'Django' tells tale missing real slave history

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Westerns are considered mythic for a reason. They have less to do with what actually happened in our history than what we're able to project upon them.

In "Django Unchained," the bloody holiday mistletoe debuting in theaters today, director Quentin Tarantino ("Pulp Fiction," "Inglourious Basterds") imagines what blaxploitation films would look like if they emerged fully formed from the chrysalis of the spaghetti western.

Jamie Foxx is the title character, Django (the D is silent), a former slave turned bounty hunter intent upon liberating his wife from the tentacles of America's most peculiar institution two years before the start of the Civil War.

Django and Dr. King Schultz, a loquacious German mercenary bankrolling their relentless march into Dixie's heart of darkness, are very good at killing antebellum slavery's enablers. The unlikely partners are so good, they even manage to wipe out a bumbling group of nascent klansmen decades before the domestic terrorist group came into existence.

"Django Unchained" draws much of its power from such cinematic and historical anachronisms. There's even a swipe at the iconic scene in "Roots" where Chicken George refuses to whip his helpless master as payback for decades of abuse. Mr. Foxx's character more than makes up for that squeamishness by administering what may be the first bullwhip scourging of a white man by a black man ever seen on the big screen.

Still, the less one knows about history, the more likely "Django Unchained" will come across as deep and insightful. Mr. Tarantino's target audience of urban hipsters will find enough homages to "Blazing Saddles" and their favorite Sergio Leone films to forgive his movie's near-bladder-busting length.

Clocking in at nearly three hours, the film takes a lot of time to say nothing interesting about race or slavery, despite the director's stated desire to jump-start a national conversation about our difficult history. "Django" depends on the audience's shared sense of outrage that slavery lasted as a sanctioned institution as long as it did. That way, we're prepared to accept the moral necessity along with the inevitability of the bloodbath Django and Dr. King Schultz initiate to end slavery on one plantation, at least.

Since it is impossible to make a film about slavery that is more dehumanizing or more violent than the real thing, one wonders why Mr. Tarantino squandered a talented cast searching for broad parody where there is none. There will likely be lots of caterwauling about Mr. Tarantino's liberal use of the racial slur for black people throughout "Django," as if contemporary rap hadn't already inoculated anyone who wasn't deaf to that word a long time ago.

I'm more offended Mr. Tarantino didn't pick an actual slave uprising to illustrate, because there were certainly plenty of them. There's nothing cinematically transgressive about stirring up one of the darkest chapters in American history in a gumbo stew of irreverence and blood, especially when you have nothing to say about it other than: "Slavery was bad."

I suppose we should all be grateful that Mr. Tarantino didn't turn his jaundiced gaze to some more recent iconic moment in civil rights history.

Imagine what someone with Mr. Tarantino's temperament would do with the spectacle of Bull Connor unleashing police dogs and fire hoses on the nonviolent protesters in Birmingham in 1963 if there were no video footage to contradict him. In Mr. Tarantino's counterfactual universe, the protesters would have responded with an armed insurrection because there's so much more emotional truth in that than allowing oneself to be assaulted by cops and arrested for a bigger cause.

Director Spike Lee has already weighed in on the controversy surrounding the film in the most intellectually dishonest way possible: "I can't speak on it because I'm not gonna see it," Mr. Lee told VIBE TV. "All I'm going to say is that it's disrespectful to my ancestors."

The irony of Mr. Lee passing judgment on another director's film sight unseen is lost on no one but him. When his film "Bamboozled" came out in 2000 using modern-day minstrelsy as an attempt at television satire, a boycott was mounted by people who never troubled themselves to see it.

Mr. Tarantino's film should not be boycotted. Instead, it should be seen for what it is: an essentially empty exercise in cinematic blood-letting that happens to contain memorable performances by Leonardo DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson in two villainous supporting roles.

During a holiday season already punctuated with haunting images of guns and mass murder, the timing couldn't be worse for this cynical tale of race and vengeance. That doesn't mean it won't be a hit anyway.

tonynorman

Tony Norman: tnorman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1631. Twitter: @TonyNormanPG.


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