Ta-Nehisi, Adam Serwer, and Jamelle Bouie have been having an interesting conversation about Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino’s slavery revenge flick, and whether, if we need revenge, what sort of form it ought to take.
Adam looks at the rise of Jewish revenge flicks and searches for a parallel:
In Jeffrey Goldberg’s review of Inglorious Basterds, he writes about dreaming about killin’ NAZees as a kid, delighting in Quentin Tarantino’s “story of emotionally uncomplicated, physically threatening, non-morally-anguished Jews dealing out spaghetti-Western justice to their would-be exterminators.” His initial anecdote helps explain that Inglorious Basterds is not primarily a film about killing Adolf Hitler, although that’s the form that catharsis takes. The true “revenge” of Inglorious Basterds is in the banishment of a particular stereotype, the idea of the weak, fearful Jew who goes helplessly into the ovens. The film Defiance, about a group of Jewish partisans in a forest in Belarus during World War II, has a similar aim—in the woods, the manly, unintellectual Jews played be Liev Schriber and Daniel Craig suddenly become leadership material, while the nebbish former academics are portrayed as contemptuous weaklings. And I suppose what has always bugged me about both of those films is that somewhere deep inside they see Jews the way anti-Semites see Jews, and are actively working to convince not just the world but themselves otherwise.
And Jamelle riffs on a secondary point Adam makes about the extent to which Django Unchained would serve a similar purpose:
The problem with Django Unchained is that African Americans have never had a problem with being portrayed as aggressive and prone to violence. Indeed, that’s the stereotype we’ve worked to reject. As Adam notes, “[A] film in which a slave kills his masters may vicariously avenge a historical injustice, but it lacks the catharsis of defying the accepted narrative that narrowly limits what being black is supposed to mean.” In his eyes, a real black revenge story isn’t Django Unchained, it’s The Cosby Show.
I don’t disagree! But I think Adam is a little too neat in dismissing the value of a film like Django Unchained could have in subverting other expectations. The thing about Nazis is that they’re the usual sortof villains – few people sympathize with them, and even fewer people see their legacy as something worthwhile. No one likes them, and so it’s easy to kill them en masse. The same isn’t true of antebellum and Civil War-era America. With few exceptions, Confederates are glorified in Hollywood – either as the honorable losers of a war, or as vengence-seeking crusaders. It’s a variation on the Lost Cause mythology – slavery plays only a bit part in most popular depictions of the Confederacy, and Confederates are almost always portrayed as tragic figures.
Relatedly, I’m curious how the movie’s going to handle gender and relationships between men and women, because one of the acts that inspires Django’s revenge is the brutal rape of his wife, played by Kerry Washington, who’s then turned over to an owner who may be even worse. It seems like there’s been a spike in really strange and disturbing commentary about black men, black women, and marriage recently, and it’s hard to imagine that, intentional or not, this movie won’t play into that conversation. It is, after all, about a black man who aggressively defends a black woman — and we won’t know until the movie’s under production whether that woman gets to aid in her own defense or not — standing up for the sanctity of a marriage that wouldn’t have been recognized by law or custom.
I’m obviously not on board with the idea that marriage is for white people, or that black men are either pathetic or pathological. And I have no idea if Django Unchained will be liberating or exploitative. But if nothing else, I suppose it’ll be something different in an industry that creates very few roles for black actors and very few stories about black families and often sticks to a few very circumscribed narrative arcs.