Tracey White's initial impression of "Django Unchained," Quentin Tarantino's new slave-era shoot-'em-up extravaganza, could be summed up in three words: smart, funny and ugly. Sitting through a recent screening in Beverly Hills, the L.A. costume designer was mostly absorbed and found herself laughing aloud at particularly outrageous moments.
But White, who is black, said her feelings evolved significantly. Two days after reflecting on the matter of slavery and Tarantino's treatment, she pronounced the movie mostly ugly.
"He [Tarantino] gets a good product out of it in terms of wit and a visual look," said White. "But when it was over I found myself wondering, 'What is he trying to do?' I enjoyed the movie when I was in there, but I still have a problem with Tarantino when he deals with our race."
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White will certainly not be alone among African Americans in her ambivalence about the gleefully outrageous film. While "Django" has nabbed almost uniformly warm reviews and four NAACP Image Award nominations (including for best picture), the fact is that it is an extremely Hollywood-ized vision of a critical black American experience.
Some blacks are already calling the revenge-fantasy movie, especially its graphic and highly stylized violence, insensitive, exploitative and ahistorical. Filmmaker Spike Lee, a longtime critic of Tarantino, said this month that he refuses to see the movie, and calls his spaghetti-western approach to slave history "disrespectful."
Many moviegoers will know something of what they're getting into. Violence and the liberal use of black idioms and so-called urban culture are Tarantino hallmarks, notably in early films such as "Pulp Fiction" and "Jackie Brown," and they've always stirred controversy. But this movie is different because it mines slavery, the complicated source material for so much black culture and fountain of violence in American history.
It is an institution whose horrors need no exaggerating, yet "Django" does exactly that, either to enlighten or entertain. A white director slinging around the n-word in a homage to '70s blaxploitation à la "Jackie Brown" is one thing, but the same director turning the savageness of slavery into pulp fiction is quite another.
Barbara Chennault, another costume designer who attended the Beverly Hills screening, could do without it. Like White, she admits to being conflicted about Tarantino. "I don't think that slavery is something you can make light of," she said. "Overall the movie was jarring and unsettling, but the humor totally distracted from the depth."
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Tim Cogshell, an African American movie critic for KPCC-FM's "Filmweek," says the issue is not Tarantino riffing on slavery but the fact that blacks are still living out its painful legacy. That makes Tarantino's broadly comedic aims fall flat where they hit the mark in "Inglourious Basterds," his first historically specific revenge fantasy, in that case enacted against Nazis.
Where "Basterds" arguably works as both social commentary and entertainment, he said, "Django" doesn't because blacks as a group are still so compromised by racism. "The surreal liftoff that happens at some point in 'Basterds' doesn't happen here, because of the weight of what's still real," he said. "For example, there's a certain racial backlash to Obama that's still going on. Quentin wants this to be a dark comedy, but with history the way it is, you can't get from here to there in a movie. There's no ill intention on his part, but it doesn't work. The movie can't rest."
But Eric De ns, a black television and media critic for the Tampa Bay Times, gave "Django" a thumbs up, suggesting in his review that the film's brutal depiction of slavery makes up for its shortcomings — that is, its over-the-top approach to a subject that's generally swept under the rug is aesthetically justifiable, even necessary.
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Of the prolific use of the n-word, De ns writes that "such baldfaced profanity does obliterate the tentative, halting attitude other filmmakers display in depicting how black people were treated in the Old West — either refusing to feature black characters at all or pretending they were treated as equals to white people."
Todd Boyd, professor of critical studies at USC's School of Cinematic Arts, agrees that Tarantino, whatever his shortcomings, does us a favor by bringing a unique, pop-culture sensibility to the small canon of film representations of slavery that tend to be overly solemn or sanitized. "Both Oprah [Winfrey] and [Steven] Spielberg have both made movies about slavery," said Boyd, "and neither of them have done well."
Tarantino has said in promoting "Django" that America has never dealt honestly with its history of slavery — true, but general enough to be almost entirely uncontroversial. In a recent interview with The Times, however, he assigned meaning to his new film in a way that he typically resists. "Even for the movie's biggest black detractors, I think their children will grow up and love this movie," he said. "I think it could become a rite of passage for young black males."
The presumptuousness of that sentiment is striking to some — passage from what to what, exactly? Watching somebody getting blown away in nearly every frame hardly seems like indoctrination young black men need, if they haven't been indoctrinated into such violence already.
But the deeper problem is the backdrop described by Cogshell and Boyd, namely the fact that Americans of all colors are still clashing over the scope and historical meaning of slavery. Consider: Education of its history is minimized in public schools, particularly in the South. In such an atmosphere, "Django" is a free-floating vision unattached and unaccountable to any fundamental national consensus about what slavery was and how its effects live on.
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True, the movie abounds with disturbing details of slavery — face masks, Mandingo fights, killer dogs, "hot boxes" into which runaways were thrown as punishment. But details alone do not argue anything. The most disturbing detail is the emotional violence and degradation directed at blacks that effectively keeps them at the bottom of the social order, a place they still occupy today. And critics maintain it is this sort of violence that, like the endless gunplay, "Django" revels in more than it critiques.
White predicts that reveling will offend many and split black opinion. "I think black people will be 50/50 on this movie," she says.
But Cogshell says the relevance of message in a movie so emphatically about slavery is unavoidable. "You can't get away from the issue of, does this advance black progress?" he said. "That's why I hated 'The Help,' for what it showed. The truth is, if Quentin Tarantino had never made this movie, I'd be a perfectly happy black man."