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February 24, 2013 6:33 PM Oscar blogging: Django Unchained and the dog that didn’t bark

By Kathleen Geier

In a little while I will be heading to a friend’s house for her annual Oscar party, but before I do I wanted to squeeze in one more Oscar-related post. I thought last year was a pretty decent year for movies. By no means did I see everything; because I don’t see many first-run films until they get around to playing at the university film society near where I live, I still haven’t seen The Master, Lincoln, or Zero Dark Thirty yet. (Of those films, I have a feeling that I’ll like The Master a lot, because I’m a fan of Paul Thomas Anderson. But I’m usually kind of meh about Spielberg, and though I admire Kathryn Bigelow’s work, I’m pretty sure I’ll have a problem with the politics of Zero Dark Thirty. Nevertheless, I look forward to seeing all of three these in the coming months).

As I mentioned previously, the best film I saw last year was Bela Tarr’s The Turin Horse. Others I liked a great deal include The Deep Blue Sea, Take This Waltz, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Moonrise Kingdom, and the tiger parts of Life of Pi. I thought Amour was beautifully made and beautifully acted, but it left me cold. I took a strong dislike to Silver Linings Playbook. It was slickly made and undeniably watchable, but the “love will cure mental illness” message was a crock. Even worse is the fact that the film invites us to embrace the Bradley Cooper character as some kind of romantic hero, when actually, he is a violent, abusive, self-centered jerk. Jennifer Lawrence is wonderful, but she deserves much better.

My favorite mainstream American film from last year, and the one I am hoping wins the best picture Oscar (though I’m pretty sure it won’t), is Django Unchained. I found it to be an immensely viscerally satisfying film. But then I’m a Tarantino fan to begin with — I’ve enjoyed each and every one of his films, especially the much-underrated Jackie Brown.

I saw Django at a bargain matinee, in a theater in the south side of Chicago. The patrons of this fine establishment are known to be quite vocal in their expressions of approval and disapproval at what happens onscreen. What better environment to watch a movie that’s a revenge fantasy about slavery? The audience was extremely enthusiastic about the movie overall. And though the film was chockfull of villains, it was the character of Stephen, the repellently sycophantic servant played by an almost unrecognizable Samuel Jackson (who btw steals every scene he’s in), who really had them drinking the haterade.

My biggest disappointment with the movie was the lack of interesting female characters. Poor Kerry Washington has nothing to do but look lovely and terrified. And it’s not like Tarantino can’t write women, because in the past he’s written some great roles for women, in Jackie Brown, Inglourious Basterds, and other films. But the lack of strong female roles is a problem with westerns generally, and helps explain why it’s my least favorite genre overall. The racism that poisons the genre is another reason why so many westerns suck. (Though there are some westerns I like. Like this one!).

There are a couple of overarching political points to make here. Tarantino gave this interesting interview in which he makes it clear that Django Unchained is, among other things, his cinematic reply to Birth of a Nation and the racism of the ouevre of John Ford (he seems to be taking a very David Thomson-esque line on Ford). I don’t entirely agree with Tarantino about Ford — the man did make the great How Green Was My Valley, after all — but given the excessive Ford worship in cinephile circles, it’s refreshing to see a more irreverent take.

It’s well worth noting that in taking up a point of view that is unambiguously anti-slavery and anti-Confederacy, Django Unchained is, in the context of Hollywood history, something of a rare bird. If you’ve watched as many classic Hollywood movies as I have, it is utterly dismaying how many of the ones about the Civil War or the antebellum period are totally knee-jerk sympathetic to the South. And not just the most notorious examples of Birth of the Nation and Gone with the Wind, either — there are tons more, everything from the classic Bette Davis tearjerker Jezebel to the winsome Shirley Temple musical The Littlest Rebel to the many westerns like The Searchers which feature ex-Confederate soldiers as heroes to Buster Keaton’s silent comedy masterpiece The General (where the great Buster is a train engineer who, sadly, is fighting on the wrong side of that war). Really, pretty much all the Civil War/antebellum films from the classic Hollywood period are pro-Confederacy or pro-South. Even more recent films are not immune to this bias (2003’s Cold Mountain is yet another in the endless number of examples).

It’s telling that, during the classic Hollywood era, no film studio so much as dared to adapt Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. An adaptation of the book was made during the silent period, but not in the era of the talkies. This is notable, because many other famous 19th century novels by writers like Dickens, Austen, Twain, and Victor Hugo were made into films, and a highly dramatic, narrative-driven novel like Uncle Tom’s Cabin seems like it would have been a natural for the big screen. (Stage adaptations of the novel had been wildly popular). But it’s clear that, because the novel deals graphically with horrors of slavery, no Hollywood studio dared touch it, and risk alienating white Southern audiences. The reason why Uncle Tom’s Cabin was never adapted is the same reason why, in so many of those MGM musicals, Lena Horne’s numbers were edited out of versions of her films that were released in the South. The studios were to knuckling under to virulent Southern racism.

