by Dr. Chenelle Jones
After taking a moment to digest the movie Django Unchained, I felt compelled to write a few of my thoughts concerning the film and I must say, after hearing all the accolades received from movie critics and the general public, I must say, I was honestly disappointed by what I saw for several reasons. However, before I list my disappointments, I must give the movie praise for embracing a black hero/ex-slave who takes revenge against the institution of slavery and those who perpetuate it. The movie takes a light and at times comedic approach to the seriously delicate and sensitive issue of slavery. It also depicts the brutality of slavery through the barbaric and often gruesome treatment of slaves, yet wittingly balances those horrors in such an amusing way the viewer doesn’t leave the movie theater feeling completely depressed. However, I still left the movie feeling a little disappointed and this is why:
Spoiler Alert: If you haven’t seen the movie, you may not want to read my commentary.
- The story line is at best mediocre. I believe most of the praise from the movie stems from the fact that the hero (Django), an ex-slave, shows up like a knight in shining armor to save his damsel in distress (Broomhilda) from the evil dragon (Cruel Slave Owner Calvin Candie). Aside from the blood gushing spectacle of violence and gore, the film follows the typical story line of a Disney film while simultaneously promoting ideological fallacies of white supremacy and black inferiority. For instance, if it weren’t for the initial rescue, purchase, and subsequent tutelage of a white man named Dr. King Shultz, Django would still be enslaved. This alone supports the diminutive context to which African Americans have been historically relegated. It upholds erroneous and often discriminatory beliefs that African Americans are helpless and incapable of accomplishing anything worthwhile without the help of the dominant racial group.
- The use of the “N” word is excessive and at times, unnecessary for the context to which it is spoken. First “Pulp Fiction” now “Django”. The “N” word is spoken over 100 times within the span of 3 hours, that’s a bit much. I’m beginning to feel that Quentin Tarantino has some sort of covert fascination with the “N” word and the only way to satisfy his intrinsic desire with the word, is to put it in his films because of course, he dare not say it himself for risk of public ridicule. The problem here however, is the excessive use of the word desensitizes the public to its belittling and dehumanizing nature. We already have a problem within the African American community and contemporary hip hop society of the “N” word being thrown around as a result of contrasting definitions and contradictory meanings—all stemming from slavery. The last thing we needed was this film to add to the dichotic conundrum of the “N” word.
- Kerry Washington’s character Broomhilda was grossly underdeveloped. Now granted, the movie was about Django, it’s still unfortunate that we never really got a chance to know and understand Broomhilda. A vast majority of her lines were nothing more than an ear piercing scream. Like so many other female characters in the movie, Washington’s character was minimized to a role of submission and servitude that lacked any real credence or substance. This submissive role parallels contemporary stereotypical gender roles that women are best suited for ornamental and not functional roles. They are often degraded to nothing more than sex objects. Although the movie graphically depicted the various forms of punishment often experienced by female slaves for running away (branding, beating, etc.), the movie really didn’t address the fact that black women were often subjected to heinous sexual abuse at the hands of their white slave owners. Nor did it readily address the psychological and physical impact of sexual abuse on women and their families. Traditionally, the double marginalization of black women has been psychologically crippling and within the context of the movie, it would have been appropriate to shed some light on the issue.
- Stephen (played by Samuel Jackson) reminded me of a character in a black minstrel show. I would summarize his character as the ‘shuck and jiving’ Uncle Tom who is charged with the task of providing some sort of “comedic relief” and entertainment to a predominately white audience. The satirical approach to this controversial character overshadowed the seriousness of his submissive and subservient role. The attempted assimilative personality of this character, the denigration of his self-identity, and his subsequent acts of betrayal spoke mounds to the psychological infliction that has historically plagued many African Americans. All of which resulted from atrocious acts that occurred during slavery. Furthermore, there was no remorse, epiphany, or penitence of this character at the end of the film which is disheartening. His impeding death was even reduced to a parody so the audience never really got a chance to balance the good with the bad.
- The discussion of submission and the use of phrenology was unimpressive. Phrenology refers to the study of the shape and protuberances of the skull as a means of understanding mental capacities and character traits. For some time now it has been discredited, but I must applaud Tarantino for addressing phrenology, because although rarely discussed, it was often used as a means to justify the enslavement of people of African descent. However, the presentation of phrenology in the film was missing a very important point. The film focused on the interior of the skull and paired it with traits of submission but when phrenology was initially presented and popularized by Joseph Frances Gall, it focused on the surface of the skull and was more concerned with intelligence. This struck a chord with me because when I attended the movie, another audience member thought Leonardo DiCaprio’s presentation of phrenology was accurate and if they thought it, I wonder how many others thought the same.
In conclusion, if we want our story told correctly, we should probably be the ones who tell it. Furthermore, there probably will never be a film that captures the totality of slavery. With that being said, aside from my disappointments listed above, the movie was interesting to watch. It took a fresh approach to the traditional slave movie which was very refreshing.