Opinionated Judge

‘Django Unchained’ raises the conversation on race

Darleen Ortega | 4/26/2013, 7:48 a.m. | Updated on 5/1/2013, 2:18 p.m.
Mind Altering
Samuel L. Jackson and Leonardo DiCaprio star in the new film ‘Django Unchained’ from Quentin Tarantino.

"Django Unchained" was the third best film on my 2012 favorites list (opinionatedjudge.blogspot.com). Writer/director Quentin Tarentino used his creative gifts and the clout that he wields in the movie industry to do something brilliant and important. He has altered our collective consciousness about race and American slavery, for the better.

Oppression and wrongdoing do not simply resolve themselves; they reverberate for generations. Americans know this in theory but ignore it in practice. To use American slavery as an example, we like to act as though it is old news of historical interest. It happened a long time ago; it doesn't have anything to do with us today. To keep dwelling on it -- to quote a certain Supreme Court justice -- just perpetuates outmoded racial entitlements.

Although film is a medium with a singular capacity for telling stories with immediacy, our movies recount the history of slavery from a certain historical remove. We tend to soften the inhumanity, for example, with prominent white heroes (as in "Lincoln," which I did admire very much, or "Amazing Grace," about the movement against slavery in England). As important as these stories are, they don't confront us with the legacy of past oppression.

With "Django Unchained," Tarentino has used his admiration of and facility with such discounted genres as spaghetti westerns and blaxploitation films to lure multiracial audiences (and in places like Portland, largely white audiences) to invest nearly three hours looking at aspects of our relatively recent past that we have declined or even refused to face.

As he has himself pointed out, one cannot make a film as lurid as slavery was in reality. Slaves are whipped; chewed to death by dogs while bystanders watch; made to walk, chained, on bare bloody feet for days; and kept in burning holes to die of thirst.

Watching the film, I found myself reflecting on where I might have fit into the diabolical social hierarchies enforced among slaves based on their physical attributes.

Would I have been one of an army of house slaves, working above all else to blend into the machinery? Would I have been a virtual farm implement, toiling in the fields but subject to sexual exploitation at a moment's whim? Would I have lived in relative comfort and been dressed as an elaborate sexual toy, only to have children ripped from me and later to be cast off when my beauty faded? This is how humans being treated as property lived a mere 150 years ago, and it's brutal.

Also, in giving us a black hero who provokes audiences to cheer as he mows down white oppressors (who are the ancestors of many of us), Tarentino may well have subliminally provoked us to notice that no such vengeance ever occurred and given us the experience of wishing for it.

Further, his film not only depicts something never before imagined on screen; it conveys some things about how oppression works. A lurking question that troubles many people about slavery is why the black slaves didn't simply rise up and kill the whites; Tarentino puts that question (stated ironically) in the mouth of a vicious slaveholder and then devises a freedman superhero to do just that.