It’s long past time Hollywood blasted through that all that hazy Lost Cause nostalgic BS, and that’s one reason I applaud Django. We still have far too much of Sons of the Confederacy WTF-ery in this country — the battle re-enactments, the Confederate flags, the wingnut politicians who are never without a kind word for the Confederate cause or “the sacrifice of our ancestors.” That’s why a film like Django, which chips away at that by reminding us of the horrors of slavery, is a vital and salient thing, politically. I also happen to think Django is a good film on the artistic merits, though that’s a separate question from the politics.

Secondly, probably a lot of people missed this but Drudge and other wingnuts tried to gin up a scandal about the alleged anti-white “racism” of Django. Drudge was furious because the film includes the N-word. It’s always ultra-creepy when wingnut whining takes the form of, “That’s outrageous! That guy uses the N-word in a historically specific context in a work of art, so how come I can’t use it indiscriminately, with impunity?”

Then there was this jackass at the Washington Times, who accused Jamie Foxx and the film of being racist, and before you know it every prominent African-American from Cornel West to Jeremiah Wright to members of the Congressional Black Caucus to, inevitably, Barack Obama, are lumped together and explicitly or implicitly accused of hating white people.

The fascinating thing, though, is that the anti-Django crusade went absolutely nowhere. The film has been a huge box office hit, and so far as I know, none of the mainstream conservative columnists like Brooks or Douthat have taken it on (though maybe that’s because their sensibilities are too dainty to grapple with a Tarantino gorefest, I don’t know). A decade ago, Django would have been an occasion of a huge, hysterical right-wing racist kulturkampf, along the lines of Joe Klein’s infamous Do the Right Thing column, but instead … mostly, there were crickets.

It’s a refreshing sign of how increasingly marginal the racist right has become, that unlike in the recent past, the mainstream media refused to accept their invitation to stage a full-fledged hissy fit over this film. Instead, the American public was allowed to make up its own mind about it. We decided we liked it, attempts on the right to spark a moral panic be damned. From where I stand, that’s progress.

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee

Comments

  • John on February 24, 2013 7:53 PM:

    I don't think that's exactly fair to Cold Mountain, which is, after all, about a deserter from the Confederate army who comes from a heavily unionist part of the South.

    It's not a great movie, but it's certainly not a Lost Cause romanticization of the Confederacy.

  • KK on February 24, 2013 7:57 PM:

    Somewhat kingmd of surprised you didn't like Silver Linings. Your the first I've heard. Those of us who have dealt with the disabled may have cringed a bit but ultimately I felt it was tastefully done. Why can't one enjoy that a bi polar guy managed to find his match? Think you need to lighten up. Life can be cruel to these people in particular, anything that help people understand just a little bit more is a ok wirh me.

  • Craigo on February 24, 2013 8:37 PM:

    You missed the point of Silver Linings entirely. Even the mentally ill deserve love, despite your condescension.

  • Patrick II on February 24, 2013 8:45 PM:

    I liked Abraham Lincoln Vampire Slayer for the same reason you like Django... It'sassertion that The Confederacy was led by blood sucking monsters was a relief from depictions of the "noble cause."

  • Patrick II on February 24, 2013 8:51 PM:

    The man who wrote the movie has a bi-polar son.. He played the boy next door with the video camera..

  • joxer6 on February 24, 2013 9:09 PM:

    In 1939 alone, Ford made Stagecoach, Young Mr. Lincoln and Drums Along the Mohawk. Saying that a clown like Tarantino can "take him down a peg or two" is silly. When Orson Welles said he had learned from the greatest, he listed "John Ford, John Ford, John Ford". He certainly had the best eye for composition of any director ever. You can stop Stagecoach at any point and admire the composition. Just because most people think he's great doesn't mean he's not. I though Jackie Brown was real good, but the ones I saw after that were boring.

  • Bloix on February 24, 2013 9:38 PM:

    "the “love will cure mental illness” message was a crock."

    Yes. The first 1/2 hour had a lot of promise but it turned into the Mighty Ducks.

  • mudwall jackson on February 24, 2013 9:55 PM:

    it might be fair to characterize cold mountain "pro-south" whatever that means, but that hardly makes it pro-confederacy, considering its protagonist deserts from the army of northern virginia and is killed by confederate vigilantes. the south, like the north at the time, was hardly monolithic in its beliefs and loyalties, and the movie is useful historically in making that point. the fact of the matter is every state in the confederacy, save south carolina, sent regiments to fight for the union, a fact that few people realize, and that some of the union's best generals had southern ties.

    as for pro-union hollywood movies, try gettysburg (hard to argue otherwise; even james longstreet says that the south should have freed the slaves), glory, about the 54th mass. regiment, and of course there is lincoln.

    as far as some the sons of confederacy "wtf-ery" is concerned, i'd suggest reading tony horowitz's excellent "confederates in the attic," which explores that very subject. the war matters in the south in part because it was fought there; the reminders, small and large, are everywhere. the names of places resonate civil war. some of it but not all is motivated by the sons of confederacy kind of loyalty to the "cause." much of it is just pure fascination with the subject. as horowitz quotes gertrude stein: "there will never be anything more interesting in America than that civil war never."

