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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.
Samuel L. Jackson and Leonardo DiCaprio star in the new film ‘Django Unchained’ from Quentin Tarantino.

But the film also demonstrates the real answer to the slaveholder's ironic question: that the system of oppression functioned so as to ensure that such a freedman superhero (or even a modest uprising) would never happen. The mechanics of that system are depicted with uncommon insight; a hierarchy of white enforcers maintained and benefitted from the system in varying degrees.

Even more remarkably, we also see a player who has not been portrayed with this kind of perspicuity: the head house Negro Stephen, played by Samuel L. Jackson. The white vileness in "Django Unchained" is more familiar, and is certainly chilling -- but Jackson's character is a revelation. Far from a sympathetic Uncle Tom, his ruthless collaborator can also be an essential ingredient of oppression. He is terrifying; he also rings true.

I disagree with those who see in King Schultz (the character for which Christoph Waltz won his second Academy Award) just another version of the necessary white hero in a story about black oppression.

Schultz is a German and he is not out to fight slavery. This is not his fight; he is out to make money. He winces at slavery's brutality because it is not his brutality; he is not part of this system in the way an American necessarily would be. His motivation to collaborate is less heroic, more practical and more believable. He is not a stand-in for white Americans. He is necessary to the plot (he buys and then frees Django), but the essential fight belongs to Django.

As Tarentino has matured as a filmmaker, he has begun to turn his penchant for filming violent revenge stories to more ambitious purposes. In "Inglorious Bastards," he created a clearly fictional revenge fantasy against the Nazis, which was dangerous enough -- but that story is not our American story in the same way this is. Here we are the subject of the vengeance, we root for that vengeance. In this movie, we -- that is, Americans who benefit from our history of brutal slavery -- are the bad guys.

The first time I saw "Django Unchained," I was profoundly shaken by what I had seen. That seems to me an appropriate response to American slavery. I’m glad to have experienced it through the lens of this filmmaker; and to have sat in a theater of mostly white Americans who experienced it too, even if they may have not reflected on it as deeply as I did.

One hundred and fifty years ago, the worst and most unacceptable parts of slavery actually happened. To pretend that it didn't just got harder.

Darleen Ortega is a judge on the Oregon Court of Appeals and the first woman of color to serve in that capacity. A movie reviewer for over a decade, her column appears regularly in the Portland Observer. You can find her movie blog at opinionatedjudge.blogspot.com.