By Marya Errin Jones
— I’ve got to hand it to you, Quentin. Django Unchained is an absolute masterpiece. It is as cinematically satisfying as it is raw and brutal. Django is also a fun movie, a little bit Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid with a dash of Blazing Saddles—which is needed to balance out hours and hours of outrageous torture. Thanks!
Maybe the only thing the movie lacked was smell-o-vision. Having grown up in the South, the heat and humidity evaporating off the screen made me fan away an imaginary fly or two. I felt I could hear the voices of my ancestors say, “Just a taste fo y’all, still not real, but a taste.”
As I walked out of the theater into that cold, January night, I felt that your latest movie makes most previously filmed, fictional accounts of the Antebellum South look like “Downton Abbey” before the Great War. I know the real reason Spike Lee is pissed.
I express my praise at the risk of looking like an idiot, and worse: a black lady idiot who should know better. I might be told I don’t know my history, where I come from or who I am. Recent scholarship (i.e., other people also writing open letters to you) suggests that your film is a splattered stain upon the pages of the collective slave narrative. That you, like so many writers and directors, have offered us yet another gross revisionist misinterpretation of what it was really like, and a poor one at that.
The latest open letter comes from Jesse Williams, former history teacher, Temple University grad, an actor and producer who plays Dr. Jackson Avery on the TV series “Grey’s Anatomy.” Williams is also a prolific blogger, and he put you in the hot box for creating a nearly three-hour, “wildly unreal” version of slavery. Ironically, here I am pitted against my brother, coming to the white man’s defense, and ain’t that what’s wrong with black people in America—not caring for our own? Yadda, yadda, yadda.
Here’s the thing though, Quentin. I am glad Django is not accurate. That your movie comes off as melodramatic, circus-like and absurd is a testament to how insane this unthinkable time in our nation’s history was. Even with slave narratives to light our way, it’s impossible to portray that time accurately. Glory, Amistad, Lincoln, Roots—all artistic approximations. There is always craft service conveniently close but far enough away from set that the day players can’t smell the meat frying on the grill. Other portrayals of the past are not real either, but Django goes further as it attempts to show the brutality people suffered. Is your movie any crazier than what really happened? I don’t think so.
We simply can’t continue to look at this time in our history as sane or reasonable. It was straight up Apocalypse Now, and there were no heroes for at least 300 years—like Sojourner Truth, Nat Turner, John Brown, etc.—to stop the many Col. Kurtzes who had become radiantly inhuman. Indeed, it must have felt like the end to anyone crossing the Middle Passage not fortunate enough to drown himself in the corpulent waters of the Atlantic Ocean. People. Black people. “My” people arrived in chains, and were given mental shackles and a name. Nigger. There was no way out but heaven.
That word. We’re fixated on that word. We practice saying it at home when we’re alone—to find out if we can stand to hear it. It burns the inside of our mouths and fills our jowls with blood. We fear this word as much as we use it as ammunition to maim. You Quentin, are criticized for using the N-word. (Oh stop: It’s nigger).
Your characters said the word, nigger, more than 100 times. Until I got lost in the story, I kept tally also. I stopped at around 52. I understand how hearing “nigger” could feel gratuitous today. George Jefferson said “honky” every episode of “The Jeffersons.” But not 100 times an episode. That’s just silly. Cracker might have hurt more. Honky was funny. Nigger is never funny.
I think the order of name-calling goes: nigger, colored, negro, black, African-American. All in the span of 150 years, maybe? Each word represents a revolution. Some fought with blood, others through psychology. But in 1863, the word on the street was nigger. I understand your point of view, Quentin: What other word should I use? My characters set in the South during slavery can’t NOT say nigger.
I hate the word. I don’t use it, but I can handle it in a movie when there’s not a better substitute. Now, if the Dowager Countess Grantham on “Downton Abbey” starts calling the staff niggas, we’ve got a problem.
Growing up in the South, I heard plenty of people say nigger. But look, I was raised by a botanist and a social worker. Do you think either them were saying, “Nigger this, and nigger that?” Hell no. I did have a pair of “Hee-Haw” overalls. But I watched “The Flip Wilson Show,” and had both a brown and and pink Barbie. My godmother is Liberian, and Santa Claus was a black man. (He was really my dad.)
I got to be a kid, but I didn’t have the luxury of pretending there were no inequities in the world. I knew from an early age that someone was going to call me a nigger eventually, but my parents instilled in me self-awareness reinforced with love to feel good about myself, no matter what people called me. Still, I know that stereotypes of black people, and black women, have affected me in myriad ways all of my life.
Critics say that in Django, you reinforce stereotypes popular during the days of slavery. In the two scenes where, metaphorically and literally, the gates are thrown open, the shackles removed and captured slaves released to their own devices, they just sit there, motionless. Confused. How easy it is to say these men should have run. Run where? We know slaves ran. They were often returned to the slave owner, dead or alive.
I think that’s why you created the character of Django in the first place: to remind us there were men and women who fought for their lives, to encourage the curious to discover the real rebels who could not wait for President Lincoln and the Civil War to be free.
I don’t know if I agree with your statement, Quentin, that you are “responsible for people talking about slavery in America in a way they have not in 30 years.” People are definitely talking about your movie. But in terms of the critique of fictional accounts like yours, I think people are talking about slavery in exactly the way we’ve talked about it for 30 years. This culture has made both a fetish and a mental theme park out of North American slavery. How else can you explain the Django Unchained action figures? (The comic book is cool, by the way.)
After reading articles and open letters about your film, few have tackled your portrayal of black women in Django, which holds potential for new dialog about the legacies of slavery.
As a black woman in America, I am often viewed as the reflection in the distorted fun house mirror rather than a three-dimensional individual. Considered “strong” and “tough,” or whatever signifiers suggest that my skin is thick and my feelings can’t be hurt. Perhaps you intentionally avoided showing most black women as stereotypes: the mammy, the sapphire, the jezebel. I trust readers are familiar with these bone-solid stereotypes, so I won’t waste time defining them.
Ironically, I appreciated not having to endure the usual Gone With the Wind banter and social constructs between the impeccable southern belle (who appeared quite worn out in Django) and the mammy of the house. I appreciated not sitting through plantation owners strolling down to the slave quarters for a little R & R after a long day of ruling the world. It seems that when it mattered, you went against type with black women in the film.
In one scene, you present an almost bucolic environment of black women in cotillion gowns on swings. Okay, that could have happened, I guess, considering the absurdity and madness I described earlier. Maybe black girls in ball gowns swinging on swing sets at the plantation owned by Big Daddy (played ever-so-crackery by Don Johnson) is historically inaccurate. I argue that plantations were not standardized like Walmarts. They were like city-states, and each plantation owner was the mad emperor of his domain.
Some images of black women in Django defy type compared to images that flash in our minds of black women slaves turned to human leather, withering in the sun, dressed in shifts barely held together by sweat and weak thread—or the enormous, asexual earth mother mammies, chastising every negro in sight while lovingly suffocating the mistress’ children in her ample bosom. Whilst whipping up dinner for eight. Give me a break.
You really broke the mold on Broomhilda. You turned the value of white bodies versus black bodies on its end in Django. We have never in cinematic history seen a black woman faint on screen, overcome with emotion other than anger. Not in the Antebellum South we haven’t. Black women are not allowed to be so delicate, especially not the chocolatey brown ones, like the gorgeous actor Kerry Washington.
Broomhilda is passed around like a stein of beer, used as a sexual toy for anyone on the plantation who wants to play, but she isn’t that jezebel we know too well. Broomhilda is a married woman, and she maintains her dignity throughout to spite circumstances. The audience may see her as a wilting flower saved by a man. But her husband saves her life, OK? Thank god she doesn’t say anything sassy (“DAMN, it’s about time, Django. Where you been?!”).
I welcome your portrayal of Broomhilda after countless scenes of black women emasculating black men like it’s our job. As if it’s a genetic default and character trait among all black women. Broomhilda rescued by the hero of the story—how novel! I’m fine with that.
Oh, and as far as Spike Lee’s refusal to see this movie because it dishonors his ancestors—well, that’s his opinion. That said, who died and made Spike Lee “massa” over this storytelling genre, you know? He can make his own freedom-positive, Southern Antebellum movie. If he can find his way out of Brooklyn.
Marya Errin Jones
Marya Errin Jones creates hybrid performances using lo-fi puppetry, electronics, paper, fabric, photo copiers and computers. She is a zinester and the producer of the third annual ABQ Zine Fest coming this fall.