Before the neo-Spaghetti Western Django Unchained was even released in theaters, it had already been greeted with opposition by filmmaker Spike Lee who took to Twitter to voice his objection.
“American Slavery Was Not A Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western,” Lee tweeted. “It Was A Holocaust. My Ancestors Are Slaves. Stolen From Africa. I Will Honor Them.”
Even though he admits to not having seen the movie, he suggests that certain subjects should be fundamentally off limits when creating “escapist entertainment” and that, apparently, those whose sensitivities are threatened should be in charge of deciding when these regulations are enforced.
I disagree with Mr. Lee on several levels.
First and foremost, Django Unchained is an artistic enterprise. It never purports to be a documentary or represent the 1850s with absolute accuracy. For example, there is a scene where slave-owner Calvin Candie (played brilliantly by Leonardo DiCaprio) is entertained by “Mandingo Fighters,” i.e. slave men who must fight to the death for their master’s amusement. According to Vulture.com, these never existed in slave times because the slaves were “valuable property” and would not have been used for this purpose. As a vision of history, then, the scene fails. But as an allegory for the exploitation of Africans, pitting them against each other, it succeeds in making the point.
Secondly, it’s fairly disingenuous for Lee to come down so harshly on a film he has not seen, especially after spending much of his early career answering accusations that he was just an “angry black filmmaker.”
It would seem as though Lee of all people should be cognizant of making judgments on a filmmaker’s work without having properly investigated it.
What would he have said in 1989 if detractors called for a boycott of Do the Right Thing because it depicts a race riot? Would he have called that a fair representation of his intentions?
If Lee were voicing concerns about specific scenes he found objectionable or offensive, that would at least clarify his criticism of the film.
Outside of his objection to the “N-Word” being used a reported 110 times in the film and the fact that a comedy-western uses slavery as its main subject, Lee’s criticism seems to be based on the idea that art should be limited in ways that do not inflame sensitivities.
But that is not the purpose of art, which at times needs to be provocative and challenging in order to inspire debate and feedback from its audience.
As for the movie itself, I feel that Django is a genuine triumph for Quentin Tarantino, and more an artistic statement with shades of social commentary than a full history lesson on the tragedy of slavery.
It stars Jamie Fox as the mild-mannered slave Django, who is recruited by bounty hunter Dr. Schultz (Christoph Waltz) to help him find a trio of slave-owning brothers who separated Django from his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington in a fine, understated performance). Schultz agrees to help Django rescue his wife after the assignment is completed and the men become loyal partners.
One of the things Tarantino does so well in the film is balance elements of comedy, tragedy, and homage.
Although there are several serious and polarizing moments in the film, the many comedic elements never seem to distract from them. The balance that the film establishes is masterful. We can laugh at certain scenes of high comedy (like the scene involving a racist mob wearing pillow-cases over their heads) and still be aware of the film’s social critique.
The film also does a wonderful job of taking characters that could have easily been seen as caricatures (like Samuel L. Jackson’s house slave Stephen) and give them dimension so that while we are rooting against them, we can at least understand their motivations.
The film is not perfect though (it runs on about 15 minutes longer than in should have, and the female characters are not nearly as fleshed out as they could have been), but it has a playful, exuberant subversiveness; razor-sharp dialogue and wonderful performances by the entire cast, which gives it resonance.
Perhaps Lee should reconsider his decision to view the film after all. He may be surprised at how effectively it handles its subject.