Django – slavery and spaghetti

Quentin Tarantino’s new film is reviewed by Dave Kellaway.

DjangoLincoln, the Spielberg film currently doing well at the box office, has deservedly been reviewed on this website by Liam Mac Uaid and by Sean Ledwith at Counterfire. However it is also worthwhile to consider what Tarantino’s totally different type of film can contribute to an understanding of slavery in US history.

True Tarantino’s adoption of the violent spaghetti western genre pioneered by Italian director Sergio Leone in the 1960s/70s  takes the diametric opposite approach to Spielberg’s earnest documentary framework. Indeed Tarantino gives us spaghetti western violence plus in terms of blood spurts and slow motion violence. Also it has provoked some controversy with the radical black director, Spike Lee, stating that you cannot use the spaghetti western genre to deal with slavery.

Although I am not a great fan of Tarantino apart from his early films Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs and I am wary about anyone so fervently endorsed by Jonathon Ross I think this particular effort is worth seeing. Huge numbers, including a lot of African Americans, have been ignoring Spike Lee and seeing it in their droves.

If you need to see, feel and smell the absolute brutality of the slave system this film does it in spades. You see the use of dogs to kill a man. You see the nonchalant way an owner of a slave allows his fighter to be killed off like an animal after he has lost a ‘mandingo’ fight. You see the way disobedient slaves were punished by long spells in ‘coolers’. You see how white men casually used black women for sex. On the top of this horror sat an elegant but thin crust of decorum and respectability shown in the manners of southern gentlemen and ladies with their European style homes and affectations.  Appropriately, Leonardo di Caprio’s slave owner gets his just desserts through demanding that Django’s white buddy/partner shake hands with him on the deal he has just imposed.

At the same time you are given some relevant explanation of how the slave system was maintained not just by extreme violence but by the incorporation of certain slaves into the household or into other supervisory roles. Samuel J Jackson steals the show with a magnificent portrayal of the grovelling uncle tom figure. Leonardo di Caprio explains how this worked by telling the story of his grandfather making sure he got a shave by one of  his black servants with a  cut throat razor on the porch of his grand house in full view of his slaves. He knew the servant would not cut his throat because he valued the relative advantages he had gained. He wanted the slaves to see how the system worked.

Is Spike Lee right to denounce the film?  Roberto Benigni got the same flak when he used blackly comic framework in dealing with the holocaust in his film Life is Beautiful. True, it is lurid and in your face but the terrible violence almost obscenely presented is balanced by the cathartic release of Django wasting all the racists left standing and winning the day (and thus confirming the rules of the genre). Black people are not shown as powerless. Indeed as both Liam and Sam have pointed out in their reviews of Lincoln there is a lack of black voice and independent resistance in that film.  Also I do not think you are only qualified to talk about oppression if you are part of it or a descendent of it.  Most active socialists are not from the most exploited, proletarian sectors of the population.  It is even more the case for the production of art where imagination and creativity cannot be crudely or mechanically identified with class or oppressed groups.

Some of the plot in Django is silly and as usual with Tarantino it is too long. Perhaps it was too long so it could include the ridiculous presentation of the group of guards, including the actor Tarantino himself, being duped so easily by Django into releasing him. Similarly the jokey manner in which the embryonic Ku Klux Klan is presented is a trivialisation.

Nevertheless I think the film works overall on its own terms. Quite commercial films can have positive ideological effects on a much broader scale than a worthy film by a solidly leftwing director which hardly anyone sees because it is on the arthouse circuit. Just remember how the original spaghetti westerns were praised at the time by many progressive critics as ‘Marxist’. Yes we should try and see Lincoln but Django is worth a look too.

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