As Django Unchained continues to dominate box office receipts in what appears to be an overall tepid era for movie theater profits, reaction to the film remains largely positive — if conflictedly so.
Django Unchained was unsurprisingly controversial out of the gate, its reputation far preceding it in pop culture. Going in, most people knew a few things about it, and the setup was one that seemed balanced on a knife’s edge of sensitivity. Essentially, it was a film about a black struggle made by a white man we all already know to be unafraid of “going there” when it comes to race and how we talk about it.
(Those of us around long enough to remember probably all recalled as we waited for Django Unchained to start first seeing Quentin Tarantino on screen in Pulp Fiction, and his character’s uncomfortable, slap in the face, bluntly described anger at being forced to deal with Marvin’s body.)
But where Tarantino has seemed too keen on shock value in the past, Django seemed on the mark. As a white viewer, at least, the film conveyed the casual brutality of slavery in America in such a way that it drove the point home without seeming gratuitous — and Spike Lee’s out of the box rejection seemed a bit unfair and dismissive.
To be fair, it would also be remiss to acknowledge that reception of Django Unchained would have been far different had a black man (or woman) made it, and that is worth acknowledging. Tarantino’s holding of the reins afforded the film a level of roughness that would have been perceived in an entirely different way by white moviegoers had the film not been attached to the filmmaker’s name, and, for that, Lee is to a very small degree justified in his anger.
Still, overwhelmingly, Django Unchained seems to be resonating with audiences both white and black — and one of the best ongoing analyses is coming from MSNBC contributor Toure, who writes on his blog about justification for the film’s violence, beginning:
“It’s also justified when a Jew kills a Nazi, which of course was at the heart of Tarantino’s previous revisionist revenge fantasy. A smart man in a green room at NBC posited that Kill Bill works in similar fashion as a revenge fantasy where a woman gets back at a patriarchal figure after near death in a scene akin to domestic violence or perhaps an honor killing. So then Django marks the third time Tarantino gives us people from outside the demographic power structure getting deadly revenge on white male oppressors.”
“… [people who reject Django Unchained] may miss out on a delicious scene where Django whips a master in slow-motion or the hilarious scene where Tarantino destroys a Klan forerunner group by reducing them to madcap parody because they literally cannot see through their hoods. They may miss an assault on white supremacy and a beautiful Black love story. To dismiss Tarantino because his aesthetic embraces — in a bearhug — Black culture because he feels Black culture is part of his cultural legacy is, to me, a bit precious.”
Ernest Owens of the Huffington Post was not as laudatory, saying of the culture that precipitated Django Unchained:
“I will give Spike Lee his props. I will give John Singleton his respect. But directors such as Tyler Perry and many others who continue to profit from such slander and stereotype of the black population should be held responsible for such backlash that comes from Django. For it was within this power, that you abused it and made it profitable. And through your profit you made it acceptable. Enough is enough. Black directors, step your game up.”
Outside the media sphere, moviegoers have also weighed in on their reaction to Django Unchained and whether the film feels like it’s “talking down” to black ticket buyers or if it instead resonates in the vein in which it was intended. Nineteen-year-old Hammond Jones of Georgia remarked of the controversy:
“If anything, Spike [Lee] made me want to see it… I’d heard about the film but wasn’t rushing out until Spike made it seem like a big deal. I thought it was going to make black people look bad, but it didn’t. A black man was the hero. I don’t know what Spike was talking about. Me and my boys loved it and are going to see it again this weekend.”
Perhaps the takeaway from where we are now with Django Unchained is that, regardless of how the movie comes to be perceived — and we all seem to need a bit more processing time to discern that — it’s clear that how even discussing race, slavery, and how we present these issues is still an issue of massive discomfort for America as a whole.
While Django Unchained‘s legacy remains to be seen, we can probably accurately deduce that the feelings it has stirred up are ones we’ve been repressing for a while and that, if anything, we’re still really not ready to openly admit how pervasive that is. (With the notable exception of Samuel L. Jackson in this hilariously awkward example.)