  • rdale on February 24, 2013 10:37 PM:

    I always say it's a measure of how far we've come that the most blatant racists are at least embarrassed about being racist.

  • ASV on February 24, 2013 11:50 PM:

    It's not a revenge film -- Django wants to rescue his wife and is perfectly prepared to walk away once he does.

  • deanarms on February 25, 2013 12:26 AM:

    I loved Jackie Brown. Agree that it's totally underrated, and, as a bonus, based on a Book by Elmore Leonard.

  • jkl; on February 25, 2013 12:32 AM:

    i liked seeing Michael Douglas and Jane Fonda, and how beautifully they've aged. Talk about bringing the A game.
    I guess the Oscars2013 was a distraction from the sickening thoughts of having obstructionist republicans in our lives.

    By the way--GRRREAT article by Michael Tomasky:

    http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2013/02/23/deluded-republican-reformers.html

  • Bob h on February 25, 2013 7:30 AM:

    I saw Django in a cineplex packed with African Americans. As the movie progressed, you could tell the brothers were digging it less and less. The girl next to me started moaning and groaning at the over the top violence, and finally got up and left.

    My pick for best film and best actor awards was indeed "the Master"

  • David Dabney on February 25, 2013 9:03 AM:

    John Wayne and John Ford also made The Searchers, one of the greatest westerns ever made. It dealt directly with cultural identity, i.e. what it means to be 'indian' or 'Commanch' versus 'white'.

  • martin on February 25, 2013 9:05 AM:

    Reporting from the land of Confederate WTF-ery, I'd venture the reason Hollywood has such a history of pro-confederate romanticisim is the South has invested so much time, money and effort in creating that romance, and Hollywood loves nothing more than an underdog romance. Reality is not even in the race.
    As for pandering to Southern audience for about 60 years remember two things: 1) local governments had and used the power to ban films for any reason they liked; 2) It's about money, not art.

  • John on February 25, 2013 9:52 AM:

    This is pretty muddled thinking about John Ford. Tarantino claims Ford supported the Klan because he played a member while an extra in 'Birth of a Nation.' At that time, the Klan was violently anti-Catholic, so, despite Tarantino's (typically shallow) assumption, Ford was probably not 'down with it'. Ford's great film, 'The Searchers' is about the vileness of racism, portraying a multi-racial hero who is morally superior to the ex-confederate played by John Wayne. Ford's film 'Sergeant Rutlege' championed African-American 'buffalo soldiers' and attacked institutional racism. He was one of the few western directors to feature Mexican characters. Though his early films used American Indians as villains, later he gave them a dignity and empathy that was rare for the time (See 'Fort Apache' and 'Cheyenne Autumn'). Ford's work on face was ahead of its time and miles ahead of the ham-fisted Tarantino.

  • Bruce S on February 25, 2013 10:05 AM:

    "the racism of the collected works of John Ford"

    As noted in another comment, Ford's crowning achievement is The Searchers in which John Wayne plays a virulent racist (redeemed at the end, of course) who is hell-bent on tracking down and killing his own niece because she's been kidnapped and assimilated into an Indian tribe. Tarantino will never touch John Ford, much less "take him down a notch." The Searchers was a much more potent statement about white racism in the context of it's time than Tarantino's wannabe-black sh*t. Tarantino is clever and fun to watch, but he's not even close to being a great filmmaker. Shallow stuff - albeit very enjoyable as "movie."

  • Anonymous on February 25, 2013 10:16 AM:

    "My biggest disappointment with the movie was the lack of interesting female characters. Poor Kerry Washington has nothing to do but look lovely and terrified."

    That's a valid criticism - pretty much true of every Tarantino film except Jackie Brown (thanks to Elmore Leonard's having created the character and story.) But "poor Kerry Washington" also happens to be a terrible actress, so there wasn't much potential lost in that. She sounds like she was thrilled with the movie.

  • Andrew J. Lazarus on February 25, 2013 12:21 PM:

    There's probably a better chance that love will cure mental illness than that massive, anachronistic, ahistorical fantasy violence (Tarantino's new genre of one) will cure racism or the Holocaust.

  • bobatkinson on February 25, 2013 1:14 PM:

    Great analyses Kathleen. What is really amazing to me about Django is that Tarantino created the entire thing from writing the story and creating the characters to making it into a film. What genius. Lot's of good movies at the end of the year but I too think Django Unchained should have beaten out Argo, a movie about making a movie.

  • Okra_God on February 25, 2013 4:24 PM:

    I have to agree with those defending Cold Mountain - the book at least, if not the movie. The confederate home guard were a rather nasty bunch, and are portrayed as such.

    Much of what was portrayed in the movie was taken from actual events in North Carolina, and slightly re-told to create a narrative. I suspect Charles Frazer had a copy of
    Bushwhackers: The Civil War in North Carolina: The Mountains

  • The Cat and Dog on February 26, 2013 2:34 PM:

    Great analysis. I felt like the movie had a very specific point of view in defining what Tarantino felt. It's amazing to see how far he's come as a director.

  • Aqualseunsace on March 16, 2013 12:08 PM:

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