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America’s Soul Unchained

[By Jerry Ward]

Django
Unchained
is the most patriotic American film of 2012, because Quentin
Tarantino plunged into the system of Dante’s Inferno and brought up the bloody,
violent and unchained soul of the myth of the United States of America.  He succeeds in making viewers frustrated,
angry, and anxious to debate the merits of reducing Richard Wagner’s Götterdämmerung to a soap opera and
ending a fragmented black love story with Broomhilda and Django riding off into
the bliss of fugitive darkness.

 We have been trying, without much success, to
have a conversation about what it means to be an American since the
nineteenth-century publication of Alex de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America
Although any revolution of consciousness occasioned by Django
Unchained
will not be televised, the grounds for a crucial conversation have
been “immortalized” as a richly satiric cartoon, a cinematic allegory that
divides spectators into pro-Django, anti-Django, and disingenuous neutral
camps.  Unfortunately, the crucial
conversation will evaporate as soon as the next film of outrage lights the
screen.  Nevertheless, Tarantino’s genius
deserves all the kudos and barbs, detractions and commendations we shall give
it from here to infinity.  Indeed, the
National Rifle Association should give Tarantino a special award for the
patriotic fervor of Django Unchained in reaffirming the Constitutional entitlement
of Americans to bear arms and make havoc among themselves and people on an
endangered planet.  An Oscar will not
suffice.
If
there is credibility in Irving Howe’s famous Hebraic judgment that “[t]he day Native Son appeared, American culture
was changed forever”   [“Black Boys and
Native Sons.” Dissent, 10 (Autumn
1963): 353-368], there is equal credibility in the claim that the day Django
Unchained
was first screened, American cinema culture was altered.  While pure violence is a staple ingredient in
our forms of mass entertainment, few films depict how Americans are permanently
enslaved by love of violence. Like Richard Wright’s novel, Quentin Tarantino’s
film broadcasts a message that the prudent among us will not ignore, a message
that puts the agony of interpretation in a harsh, politically incorrect
spotlight.
Our
interpretation of Django Unchained is largely determined by the angles,
prejudices, and ideological bags we bring to the acts of viewing and
talking.  If the film is approached as an
effort by a white director (although Tarantino
is not exactly a “white” surname) to tell a black story, the viewing is shaped
by assumed or specified expectations about how a black story of enslavement
ought to be written and reconstructed or translated into film.  If it is assumed that Django Unchained attempts to be a multiethnic representation of American history circa
1858-1859, our attention is drawn to the legitimacy of violence in the shaping
of the United States from 1619 to 1776 to the present; the presence of the
black story is a kind of inner light that illuminates the gross and vulgar
surface of American democracy’s saga.  In
this instance, the film fails to challenge the exhausted black/white binary
conventions of America sufficiently, but it does begin to expose a fantasy of
oppositional progress.  It is neither
good nor accurate history, nor was it meant to be.  It is mainly an exposure of American
entertainment as national pathology. That fantasy
undermines or erases fact works
against sympathetic reception of the film, but it does not prevent our
understanding why violation of the human body and the worship of violence is an
innate element in our historical being. 
Ultimately, “Django Unchained” is an anatomy of the imperfections of
whiteness, the hypocrisy of Euro-American founding dreams, and America’s
violent soul.
Ishmael
Reed, one of our most astute cultural critics, notes in his review “BlackAudiences, White Stars and ‘Django Unchained’” [“Speakeasy Blog,” The Wall Street Journal, December 28, 2012]  that the film is a representation of slavery
for mainstream audiences.  Reed concludes
Tarantino is not a responsible white historian and “the business people who put
this abomination together don’t care what I think or about the opinions of the
audience members who gave Tarantino a hard time during that recent q. and
a.”  The q. and a. to which Reed refers
is briefly described in Hillary Crosley’s “ ‘Django Unchained’: A PostracialEpic?,” The Root, 25 December 2012.
Reed’s
conclusion directs attention to the agony of interpretation and the cultural
politics that informed the making of Tarantino’s film.  In suggesting that neither Arna Bontemps’s Black Thunder nor Margaret Walker’s Jubilee would be a candidate for a film,
Reed is silently telling us why his novels Flight
to
Canada and Yellow-Back Radio Broke Down would never
fit into a Hollywood scheme of representation. It may be impossible to prove
that Reed’s novels or Slaves ( 1969) by John Oliver Killens  inspired
Tarantino in the way Sergio Corbucci’s “Django” (1966) and “Mandingo” apparently
did, but it is fascinating to speculate that Reed’s defamiliarizing of
historical time and space played some role in Tarantino’s defamiliarizing of
America’s core values.  Reed’s narrative
strategies are neatly matched by Tarantino’s technical strategy of shooting the
movie in anamorphic format on 35 mm film. Whether we like or dislike Tarantino,
we do have to deal with his art. And we have to deal also with the stellar
performances of Jaime Foxx, Kerry Washington, Leonardo DiCaprio, Christopher Waltz;  Laura Cayouette’s face will be etched in
memory as the perfect image of what a Southern belle looked like in 1859 and
Samuel Jackson’s palpable discomfort in the role of Stephen, the HNIC, warrants
several essays.  Were the acting in the
film not so good, the agony of interpretation would be less intense.  It is downright unsettling that even the
minor actors do not disappoint us as cartoon figures. It is deeply troubling
that what George Kent named “ceremonies of poise in a non-rational universe” can
be had at a discount.
Much
has been made of the fact that Tarantino retrofits the Italian spaghetti
Western into an American noodle narrative of the South. Thus, he achieves, if
we must use a culinary metaphor,  a casserole
of cinematic genres, a highly valued artistic abomination .In the world of
filmmaking, an abomination may not be a failure, particularly if the aesthetic
of merde and the mimesis of violence
is at issue.  The visual allusions in Django Unchained lead us to suspect that Tarantino is much influenced by the
cinema of Sergei Eisenstein, Luis Bunuel, and Ingmar Bergman.  It is obvious that he is indebted to the
accidental or intended comic excesses of blaxploitation film and to the cinema
of cruelty exploited in Peter Weiss’s “Marat/Sade.” As future cultural studies
of Django Unchained will demonstrate, Tarantino generously tips his hat to
his ethnic and  cinematic ancestry by
transposing elements of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s “Salo” (1975) into his film.  Pasolini, it must be noted, has the dubious
honor of having produced the most reprehensible abomination in the history of
film.  
Perhaps
 Tarantino’s dwelling in the bowels of
exaggeration by way of Django Unchained is  just what Americans needed
most to see. They need to look at themselves, at  who they were as they publicly “mourned” for
the children and adults murdered in Sandy Hook. They were not mourning for hate
crimes, self-hatred, or the condition identified by Carolyn Fowler as “racially
motivated random violence.” They needed to see they were not mourning for the
506 victims of homicides in Chicago during 2012 or for the thousands of flesh
and blood victims of rampant violence and abuse in America’s cities and suburbs.
Americans simply do not grieve for the Zeitgeist
that is seducing our nation to consider 
social implosion as an option. Django Unchained was perfectly timed to
provide 165 minutes of violent entertainment and to cast light on the nature of
America’s soul unchained.  That soul,
which we all possess, is incapable of authentic grief. It has “normalized”
violence.  Violence is salvation.  Our souls have  mastered the art of indifference, and we are
post-humanly happy to have a tragic catharsis on the plantation of life and to
walk hand in hand with blind fatalities and unqualified love for our country.  Quentin Tarantino is alarmingly intimate with
the habits of the American soul, and he serves us slice after slice of synthetic
white cake.