Truth and Django Unchained: A Discussion About Artistic License

September, 2017

In light of the current state of race relations in the United States, I’m reprinting a post I wrote in 2013.  I think the situation may be even worse today than it was back then.  Or, maybe the scab has been pulled off the wound and long simmering issues are being revealed.

Truth and Django Unchained

by A. G. Moore

This picture is taken from a 1910 book, The Leading Facts of American History.  The illustration purports to show the first African slaves arriving in Virginia. This image is in the public domain.

Quentin Tarantino says, in justifying his prolific use of the N-word in his latest bloodfest, “I want it (the film) to be a big, gigantic boulder, a jagged pill and you have no water.”  And yet, at the same time, Tarantino declares that he wants the film to be “entertaining”.  In my view, Django Unchained doesn’t fail because it’s hard to “take” (Tarantino’s phrase), and it doesn’t fail because it’s “entertaining”. It fails because Mr. Tarantino tries, unsuccessfully, to wed these two goals together.

Of course, when it comes to art, failure is in the eyes of the beholder. Except that in Mr. Tarantino’s case, he asks for, indeed insists on, a license to break a social taboo. He bases his insistence on his desire to show “what happened”  when slavery was a Southern institution. He addresses the issue of the N-word and then he asks us, his audience, to give him a pass.  If he hadn’t bothered to ask, I wouldn’t have bothered to answer. I would have just written off his film as exploitative, a sham exercise.

But since Tarantino did ask, I will answer.

In order for me to grant Mr. Tarantino the license he seeks, his film must rise to the level of art. This the film does not do. For art is truth, or an attempt to find truth. And Mr. Tarantino admits that he hasn’t got the stomach for this. Oh, he has the stomach to show heads blown off and backs sliced open. But he hasn’t got the stomach to show these things as they happened, without humor or comic relief. The true bitter pill, the one lived by slaves in the U. S. for hundreds of years, is too unpalatable for Mr. Tarantino’s audience to swallow.

So he gives us molasses. He gives us the burlesque of a Klan scene where the ferocity of the mob’s intention is diluted by farce. Mr. Tarantino is right; this is not Schindler’s List. It’s Blazing Saddles. Mel Brooks also used the N-word, but he never justified its use by claiming he was forcing a bitter pill down our throats. His goal was satire and parody; he saw the N-word as a valid tool in achieving his comic purpose.

Mr. Tarantino sets a high bar for himself when he insists upon breaking a taboo in order to show truth. He’s probably right that he needs to shock in order to jar his audience’s sensibilities, in order to rouse them from complacent acceptance of the narrative. But Tarantino is not the first artist to undertake this mission. In the 20th century, Bertolt Brecht set an example for artists who wished to convey a message and jar the sensibilities of an audience–while still entertaining.

Brecht used comedy, but he didn’t use the shallow burlesques of Tarantino. His comedy had a grotesque aspect to it; his distractions from the narrative stream weren’t pretty. While they entertained, they also made the observer uneasy.

Mr. Tarantino claims he wishes to do this, but Kerry Washington and Jamie Foxx are very pretty to look at. No battle-scarred Mother Courage or physio-gnomed Arturo Ui spoils the cinematic extravagance of Django Unchained. Though it is true that Ms. Washington and Mr. Foxx are branded in the movie, the discreetly raised “r”‘s in the hollows of their cheeks more resemble decorative tatoos than facial disfigurements.

Django Unchained is littered with the N-word, Tarantino explains, because “That’s just part and parcel of dealing truthfully with this story, with this environment, with this land”. But there is nothing truthful about devoting a large part of the movie to “Mandingo” fighters. While there is little direct sexual exploitation in the film, Tarantino cannot resist the Mandingo reference, which calls to mind, at least on a subliminal level, the “lurid”, racially exploitive 1975 eponymous film. (See Roger Ebert’s review of Mandingo in the Chicago SunTimes on July 25, 1975). There is no record of actual “Mandingo” fighters in the slave-holding South. Mr. Tarantino skewers the truth to titillate the senses.

And thus must we regard his use of the N-word. While the N-word might have been part and parcel of the truth about slavery in the the South, Mr. Tarantino’s film has nothing to do with truth. This movie is a pastiche of his personal preferences and his perception of audience appetite. He panders throughout the enterprise to his own base inclinations and to popular demand.

Django Unchained is not art; it’s exploitation. On the basis of this conclusion I, a solitary viewer, deny Mr. Tarantino the license he insists on. He cannot use the N-word with moral or artistic justification.

***Picaresco--early form of the novel, with roots in 16th century Spain. Consisted of a series of loosely connected adventures. Little or no plot line. Little character development or moral justification. Liberal use of parody, satire and farce

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