Dear Dana, Wesley, and Keith,
There’s so much to say about Zero Dark Thirty, and about the people who felt compelled to weigh in with so much bluster before even seeing it, that I’m going to table that subject for now. The movie and the issues around it are so complicated that I don’t want to rush off in that direction before addressing Django Unchained. But I will say, quickly, that Keith and Glenn Kenny are right about the lack of heroic braggadocio in the movie’s cinematic language. And there’s this weird thing about “hard news” people and critics: This isn’t always true, but so often they seem to think that the movie is the thing it’s about. Critics have to concern themselves with—among other things—how a movie is about what it’s about.
So how is Django Unchained about what it’s about? I think, for all their differences, there is one thing Spike Lee and Quentin Tarantino have in common: They both want to make white liberals uncomfortable, and they’re both damn good at it. At the risk of stating the obvious, I’ll note that most movie critics in this country are white and liberal, and in the week since Django Unchained was released, among those critics, we’ve seen a great deal of wrangling—much of it well-reasoned and articulate, like my former colleague Andrew O’Hehir’s recent piece in Salon—around the issue of whether or not Tarantino ought to be treating serious, bona-fide history as an exploitation playground.
We had that discussion in the days of Inglourious Basterds too, but that movie didn’t hit as many hot-buttons—I’m thinking, of course, of Tarantino’s insistent use of that word. But in Django Unchained, who, exactly, uses that word? The second time I saw the movie, I made a rough mental note every time it showed up. Dr. King Schultz uses it twice, but only when he’s role-playing, and his diction makes his distaste for the word clear. Django uses it often, maybe because it’s the most convenient word for the way he’s seen in his world, at the time he’s living in—does he even know any other word for the man, deep in his heart, he knows himself to be? (If we’re going to criticize Tarantino for messing with history, we can’t also wish he’d created a 19th-century recently freed slave with a post-Martin Luther King vocabulary.) Everyone else—the slave owners, the overseers—uses the word thoughtlessly, derisively, carelessly. There’s a prevailing sense that Tarantino himself uses the word carelessly, but I think his use of it is actually quite specific—the opposite of profligate.
Of course, there are lots of other reasons critics and moviegoers may not like Django Unchained. To some it just seems messy and boring, and Lord knows, I’ve felt that way about this or that Tarantino film in the past. Dana, I know you wrestled with contradictory feelings, particularly when it came to the movie’s violence: In some places it is cartoony and in others it’s just plain horrifying. As a viewer, it can be hard to shift gears between the two, and though I think Tarantino is pretty clear about distinguishing one from the other, I’d agree that the overall effect can be kind of jarring.
But I just have to say one more thing about Django Unchained: I had fun. There, I’ve said it. I’m a guilt-ridden white liberal and I had fun. Fun fun fun! At the same time, though, I do think Tarantino is trying to get at something deeper about the way black identity in this country has had to be built around, and in spite of, white people who think they have all the answers. And I think there’s a great deal of sensitivity and affection in the picture: Wesley, I loved what you wrote about Jamie Foxx as the “moral and emotional core of this movie, the human force that keeps the whole thing from sliding into kitsch.” I was really taken with the sequence—one of the most visually gorgeous of any film this year—in which the recently freed Django traverses snowy mountain territory on his horse, with Jim Croce’s “I’ve Got a Name” as his soundtrack. I confess I snickered when I heard the first strains of the song, but then I saw how beautifully—and un-ironically—Tarantino uses it. And whatever an old Jim Croce song may mean to you or me, you can bet the words “I’ve got a name/ And I carry it with me like my daddy did/ But I’m living the dream that he kept hid” would have meant a lot more to Django.
In other news, Wesley won a Pulitzer this year! Which is every which way awesome by any standard, and now he’s on to another adventure—but maybe we should let him tell us about that himself. And as always, I’m so thrilled to be here with you guys—thank you, Dana, for inviting me. It’s been a terrific movie year, and I can’t think of better company.