Courtesy of http://www.guardian.co.uk
One of Penn’s own – political science professor Adolph Reed Jr. – has published a lengthy and impassioned criticism of the “cultural politics” that he claims inspired Django Unchained and The Help. It’s an intriguing piece – part-critique of, part-eulogy for progressivism, caged in an essay about television and movies. But I do think Reed misses a lot about Django Unchained.
Reed calls Django Unchained a “neoliberal film.” And, by neoliberal, he means “capitalism without the gloves off.” Essentially, Reed – and I know this from other op-eds and because he spoke to my class last semester – is one of at least a few academics, at Penn and other colleges, who believe that the Milton Friedmans – the lovers of small government and deregulated markets – have won, and their philosophy of neoliberalism has become the dominant ideology for both Democrats and Republicans.
Within this framework, he sees Django Unchained as expressive of a cosmetic liberalism, submissive to the neoliberal worldview; “Being a progressive is now more a matter of how one thinks about oneself than what one stands for or does in the world.” The movie, he says, sanitizes slavery, focusing only on its most extreme violence. It refuses to show slaves at work and, therefore, present slavery as a labor relation.
Reed thinks the film refuses to challenge the basic economic institution of slavery. Django is an individualist on a quest rooted in love, rather than ideology. Only one character – the German bounty hunter – actually denounces the practice of slavery. Django and Broomhilda work within the system and “achieve their freedom through a market transaction.” The entire point, if I am understanding Reed’s interpretation correctly, is for us all to feel good about two black slaves riding off into the sunset without having touched the root reasons – read: cheap labor – for slavery existing in the first place. The film, he writes, promotes the “deeper message” that there is “no thinkable alternative to the ideological order under which we live.”
But Reed misses what I thought was one of the most interesting aspects of the film, the way Tarantino paints class relations in the Antebellum South. In one scene, a wealthy plantation owner tells his slave that, because Django is a free man, she is to treat Django like a “peckerwood boy,” essentially equating free black men with poor white ones and, hence, implying an economic root to class. Tarantino accomplishes this presentation of class from multiple angles. Django describes a “black slaver” as worse than a “head house n******,” but Leonardo Dicaprio’s patriarch character Calvin Candie views class society in a reverse manner. To him, Django, while pretending to be a black slaver (a property owner!), is “truly exceptional.” By the end of the film, you get a sense of a nuanced antebellum class society – however historically altered – that, in the eyes of the powerful, begins with slave laborers and ends with male plantation patriarchs, includes overseers, slave traders, immigrants, criminals, and lower and higher classes of slaves, and, in which, a black man can rise to the level of poor white man, but no further.
Django Unchained’s Antebellum South is a society entrenched in class. And, in this context, I found the movie’s most disturbing parts to be, not mandingo fighting and lashing, but the more casual aspects of a slave society. The most uncomfortable aspects of the film, for me at least, were: a. the scene where Candie undoes Broomhilda’s outfit to show off her whip scars over a business dinner and b. the constant and matter-of-fact use of the n-word to describe black people as, essentially, highly intelligent pets. The use of the word – and the extremely casual and condescending manner in which its used – from beginning to end, demonstrates that there is, quite clearly, something entirely wrong with – not just the most violent aspects of slavery – but the entire world of the film. While there is only one character who articulates this wrongness, we nevertheless know that it exists.
Moreover, importantly, Broomhilda does not achieve her freedom through a market transaction. She almost achieves freedom through a market transaction. At the last minute, the transaction goes wrong, and Django is forced – well, forced may be a bit of an overstatement – to lay dynamite to the slave house and kill all the white people (and Samuel L. Jackson) in it. When legal methods fail, Django resorts to violent insurrection, a fact with political implications far different from the servants-to-the-establishment picture that Reed paints of Django Unchained.
Reed would likely point out here that Django’s quest was personal and romantic and that, therefore, this was not a ballots before bullets approach to social change. It wasn’t an approach to social change at all. Django was not trying to improve the world; he was attempting to free his wife. This isn’t exactly the case, of course. Django could have freed his wife more efficiently. He chooses to lay waste to the entire plantation, a fact that Reed doesn’t address.
But, if you accept the premise of Django’s apolitical selfishness (“no insurrectionist,” Reed calls him), the essay gets particularly frustrating. Reed scolds historians who adopt the notion that slaves freed themselves. In general, he criticizes resistance studies obsessed with finding “politics” in the small acts of oppressed peoples. If Django Unchained was about a slave revolt or, simply, slaves attempting to maintain in the worst of circumstances, I don’t imagine Reed would be satisfied. (And, in fact, he staunchly rebukes Beasts of the Southern Wild, which, in its own way, does almost exactly the latter for a poor black population in the Louisiana bayou.)
Which begs the question; for Reed, politically speaking, what film would be acceptable? If concentrating on slave rebellion promotes historical revisionism and focusing on slave agency condones a meaninglessly fuzzy view of the power of oppressed peoples, how does a filmmaker tell a slave story at all? When it comes to the possibility of tackling the ideological order and, hence, economic order – both in the Antebellum South and today – Reed paints a dark picture. If that’s the case, what’s wrong with a film, like Django Unchained, that celebrates individual victories?