I always tell students in my film courses to understand the creator of a piece of work before they delve into the work itself. Holding dear to my formula, Quentin Tarantino, the director of the highly anticipated and now, highly controversial Django Unchained is a piece of work himself.
However, I will focus on Tarantino’s heavy influence and 70s intertextuality in his craft. He is a self-professed Blaxploitation and film junkie of the 70s who nods to those times as a young boy growing up in Los Angeles as the son of a single mother who partied in Hollywood and schmoozed with professional athletes.
In fact, in a recent interview with NPR, Tarantino talks about how his mother’s boyfriends would take him to Blaxploitation movies. He also admitted that his mother was one of the many conquests of famed 70s basketball player, Wilt Chamberlain who penned in his autobiography that he slept with thousands of women.
I might be assuming, but from Tarantino’s information he implies that his mother’s interracial relationship with a black man goes beyond Chamberlain; thus that presents Tarantino’s relationship with understanding manhood to include manhood from the eyes of a black men she dated (and thus he formed a father/son or mentor/mentee relationship); and in some ways, Tarantino’s perspective of a superhero to some times, be black.
Django Unchained is a sonnet in his multi-decade liturgical creation that gives ode to 70s films. Tarantino oft upgrades the lone gunmen to a disco era funk bloodbath with drops of quirky intellect, but brash humor; all the while keeping key elements of Westerns such as uber shootouts, moral posturing in the thick of unrighteousness, saving the damsel in distress and fighting for some type of justice.
In many ways, Django Unchained is a deconstruction, or more like Tarantino’s reinterpretation, and in many instances, his reappropriation of the (European and Latin American) popular 1966, Italian Western Django which tells the story of a loner cowboy who traverses the Wild West facing Mexican Banditos and lawless, racist law men, all the while, making a local prostitute an honest woman.
The most salient aspect of Django (1966) is plot that revolves around the main character fighting insidious racists who shoot Mexicans for fun, and consider them to be inferior.
The framing of white cowboys as blatant racists in a Western is far, and few between due to the nature of the manifest destiny ideology that Westerns carried. Manifest Destiny was an eighteenth and nineteenth century mantra used by U.S. (white) settlers as a validation to encroach and steal indigenous people’s land. It is a thought by most (but not all) whites at the time, that they were knighted with the God-given right to expand their growing nation in their movements deeper into the West, by any means necessary; hence the mass destruction of native peoples and the eventual seizure of all the lands and then strategic placement of the first nations onto reservations.
In Westerns, white men were the superior, and non-whites and women were considered either deviants or the weaker, as assessed by scholars who analyze the racial and gender implications of Westerns. Paula Massood (2003) and Michael Johnson (2005) assert that Westerns depicted blacks as comedic fodder, deviants, mentally inferior side-kicks who were not as savvy in gun slinging as white men, and in many cases, coonish clowns that were not to be taken seriously. There were films that presented alternative images. Julia Leyda (2002) writes about black audiences who looked at black singing cowboy Westerns that attempted to reflect the black presence in the Wild West; however, they still racialized, and undermined the power of people of color.
In Django, Tarantino unapologetically props the 2012 Django as a merciless gunman who shoots with accuracy, and does not blink an eye when exacting justice upon anyone who tries to kill his mission to rescue his wife.
Tarantino cleverly takes the original Django fight for justice around racial issues by revitalizing it in a movie that narrates the life of a formerly enslaved man who fights for his love who is enslaved in the most brutal plantation in the deep south. He uses the conditions of Blaxploitation actor, Fred Williamson who negotiated his film contracts with three nonnegotiable requests, 1. He doesn’t die 2. He was the hero 3. He walks away with the woman. Much like Williamson, Jamie Foxx embodies a refined version of these conditions with other elements of Django that caricaturizes the ignorance of white supremacy.
For Tarantino to mockf violently ignorant actions is a common theme in his movies. From Pulp Fiction to Inglorious Bastards he enjoys exploring twisted displays of humanity with twists of humor.
But Tarantino stays true to the Westerns that increased the gore and gun scenes by maintaining a violent element in his narrative that does not deviate from any action movie in Hollywood, with the exception that the gunplay is not sugarcoated with special effects or music that sweetens the delivery. It is raw and gory, just like how violence is delivered.
There are other elements that Tarantino uses such as the the original song in the Django soundtrack to provide an intertextual audio that connects the new and the old. As he says in his interview, his version of Django is one of many Django ripoffs, but the biggest element is him accurately imbedding the most prevalent industry during the rise of the cowboy era of the nineteenth century, that of slavery.
He swaps the cowboys and Indian narrative with a black man fighting the institution of slavery with a German bounty hunter, for the love of his life, Broomhilda. Tarantino deviates from his heavy hand in Blaxploitation and leans on Western movie aesthetics that are about saving a beautiful, helpless woman who is treated beneath her worth. Unlike the traditional damsel, Broomhilda is extremely strong and resilient as she survives the atrocities of being a black woman who is enslaved and must deal with sexual and labor exploitation.
Simultaneously, Django’s love is presented as a delicate flower that is vibrant, and subtly sensual. But in other scenes, she endures whippings and other punitive treatment for attempting to escape bondage. In one of the last standoffs, Broomhilda is held at gunpoint and is threatened to be shot if Django does not give himself to authorities. Broomhilda, in a courageous stand tells Django to hold out, and sends her final “I love you” in expectation of getting shot. That single scene resists gender-assigned weakness of women in Western’s especially at the hands of violence.
Of course, the inner womanist in me wanted to hear and see more of Kerry Washington do her thing; but acting is more than lines. Her words are powerful in her body language. Nonetheless, I do understand people wanting to experience the articulated presence of black women during this era; especially one who resists.
In some ways, Broomhilda is a Foxy Brown, or Cleopatra Jones who is this superwoman with a backbone of steel, but also is celebrated for her beauty. But in some odd way, Broomhilda is Tarantino’s mother, an imperfect perfection that will have men eating out of her hand, and riding into the sunset.