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Incriminating Evidence and Interpretation

[By Jerry Ward]

Negative
and positive responses to Django Unchained and other commodities illuminate
the complexity of popular disagreement in the United States.  The film is so multi-faceted, so open to an
enormous range of readings and interpretations, that we must focus on small
portions of Tarantino’s collage. 
Representation of the institution of slavery, and the anger-making
options of enslavement, serves as a distracting background for looking at the
cultural triplets named Injustice, Violence, and Justice.  The family portrait of the triplets is more a
painting than a photograph in the context of the film.  No amount of trompe-l’oeil succeeds in hiding how complicit the triplets are
with bounty hunting, the primal center of Django Unchained and other films
that invite us to be spectators of law and disorder.  Common sense informs us that we are looking
at incriminating evidence that pertains to the perverse, historical criminality
of the American criminal justice system. 
The visual and literary surface of the film is dense with familiar and
obscure allusions.  What is fully
available for popular discussion is a sop, a cheap sop.  It retards access to and robust public
discussion of the dynamics of law and bounty hunting that so strongly impact
the quality of our everyday lives.  As
acts of interpretation, our responses shade off into hunting for violated
boundaries or into quests to identify how the film insults our sensing of
history.  Our interpretive responses
wrestle less than they should with the ideology and economy of bounty
hunting.  That fact, to borrow language
from Tony Bolden, is “one of the signatures of our time.”


Rebecca
B. Fisher’s “The History of American Bounty Hunting as a Study in Stunted Legal
Growth” (N.Y.U. Review of Law and Social
Change
33.199: 199-233) helps us to narrow and sharpen our
interpretations.  Without drowning us in
eight centuries of discussion about bounty hunting, Fisher directs attention to
the American core: The Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, which reinforced Article IV,
Section 2 of the United States Constitution regarding the return of runaway
slaves, and the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, an item of great importance in
studies of slave narratives and abolitionist literature and those narratives
that function in our nation under the color of history.  Fisher’s conclusion is sobering and
troubling, for she convincingly asserts that
The
history of American bounty hunting, a profession virtually unregulated for
hundreds of years, is certainly relevant to understand how increased
privatization in the criminal justice system will impact the least empowered in
our society

(233).
Fisher’s
critique of how any of us might become targets of mistaken identity for bounty
hunters is frightening enough, but what she exposes about the legal system’s
violation of its own ethics is frankly chilling! Keepers of power do not
encourage us to connect acts of literary and cultural interpretation with that
kind of ice. Wake up. Our Constitution entitles us to hunt down those who wish
to neuter us with law and entertainment.