Saturday, January 19, 2013

Django



The virtue of "Django" – and it is a great one – is that it is the lone American movie to show graphically the horrors of slavery, and to celebrate a black man unchained – a lone, supposedly “exceptional” black man, a fantasized bounty hunter – killing the torturers.

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Some have said that "Django" is racist about whites. That is false. Django has a hard time shooting a mere murderer (a stage coach robber). He has no trouble shooting slave-masters and their agents including a depraved black house servant because of what they did.

If one admires freedom fighters like George Washington, how can one not sympathize deeply with the rebel Gabriel who led a slave revolt which almost burned the wooden city of Richmond in 1800 - it probably would have ended bondage if successful - but was captured, and said at his "trial" before the State hung him: "I have only to say what George Washington would have said had he been captured by the British and put on trial for his life. I have but one life to give for my countrymen and I am a willing sacrifice in their cause."

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The etched brands from whipping on the hero and heroine's backs are a little more of an example of bondage than a three penny tax on tea…

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The statement that "killing the torturers is racist" is, sadly, racist...

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In writing Black Patriots and Loyalists - see here -, I became familiar with the horrors of the slave trade. Like the once upon a time movie "North Star" about the Nazis (a film written by Lillian Hellman, the great playwright, in 1943, produced as something true, even though also propaganda, during World War II), what it portrays is but a fragment of the abomination. There are no words to describe fully what slavery was - see Walter Johnson’s searing account of auctions Soul by Soul: Life Inside an ante-bellum Slave Market here.

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If one looks at "Candieland" (Tarentino, of course, makes camp movies, in this case, a kind of spaghetti Western with a serious moral point), one has a pretty good picture of Tom Jefferson or George Washington (see the books of Henry Wiencek or Paul Finkelman as well as "The People and 'The Monster of Monticello'"here and here, for example).

Monticello is, in decisive respects, Candieland.

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One might incline to nonviolence (even oppressors have souls...), but only if a mass movement first puts them out of business.

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One has to take in that the founding slavers (and "indian-killers") were, with some intricacies, slavers. Ben Franklin, Tom Paine and John Laurens whom I write about extensively, are counterexamples. But the Constitution is Candie’s document until the Civil War and the 13th Amendment. Candie would be a caricature except that he is a greatly morally significant part of the founding fathers and many Democrats and even some Lincoln-like Republicans (who wanted free territory without blacks…) until the Civil War, fought from below, changed the views of many, gave America, briefly, a fresh start (Reconstruction).

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Listen again to Samuel Johnson’s 1775 quip about the Patriots in the light of "Django" – “How come we hear the greatest yelps for liberty from the drivers of slaves?” - and you will hear it in a new light.

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The Crown was, of course, the biggest slavetrader; they too, were, Candies.

The British anti-slavery movement from below, led by Wilburforce, Thomas Clarkson, Granville Sharp and Thomas Peters, as well as the masses of people who boycotted sugar, signed petitions, demonstrated and sometimes took up arms - see Adam Hochschild's fine Bury the Chains - were the only force for decency there.

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But "Django" is also a silly movie about a lone bounty hunter schooled by a decent white man, and growing into a Siegfried (nice when Jamie Foxx does but don't think about it too much).

In contrast, the dentist in the first scene does leave the remaining slaves to kill their torturer and take off. That is a sign that under desperate circumstances - slavery is such a circumstance and war, both the Revolution and the Civil War, reveals it - blacks will rise up.

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But Tartentino's story is of an incidentally anti-racist German schooling a black man to become Siegfried, as a bounty hunter. Most blacks do not fight back or rise up in this movie. Nonetheless, we moviegoers sympathize with Django as a representative of ordinary black people and the Civil War - the unity of the dentist and Django - blowing away the slave-owners.

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On television, once upon a time, Steve McQueen was a bounty hunter. "Django" recycles the Hollywood stereotype with a genuine moral point.

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Yet Django doesn’t even bother to take the four others designated for the slave mine with him on horseback without a saddle (is Django also an indigenous rider at the end, hinting at a Valhalla for Native Americans, too?) to blow away the monsters and reunite with Brunhilda.

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Though tortured – hanging him upside down had some reminiscence of Abu Ghraib and the American tortures in Afghanistan and Guantanamo – and enraged, this determined solo effort depicts Django as a bit of a fool (now "Siegfried," of course, being a hero, cannot really be a fool). A band of five would have given him more of a chance to survive. For he could have, of course, ended up like the Highwayman in Alfred Noyes's famous poem...

Still, Samuel Jackson, finisher of the master’s phrases, smarter than master but cut in the master’s image and cruel, was a creepy old man, no match for the "fastest gun in the South."

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The dentist was not so much of an archetype. He figured out to take on Django and his business prospered. But King Schultz's idea that one can surrender to a mob with a search warrant having shot a man and walk away again and again - as a foreigner though white in pre-Civil War Texas and Mississippi - until the noble dispatching of Candie is also a stupid meme.

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Still, the dentist also hated slavery. He is shown as not an American white man, Django more American as Django says. But while there were Kosciuzkos, the Polish patriot and serious abolitionist compared to the decadent Jefferson - see Gary Nash and Graham Hodges, Friends of Liberty: A Tale of Three Patriots, Two Revolutions, and the Betrayal that Divided a Nation: Thomas Jefferson, Thaddeus Kosciuszko, and Agrippa Hull, there were many American sailors who were anti-racist and led the revolutionary crowds...

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And in the Civil War, poor whites in Kentucky and Tennessee fought for the Union and abolition. Contra the movie, not every white American Southerner was a racist criminal.

