This article was originally written in March 2013 and was inspired by discussions on a podcast I used to do called In The Sprawl, which unfortunately no longer exists.
Let’s start off by saying that this article is going to contain spoilers (although everything discussed has been out for long enough that if you give a damn about spoilers you’d better have a really good excuse for not having seen it already). Before I wrote this I was thinking about criticisms that Django Unchained is racist, and why I disagree with them, this led me to think more broadly about what a film, or any art form, owes its audience; thinking about what responsibilities artists have to ensure that their ideas are not misinterpreted, which is what I go on to explore.
The first thing I want to talk about is the idea that Django Unchained is ‘a racist movie’; that certainly was not the feeling I got from the film. I thought that slavery was depicted as unflinchingly brutal, with absolutely no apologism or “That’s how people were back then” excuses, or characters who own slaves, but “He’s a good guy really”. Then again I haven’t really seen any criticism of Django Unchained that complains about its depictions of slavery itself.
The primary criticism levelled against the latest Tarantino brainchild to actually make it to celluloid is that the real villain of the piece is not Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), the plantation owner who loves to pit slaves against each other in fights to the death so rich white dudes can bet on the victor, (known as mandingo fighting). Critics claim that Candie’s death at the climax of the second act, rather than at the end of the film, shows that the true villain is senior house slave, Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), and from this infer that the film, at least in part, blames the slaves for their own position; suggesting that all that had to be done to end slavery was for all the slaves to stop buying into the hierarchies imposed upon them and rise up against a system where the odds were entirely stacked against them (not untrue, just incredibly difficult, and hardly a fair criticism). Yes Stephen is more intelligent than Candie, to the point that he can even manipulate Candie into doing what he wants, but he is still a victim of this system, and portrayed as such. In a society where people are valued by their worth (not that such a thing exists now) Stephen would be running the plantation, not Calvin Candie. So while Stephen has been able to achieve his position by aiding in the subjugation of those around him, he’s hardly the one in charge. It’s also worth mentioning that the portrayal of a black man as anything less than saintly does not amount to racism.
This brings me to the other criticism of Django Unchained: ‘White Saviourism’. I find some hypocrisy in criticising a film for implying that all black people had to do was rise up and break their own chains, to then turn around and also criticise the fact that the only way Django escapes slavery is through the interference of a white man. Dr. King Schultz does not exactly free Django, while he professes to hate slavery he is certainly not above using it to his own ends (he needs Django to help him collect a bounty, so he buys him). In other words he doesn’t exactly save him, he just ends up putting Django in a much better position, almost by accident. Schultz fits very nicely into archetypal narrative (Propp’s narrative theory: The magician who takes the protagonist from his humble beginnings, helps him become a hero then exits the story, leaving the hero to complete his quest). Django does not need Schultz’ help at all by the third act of the film, which is also when Schultz disappears from the movie, allowing Django to complete his ‘Hero’s Journey’.
I really can see no other way for the film to work without Schultz ‘rescuing’ Django: If Django was an escaped slave, rather than a freedman he would not be able to walk into Candieland to save his wife, in fact even free I doubt he’d have been able to gain Candie’s trust without Schultz there. It might also leave the audience questioning why Django could escape when others could not; the film itself shows how hard it was for slaves to escape and how cruelly they were punished for attempting to do so. There’s also the potential that Django’s escape could diminish the impact on slaves who attempted escape and the severity of the punishment they face. In fact the film has a very moving scene in which Brumhilda is whipped in front of Django as punishment for an escape attempt. So the story only works if Django is free, and in a era of such rampant racism it would be wholly unbelievable for anyone other than white man freeing slaves.
Let’s take a look at the historical inaccuracies of the film and the questions of whether cinema, and art in general, has a responsibility to the audience to be accurate, comprehensive and fairly representative, which brings me from Django Unchained in particular, to a broader discussion including Zero Dark Thirty, Argo, Lincoln and Homeland.
I tend to come down on the side of art having no responsibility to portray things in any way other than what the creator sees fit to show. I think the responsibility has to lie with the individual, the consumer, the audience. If your only view of slavery comes from Django Unchained that isn’t Tarantino’s fault, it’s yours, but the media is a crucial part of our culture and should be criticised (it’s crucial to remember criticism is not that same as calling for any form of censorship) when we see faults with it, especially if we believe those faults to be perpetuating or encouraging hatred or bigotry.
The problem with films that deal with modern terrorism, is that the threat is a Middle Eastern one. That’s not to say that every Arab is going to blow you up, or that every Muslim hates the West (and certainly most Western media has done nothing but conflate Arab with Muslim). I’m not even saying that there aren’t some pretty good reasons why some in Pakistan might decide it’s a good idea to strap on a bomb vest (I know that if an American robot of death murdered my family, I’d be pretty pissed off). What I am saying is that the reason the “bad guys” in Argo, Homelandand and Zero Dark Thirty are all Arabs is because that is the threat the West is afraid of, and with good reason since we keep provoking them.
