Oscar blogging: Django Unchained and the dog that didn’t bark

In a little while I will be heading to a friend’s house for her annual Oscar party, but before I do I wanted to squeeze in one more Oscar-related post. I thought last year was a pretty decent year for movies. By no means did I see everything; because I don’t see many first-run films until they get around to playing at the university film society near where I live, I still haven’t seen The Master, Lincoln, or Zero Dark Thirty yet. (Of those films, I have a feeling that I’ll like The Master a lot, because I’m a fan of Paul Thomas Anderson. But I’m usually kind of meh about Spielberg, and though I admire Kathryn Bigelow’s work, I’m pretty sure I’ll have a problem with the politics of Zero Dark Thirty. Nevertheless, I look forward to seeing all of three these in the coming months).

As I mentioned previously, the best film I saw last year was Bela Tarr’s The Turin Horse. Others I liked a great deal include The Deep Blue Sea, Take This Waltz, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Moonrise Kingdom, and the tiger parts of Life of Pi. I thought Amour was beautifully made and beautifully acted, but it left me cold. I took a strong dislike to Silver Linings Playbook. It was slickly made and undeniably watchable, but the “love will cure mental illness” message was a crock. Even worse is the fact that the film invites us to embrace the Bradley Cooper character as some kind of romantic hero, when actually, he is a violent, abusive, self-centered jerk. Jennifer Lawrence is wonderful, but she deserves much better.

My favorite mainstream American film from last year, and the one I am hoping wins the best picture Oscar (though I’m pretty sure it won’t), is Django Unchained. I found it to be an immensely viscerally satisfying film. But then I’m a Tarantino fan to begin with — I’ve enjoyed each and every one of his films, especially the much-underrated Jackie Brown.

I saw Django at a bargain matinee, in a theater in the south side of Chicago. The patrons of this fine establishment are known to be quite vocal in their expressions of approval and disapproval at what happens onscreen. What better environment to watch a movie that’s a revenge fantasy about slavery? The audience was extremely enthusiastic about the movie overall. And though the film was chockfull of villains, it was the character of Stephen, the repellently sycophantic servant played by an almost unrecognizable Samuel Jackson (who btw steals every scene he’s in), who really had them drinking the haterade.

My biggest disappointment with the movie was the lack of interesting female characters. Poor Kerry Washington has nothing to do but look lovely and terrified. And it’s not like Tarantino can’t write women, because in the past he’s written some great roles for women, in Jackie Brown, Inglourious Basterds, and other films. But the lack of strong female roles is a problem with westerns generally, and helps explain why it’s my least favorite genre overall. The racism that poisons the genre is another reason why so many westerns suck. (Though there are some westerns I like. Like this one!).

There are a couple of overarching political points to make here. Tarantino gave this interesting interview in which he makes it clear that Django Unchained is, among other things, his cinematic reply to Birth of a Nation and the racism of the ouevre of John Ford (he seems to be taking a very David Thomson-esque line on Ford). I don’t entirely agree with Tarantino about Ford — the man did make the great How Green Was My Valley, after all — but given the excessive Ford worship in cinephile circles, it’s refreshing to see a more irreverent take.

It’s well worth noting that in taking up a point of view that is unambiguously anti-slavery and anti-Confederacy, Django Unchained is, in the context of Hollywood history, something of a rare bird. If you’ve watched as many classic Hollywood movies as I have, it is utterly dismaying how many of the ones about the Civil War or the antebellum period are totally knee-jerk sympathetic to the South. And not just the most notorious examples of Birth of the Nation and Gone with the Wind, either — there are tons more, everything from the classic Bette Davis tearjerker Jezebel to the winsome Shirley Temple musical The Littlest Rebel to the many westerns like The Searchers which feature ex-Confederate soldiers as heroes to Buster Keaton’s silent comedy masterpiece The General (where the great Buster is a train engineer who, sadly, is fighting on the wrong side of that war). Really, pretty much all the Civil War/antebellum films from the classic Hollywood period are pro-Confederacy or pro-South. Even more recent films are not immune to this bias (2003’s Cold Mountain is yet another in the endless number of examples).

It’s telling that, during the classic Hollywood era, no film studio so much as dared to adapt Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. An adaptation of the book was made during the silent period, but not in the era of the talkies. This is notable, because many other famous 19th century novels by writers like Dickens, Austen, Twain, and Victor Hugo were made into films, and a highly dramatic, narrative-driven novel like Uncle Tom’s Cabin seems like it would have been a natural for the big screen. (Stage adaptations of the novel had been wildly popular). But it’s clear that, because the novel deals graphically with horrors of slavery, no Hollywood studio dared touch it, and risk alienating white Southern audiences. The reason why Uncle Tom’s Cabin was never adapted is the same reason why, in so many of those MGM musicals, Lena Horne’s numbers were edited out of versions of her films that were released in the South. The studios were to knuckling under to virulent Southern racism.

It’s long past time Hollywood blasted through that all that hazy Lost Cause nostalgic BS, and that’s one reason I applaud Django. We still have far too much of Sons of the Confederacy WTF-ery in this country — the battle re-enactments, the Confederate flags, the wingnut politicians who are never without a kind word for the Confederate cause or “the sacrifice of our ancestors.” That’s why a film like Django, which chips away at that by reminding us of the horrors of slavery, is a vital and salient thing, politically. I also happen to think Django is a good film on the artistic merits, though that’s a separate question from the politics.

Secondly, probably a lot of people missed this but Drudge and other wingnuts tried to gin up a scandal about the alleged anti-white “racism” of Django. Drudge was furious because the film includes the N-word. It’s always ultra-creepy when wingnut whining takes the form of, “That’s outrageous! That guy uses the N-word in a historically specific context in a work of art, so how come I can’t use it indiscriminately, with impunity?”

Then there was this jackass at the Washington Times, who accused Jamie Foxx and the film of being racist, and before you know it every prominent African-American from Cornel West to Jeremiah Wright to members of the Congressional Black Caucus to, inevitably, Barack Obama, are lumped together and explicitly or implicitly accused of hating white people.

The fascinating thing, though, is that the anti-Django crusade went absolutely nowhere. The film has been a huge box office hit, and so far as I know, none of the mainstream conservative columnists like Brooks or Douthat have taken it on (though maybe that’s because their sensibilities are too dainty to grapple with a Tarantino gorefest, I don’t know). A decade ago, Django would have been an occasion of a huge, hysterical right-wing racist kulturkampf, along the lines of Joe Klein’s infamous Do the Right Thing column, but instead . . . mostly, there were crickets.

It’s a refreshing sign of how increasingly marginal the racist right has become, that unlike in the recent past, the mainstream media refused to accept their invitation to stage a full-fledged hissy fit over this film. Instead, the American public was allowed to make up its own mind about it. We decided we liked it, attempts on the right to spark a moral panic be damned. From where I stand, that’s progress.

Kathleen Geier

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee