If you’re reading this website, then you already know that the 2013 Oscars are this Sunday. And if you know that, then you might know something about the nominees and know that Django Unchained is nominated for five awards including best picture. Or maybe you don’t. Maybe all you know about it is that it’s possibly racist, uses the N-word a lot, and is extremely violent. I’m not gonna lie, if there were a list of reasons that could overshadow a film’s successes, it’s those three things. I’m not suggesting we ignore those issues, but instead think about them deeper than face value and look at the bigger picture before making rash decisions (cough*Spike Lee*cough).
I was really worried about seeing Django Unchained.
I usually try to avoid reading too much about movies before seeing them because I like having a blank slate, but when Quentin Tarantino makes a film about slavery, it’s near impossible to avoid hearing things. Everywhere. From Facebook friends raving that it was amazing to articles about Spike Lee encouraging a boycott of the film without having seen it himself. The director famously said it “disrespected his ancestors” and tweeted that “Slavery was not a Sergio Leone spaghetti Western. It was a holocaust.”
I’d also read that the N-word was used 110 times and thought, “Wow. That really is a lot” after doing the math and realizing this was somewhere around one time per minute. I’d seen an interview where Samuel L. Jackson refused to answer a question about the film because the interviewer wouldn’t say that word. I wondered if this would make me feel too awkward. I wondered if that awkward feeling was something I just needed to face. I thought about whether or not the audience would react to things in an obnoxious way that made me regret seeing it in theaters. I thought about whether obnoxious reactions from other moviegoers was just a part of the experience. This movie had me pondering big questions before even seeing it, but when it came down to it, I decided to go because people I knew really liked it and I’d liked other Tarantino movies. The things that would make me decide to see any movie. I went to Django knowing I had to form my own opinions.
The first scene scared me. Jamie Foxx‘s Django marches along in shackles and chains with other slaves to music sounding typical of an old Western movie. Was this music too light for the subject matter? Was the whole movie gonna be like this and bother me? Why was this movie already making me think so damn much? I kept watching (well, of course, I was already there) and I changed my mind right away. By the middle of the next scene I was sucked in. From that point on, the whole thing was– and I know this phrase is overused, but dang it, I mean it this time– an emotional roller coaster. There is a flashback scene early on when Django remembers his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) being whipped by a slave master. All of a sudden, I started crying. Not the one little tear I’ve gotten before when I’ve cried in a movie. Like, real sobs. The one-little-tears came later, just about every time I would see Kerry Washington’s face again. She didn’t talk that much in this movie, but I’m telling you that face was full of emotion.
A couple scenes later I was laughing. Not the smiling to myself I do in other funny movies, but real laughing out loud. There were definitely parts where I had to turn away (I wasn’t surprised by this, I’ve seen other Tarantino movies), but I also never got bored even though the movie clocked in at two hours and forty-five minutes. In the theater, I couldn’t help but look around a little bit to see how other people were reacting. Demographically, I’m a biracial 24-year-old female. Would a 50-year-old white male be reacting the same way? I wondered if these traits affected our viewing experience. I can’t answer that. I’m only me. But it’s hard to imagine any sane person not being emotionally affected in some way by this movie.
After leaving the movie, my boyfriend and I talked about our impressions. We both really liked it, but with a movie like this you have notes whether negative or positive. (A note on that “N-word” usage: It’s hardly one per minute, more like a bunch at once then none for quite a while. In case you were wondering.) A week later we started talking about the movie again. For a long time. Like, several blocks of walking long. To me, this amount of interest post-watch, means a movie was really good. The way it made me so emotional, in so many different ways while watching it, means it was really good. I realized that all the talk about whether or not the movie itself was racist, didn’t make any sense. It is far from promoting any racist messages and it also doesn’t exactly promote abolitionism in it’s story. It is about one slave’s journey. I think the fact that his companion is a German (Christoph Waltz) that is anti-slavery but is there to help Django specifically is key. This sets Django’s story apart from American slavery as a whole. We care about Django and want him to be successful. Of course, the movie heavily involves race because of the subject matter, but I think it’s unnecessary to say the movie itself falls one way or another.
I also have to mention, that I’d heard before seeing Django that the female character of Broomhilda was not powerful enough and just made to be a damsel in distress character. Well, yeah, she is in a way. And that’s okay. This movie was partially based on German folklore in which there is a female character named Broomhilda that must be saved from a tower. We’ve all seen fairy tales. Damsels in distress exist as part of literary history. I love a strong, female character too, but this was Django’s story and was set up this way on purpose. Anyway, while a damsel, Broomhilda was far from weak as I saw it.
It’s safe to say that there’s nothing wrong with a movie starting a conversation about serious issues. Quite the opposite: movies should be thought provoking. We should talk about race and America’s past and what it means for this country now and in the future. But I do think that there’s more to this movie than just the race issue, especially when people turn that conversation into: is this movie racist or not. The acting was awesome. It was well-written. There were beautifully framed shots. It was long as hell but remained entertaining. I laughed. I cried. I thought, deeply. In my opinion, Django Unchained is a really great movie, not because it uses the N-word 110 times and not in spite of it either. I realize that throughout this article I haven’t said THE WORD either. It’s a touchy subject and it’s one that’s touchy for me personally. I’m not Samuel L. Jackson or Tarantino or Spike Lee. I’m still forming my opinions. I’m still thinking things through. Movies like this help.