The question then becomes do these stories owe it to their audiences to break away from the tension and drama of their narrative to stop, turn to the audience and explain “Just because these brown people have taken Americans hostage, or blown Americans up doesn’t mean you should suddenly become afraid of Usman who works in your office.” I honestly don’t believe a work of fiction needs to stop and lecture the ignorant fucks that might be in the audience and tell them not to be racist. Argo is set in the back-drop of the Iranian revolution, but it is not about the Iranian revolution. There are other places to learn about the history and motivations of The Iranian Hostage Crisis (not to mention the real rescue mission since, Argo takes a bunch of liberties in the name of a better story, which is exactly what it should do since its purpose is entertainment, not education). Argo is just a thriller. I thought it did its job very well and was deserving of the recognition it received.
Homeland, like Argo, does tend to focus on the Middle Eastern threat, but, because it is exploring a character who has been ‘turned’ from a loyal US Marine to a terrorist, actually spends a little time exploring ideas like blowback and how people can become indoctrinated. Homeland is also far from a CIA propaganda machine, the Agency is portrayed as being very political, its leaders more concerned with their own ambitions. Other agencies are shown as incompetent, or overly gung-ho, jeopardising investigations. Oh and there’s even a small mislead sub-plot where it turns out the young, Arabic, male suspect is not the terrorist they’re looking for. In other words I have to say Gideon Raff’s job is to continue making good television, rather than lecture his audience.
That’s not to say that I believe artists never have any responsibilities to their audience other than to make good art, or that I wouldn’t appreciate stories that focus on the other (non-Western) side of these events; in fact Persepolis was a film that inspired me to read a little bit of the history about the Iranian Revolution and Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, but films for Western audiences are going to tend to have Western perspectives (that’s a fight for another day).
I went into Lincoln hoping for, if not expecting, a story that would go beyond “Lincoln freed the slaves against opposition and the racist south”. That’s a narrative we’ve all heard, but if you read a little history you know that it’s not quite so cut and dried. I was hoping to see Lincoln himself represented as more complex than the paragon of virtue and justice he is usually portrayed as, and maybe explore more of his political motivations, which were far from selfless. I was hoping to see black people represented as more than poor folks who needed to be uplifted by white saviours (this film is far more guilty of White Saviourism than Django Unchained). I was hoping we might see the South as more than just the old racists, and explore the complexities around the formation of the Confederacy and its break from the Union. Instead I got what I expected, a very well performed, well produced version of the story I already knew. A feature length episode of The West Wing, 1865 edition, where the protagonists only clash about the best way to achieve their just goals, and antagonists are either stupid or evil for opposing them. I still don’t think Lincoln owed me the story I hoped for, but I do think it would ultimately have been a better film, if a lot harder to make, and a lot harder for many in the audience to watch.
Torture. Torture, torture, torture. When Kathryn Bigelow said Zero Dark Thirty does not glamourise torture she wasn’t lying. Its depictions are brutal and horrific, and immediately made me root for the guy being tortured, who is supposed to be one of the bad guys, the terrorists, the people we’re supposed to be scared of, right? Zero Dark Thirty is a thriller in which everyone knows the ending. It’s a documentary with a script, and fictionalised characters. Zero Dark Thirty is supposed to be the truth of how Osama Bin Laden was tracked down and killed. Except it isn’t. There are numerous inaccuracies, and changes for the sake of narrative, and drama. OK I guess you need to tighten some things up, lose some detail so you can tell the story in two and half hours. The aim is still to tell the truth, albeit an easier to digest version of it. Except it’s not just the truth with tied up strings, it’s a lie. The torture works. It eventually leads them to the target. It took me all of twenty minutes of reading to find out that not only did ‘Enhanced Interrogation Techniques’ (torture) not lead to Bin Laden, but that the CIA was so convinced that they worked that they pursued false leads, meaning torture delayed them in finding Bin Laden. THIS is where I do think responsibility comes in. If you’re advertising your film as the story of something, you should probably come at least kind of close to telling that story. Zero Dark Thirty without actually telling the story it purports to is just two and half hours of asking a question the audience already knows the answer to, which I found pretty tiresome.
Django Unchained is a hyper-stylised revenge flick set in Tarantino’s version of the Antebellum South, this is what it was marketed as, this is what it is. Argo is inspired by a true story, something we see in front of so many films, which can mean anything from: somebody like the protagonist probably existed once, to all but the names being exactly the same; in Argo’s case Affleck and co. took an interesting story and made it work as an against the odds thriller aimed primarily at an American audience (pissing off the Canadians in the process). Lincoln could have been something great, but I tend not to expect Spielberg to push boundaries, at least it was entertaining and no one can deny the quality of the acting. Zero Dark Thirty and Homeland both tread very similar ground, but Homeland’s removal from reality allows it far more freedom to explore those ideas of terrorism, intelligence and espionage. In misinforming its audience Zero Dark Thirty undermined the only reason to pay attention to its otherwise boring plot. I suppose ultimately what I’ve been saying is that the more you represent your work as fiction the less responsibility you have to portray reality. If you say you’re telling the truth, you damn well better be! A radical idea I know.