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The dentist made an agreement with Django to help him rescue his love, could carry on negotiations with Candie as a bounty hunter and in a pretend role as a buyer of wrestlers to the death, but was finally so traumatized and revolted by Candie’s murder of a suffering black man (who had also been forced to commit crimes and regretted it, could not go beyond three…) being torn apart by dogs and hearing Candie's pseudoscientific or phrenological lies about black people being submissive (Charles Murray and IQ testers, take note), that he just has to shoot him with a hidden Derringer...

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He was a man. Christoph Waltz could not shake hands with Candie.

That is one of the most satisfying moments in the movie.

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But one of the slaver’s puppets shoots the dentist before Jamie Foxx takes him out.

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While no John Brown, the dentist is still a pretty good – that is, honorable - white guy.

And Django, who returns for Hildy’s freedom papers which King Schultz had purchased (who knows if they will make it riding along the road – he can kill some if he has enough ammunition – or through the swamps following the North Star), plants a kiss with his hand on his noble friend's dead head in farewell.

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On the one hand, the theme of love is explored strikingly in the movie, with a rendering of the Siegried/Brunhilda myth. “Hildy” who has no role except the princess of Wotan in the dentist’s/German bounty hunter’s myth is an archetype - but she better figure it out if they are going to escape - as is Django, who grows into the power of Siegfried as a gunsel and takes on, with his sharp dress at the end, a morally better version of Decaprio’s “Candie,” blowing away the slavers. It is a guy’s movie…

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But the more striking thing about interracial relationship (one must wonder which of the masters are actually “white” boys) is still pretty well beyond even a famous white director of a remade spaghetti western like Tarentino (Tarentino amusingly also shows up as one of the drivers to the death mine whom Django persuades to seek a bounty and then blows away…).

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One might think of Hildy as speaking German because her daddy or mommy is German. Perhaps the woman wanted to talk German with the girl because the girl was her daughter or niece...

As one slaveowner's wife aptly said, every white woman can name the mulatto sons and daughters of the slave-masters and their male relatives who serve at table in every one's else house...

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And many poor blacks and whites fell in love...

America is hinted at in this way, but just a hint...

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Thus, "Django" is still old fashioned since the biggest joke on the Republican party and its racist appeal is that America has always been, for the most part, a racially mixed society and pretty much any future for humanity lies in acceptance of this fact and of the loves people actually discover as this movie celebrates…

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Now "Django" rhymes with and is Rambo except, very strikingly, that this is decent and that is evil. Rambo, all by himself, goes and slaughters many Vietnamese. But the Vietnamse were the slaves of and resisters against French colonialism, Japanese imperialism, and American aggression. Rambo was not a hero; he was Candie on steroids.

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Morally speaking, Django cancels Rambo.

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Some black people don’t like the movie. Spike Lee rightly disdained to see it because the maker of "Malcolm X," a really good movie – "Django" is a bit camp – would not be allowed by Hollywood to make a movie about slaves killing their oppressors. There is just so far Hollywood seeks to go in this direction, and the most significant political movie out right now is the normalization of torture, “really just doing their job” CIA puff piece "Zero Dark Thirty." War criminals – under American and international law - must be celebrated or at least extenuated, not put on trial.

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Even with Barack as President and with some deescalation, America is still the Empire. Barack chose to tolerate the torturers of Arabs – racist criminals have their moment of glory (Condi, take note!). Mr. Candie, though surprised by the bullet in his chest, is just an avatar of Jose Rodriguez or Dick Cheney…

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But Condi Rice, the much travelled Secretary of State, can no longer go abroad. George W. Bush cannot go to Switzerland. Cheney fears to go to Canada. All might be arrested. See my "poem: Er in ye s" here and here.

Hollywood exists to perfume their crimes. It is what Hollywood is for...

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"Django" is sort of like an updated and anti-slavery - January 1st was the hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation - "Blazing Saddles." Django is Sheriff Bart with a true history and an edge...

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In contrast to "Django," nonviolence and Truth and Reconciliation as in Desmond Tutu – see No Future without Forgiveness and here – is the only way that we will sustain humanity. Humanity can no longer survive global warming and war by "blowing the bad guys away."

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Nonetheless, the slave-owners had to be stopped. And better the way of John Brown – there is so far no favorable movie out of Hollywood about the multiracial fight against slavery in Kansas or Harper’s Ferry; that is beyond where mainstream American culture has so far staggered...

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All history and redemption – of regimes and people – comes out of immense suffering, is messy. American democracy is a new thing, a hope as Vincent Harding often says, something that we are all, against the darkness of aggression, torture, the prison-industrial complex and now climate change, gradually, with much effort, working toward…

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It is a harder lift than "Django"…

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The movie “Lincoln” alludes to blacks joining whites and fighting for freedom. Black soldiers were the driving force in the Civil War in the collapse of bondage; yet they are only a backdrop to a movie about political maneuverings among whites (see my nonetheless very favorable review of the typically American biopic “'Lincoln' and Founding Myths” here).

African-Americans were also, as Black Patriots and Loyalists shows, the decisive fighters in the American Revolution at Yorktown, and fought for the emergence of consistent freedom: gradual emancipation in the Northern states during and after the Revolution.

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For the same reason that Lincoln is about white people - and the New York Times likes "Lincoln" more than "Django" as even Charles Blow’s otherwise instructive column reveals here (though there is a favorable review in the Times by A.O. Scott) - even reviewing or mentioning my book, even printing an op-ed or a letter from me, is still beyond the Times. See here, here, here and here.

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Still, "Django" is a sign of dealing with racism. There are a lot of white people who like "Django" and that is an emblem, as is the reelection of Obama and the inauguration tomorrow, that the retrograde South of slavery, aggression and torture is now something fading, though still horrific and reeking, in the United States.(h/t Sage Bard-Gilbert for many wise observations)

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