explore slavery” and said “I am responsible for people talking about slavery in America in a way they haven’t in 30 yrs.” On his custom built slave plantation, a fleet of slave women stroll the grounds giggling, in floor-to-shoulder gowns, like they’re in Versailles. Seriously, slaves, without a care in the world, swinging on swings and cracking jokes all day. Oh, and there’s a white guy with a rifle propped up and ready, like a prison guard in the yard. What are you doing sir — making sure they stroll casually enough? Tarantino was right, we have never felt the need to talk about slavery this way. Nor felt the need to clarify that chattel slavery was kind of the opposite of this strolling-in-finery situation we’re presented with.
Then they go shopping for clothes.
Django asks exactly zero questions about how best to find his beloved wife. He just tries on hats, asking Schultz if a certain hat looks okay. As he rummages through other fashions King tells Django to select his clothes already. Django cannot believe he’s being permitted to select his own clothing! Except that for this entire scene he’s been doing just that: picking out his own clothing.
We cut to Django on a horse dressed like Little Boy Blue Ludwig Van Negro. Get it? No matter the era, Negros naturally have childish tastes. He looks like a cartoon lawn jockey. Can’t you hear them laughing about it on set?
In Django’s only real [non-imaginary] scene with his wife, Broomhilda, a flashback before they reunite, Django appears to save her from further whipping and escape to the woods with her. They finally begin to speak to each other; lovers communicating before us for the very first time until suddenly a contemporary singer’s voice is drowning out and distracting us from their [generic] dialogue. Why during the only definitive and incredibly vulnerable moment in the lives of Django and his wife, does the filmmaker literally construct an offscreen, off-century sound obstacle to detach us from the very characters whose story he claims to be telling? Guess who’s dialogue is never so irrelevant that it’s pitted against loud, off-century music? Dr. King, Calvin Candy or any other white person. It was our opportunity to align ourselves with our title character in his quest to get her back- it’s the only scene where they have a conversation in the entire film.
Django has never held a gun before but he expertly whips out Dr. King’s under-the-cuff-gun-on-a-slide contraption and fires one perfect shot to Brittle’s heart, killing him instantly. Lil Raj witnesses this and literally bats his pistol around on his stomach like a blind, hooved drunkard for what felt like an eternity until finally Django strikes him with his brothers bullwhip. Cue the circus music, clowns and unicycle bear! The camera looks up at the heroic Django, the sweeping music belies a dignity that simply cannot be matched by a grown man in a ridiculous velvet lawn jockey outfit.
The Brittle brothers are not generic representatives to Django. They are specifically Django’s horribly abusive overseers: his entire life of oppression personified before him, right now. Yet they weren’t mighty at all. In fact, an illiterate man who dresses like a child, and has never fired a weapon before, can just walk up and destroy them in 40 seconds flat. Slavery’s not that big a deal if you show some initiative.
A few moments ago, this guy was disgusted by the concept of a black man being allowed to ride a horse. Now he selects a posse made up of armed blacks? One of them’s a child. He’s got every generation and every complexion alongside him like it’s a plantation Bennetton ad. Black men are banned from riding horses, which could actually be useful to the functionality of your property (and happened in real life) but you give black men guns to point at other white men?! THIS SCENARIO WOULD NEVER HAPPEN. If they made PUNK’D, but for excitable historians instead of celebrities, this would be in it.
This scene is yet another cartoonish invalidation of the black experience, suggesting that the barbarism of slavery was carried out, not by our high functioning “Christian” society for successful centuries, but by some other wacky people who were merely playing by the rules of the day. On the topic of black oppression, we must see anything but ourselves in the mirror. The audience runs no risk of seeing our actual history reflected in this goofy Harlem Globetrotters of a Plantation. Slavery was not a wacky episode of the Beverly Hillbillies. It was normal. There is an enormous difference.
Those are just a few highlights from the first third of Jesse Williams’ truly brilliant condemnation of the repellant messages Django Unchained has been sending around the world these past few weeks. Please do yourself a favor and read the whole stinging reevaluation in its entirety. I’ve been too infuriated to properly express how felt about this movie since the first time I saw it on Christmas night but I’m glad more people are seeing Django for the lazy debasement it is and beating it back better than I ever could.