Why I did not go to see Django Unchained

So… I chose not to go and see Django Unchained. When presented with the opportunity to go and see the movie myself and go and see what all the fuss was about I hesitated.

Over the past three or four weeks I have been thinking about why I hesitated. I read reviews of Django Unchained. They were generally good. I watched news reports on Django Unchained and they lauded it as a great movie. I asked my friends who had seen the movie and most of them found it generally funny. However, when I found out that the N-word was uttered 114 times in the movie, I hesitated to watch it.

Maybe I’m too sensitive. Maybe I lack a sense of humor. Maybe I’m one of those people who would rather leave race in the past than confront it head on. Maybe Quentin Tarantino’s violently satirical style of moviemaking is just over my head.

These are the kinds of thoughts that rattled around my brain in the last two weeks. I think I can say I’ve watched Quentin Tarantino enough to understand what he’s about. I think Reservoir Dogs is a classic. I enjoyed the Kill Bill series. I watched Pulp Fiction, although I didn’t understand what the big deal was and on the recommendation of a co-worker I watched Inglorious Basterds.

Inglorious Basterds…people thought it was a great movie. It was generally a revenge fantasy about World War 2. In this movie a group of rogue Jewish American fighters proceed to kill Nazi’s, culminating in them finally killing Hitler. Many people found this amusing. I was rather offended.
As I said maybe I’m a little too sensitive.

That brings us to Django Unchained. I was still on the fence about the movie until I saw this interview. Specifically at the end of the movie Tarantino describes some scenes that were rougher in terms of what happened to slaves. He said that he had to cut the scenes because they “traumatized” the audience too much. He describes how he didn’t “lose the audience” but they “resented him a little too much” after that point. He goes on to state at the end of the movie he got a qualified response because the audience had been traumatized by a particular scene and had been enjoying the movie too much by then.

This last sentiment allowed me to address my feelings about the movie. I felt that despite all of Jamie Foxx and Samuel L. Jackson’s talk about the movie bringing the history of slavery to the forefront, the movie is just really an attempt by Quentin Tarantino to make the experience of the slave a comedic event.

I hate to say this but I feel the premise of the entire movie is an exercise in white guilt. I feel like it highlights an aspect of American history that White people don’t like and it makes them feel good to vicariously kill off that aspect of their history and if they can do it in a comedic way so much the better. I feel like for the majority of Americans the sentiment is “I can laugh about it now, but it wasn’t funny then.”

The problem I have is that I can’t laugh about it even now. It’s still not funny. It’s still too early for slavery to be a joke. It’s too early when America as a whole has not done everything it can to make opportunity equal for all Americans. It’s too early when Black children aren’t getting an education equal to that of White children. It’s too early when a quarter of African American males between the ages of 16-25 spend some time in jail. It’s too early when Black unemployment and underemployment rates remain stubbornly high. It’s too early when Black people still aren’t able to accrue wealth at the same rates as Whites. Despite widespread knowledge of these problems, there are still no serious policy proposals to address these lingering issues. These problems afflict all people in the lower class in America, however they afflict African Americans in a disproportionate manner because of the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow. I’m sorry to spoil all the fun but none of this is a laughing matter.

I agree with this article that the problem is the premise. In my gut, instinctively, and in my soul, I disagree with Quentin Tarantino that the issue of slavery is to be treated in a comedic fashion. I disagree with him that the main idea of a movie about slavery should be that the audience not be traumatized. In fact, the goal of any movie about slavery in this time period should be to inform not just so that the atrocities are never repeated, but it should aim to motivate people to do the difficult work that still lays ahead in order to rectify the damage done.

Quentin Tarantino may have done us a favor by moving people to write articles on a serious topic. However, we must recognize that we live in a country where no one really wants to speak about the history of slavery or its effects on the behavior of people today. I assert that the goal of people today should be to engage with the history of slavery in order to eradicate its effects. Movies such as Django Unchained which make comedy out of such an event help people to dissociate from slavery.

I conclude that the premise of Django Unchained is a movie that people would find funny if they are ignorant about slavery or want to dissociate from it in some way. Tarantino’s genius is that he has found a way to tap into this willful ignorance in a way that can generate laughter and money. His accomplishment is not in bringing slavery or the n-word into serious dialogue. Rather, his accomplishment is making sure that it doesn’t get too real for people so that they are not traumatized by the truly horrific substance of the situation.

I don’t see anyone using Django Unchained as a motivation to do something concrete about the issue of racism or the effects of slavery in this country. On the contrary, I see people downplaying it as “only entertainment” or something that shouldn’t be taken too seriously despite the grave seriousness of the subject. If comedic dissociation is the result of a movie such as Django Unchained, then I feel I was right in trusting my gut and not supporting the creation of other such movies.