Re-Birth of a Nation or Why Django Has More to Say about Contemporary America than the Other “Historically Accurate” Films
“The former enemies of North and South are united again in common defence of their Aryan birthright.”
(D.W. Griffith in The Birth of a Nation)
“A single Negro regiment would have a remarkable effect on Southern nerves… A war of this kind must be conducted on revolutionary lines while the Yankees have thus far been trying to conduct it constitutionally.”
(Karl Marx in Writings on the American Civil War)
Broomhilda & Django and Michelle & Barack. The ugly fictional truth on one side and the reassuring liberal embroidery on the other. This year’s White House-sanctioned and delivered Oscar to Argo celebrated fiction as the ultimate redeeming force in (the re-writing of) history. But then again the Californian suburb has always had a soft spot for fictional rather than factual (hi)stories.
Paradoxically so, one of the few 2012 nominated films that avoided all together any pretension of historical re-enactment, Tarantino’s Django, is, to our mind, the most cogent and germane commentary on contemporary America. Race and above all racism, Hollywood and the Obama administration would have us thinking, are part of the American past, sanitised issues that are scarcely relevant today. Lincoln abolished slavery; the current US president is the living proof of the benefits that his individualist bureaucratic battle brought about. What more do you want than a black president? Revenge, would be Django’s answer. Revenge in Django nonetheless is not a (merely) rancorous, destructive feeling but more the realization that certain crimes allow for neither forgiveness nor forgetting. Django’s vengeful impetus is the cry of the voiceless: American history is indefensible the film insinuates as well as founded on genocide. To the philanthropic concessions of Lincoln, Django prefers a rather undiplomatic form of justice. Against the grotesque white mask that Samuel L. Jackson wears in his immaculate performance, Jamie Foxx reclaims his dangerous black skin. Exploitation in Django cannot be reformed, only demolished.
Furthermore, Django’s final resolution is not (only) aimed to the evil white man; his rage obliterates the plantation as a structural whole. Candyland is in the film an economic reality as well as the putrescent mansion of the refined, Francophile “villain”. While abolition in Lincoln is a charitable and idealist act that has to go through the legislative intricacies of an improvable system, slavery is in Django a marketplace of injustice. “It’s a flesh for cash business – just like slavery,” Dr Schultz says of his profession. As well as a crime against humanity, slavery was also the profitable engine of colonialism. The American Civil War, amongst other things, marked the passage from a settler/agrarian economy to an industrial one whose main urban poles were in fact in the north. The transition from slaves in the southern plantations to “free” men in the northern factories was part of the Negroes’ “emancipation.” Like Zero Dark Thirty, Lincoln reduces politics to their procedural dimension, carefully avoiding any socio-economic contextualization. Django does the exact opposite.
It is worth noting that the dramatic peak of Tarantino’s film is in fact a purchase, an economic transaction. Freedom needs to be bought. Throughout the film slavery never transcends its commercial dimension until the very end, when it is rejected all together, delegitimized through destruction. Dr. Schultz and Django navigates the legal caveats of the slave economy to their own benefits while human beings are sold and bought around them to the benefit of the cotton industry. Marx conceived of slavery as a global mercantile machine, rather than a “merely” ethical issue. “Direct slavery is the pivot of our industrialism today as much as machinery, credit, etc. Without slavery you have no cotton, without cotton you have no modern industry. It is slavery that has given value to the colonies; it is the colonies that created world trade; it is world trade that is the necessary condition for large-scale machine industry” he noted in his analysis on the American Civil War. If for Lincoln slavery is an ethical battle to be fought in the house of law, for Django it is an unlawful aberration to be violently obliterated. The constitutional “debate” around slavery in Lincoln implicitly legitimizes the anti-abolitionist stance; Django on the contrary deems it too immoral and inhuman to be dealt with “democratically.”
It is precisely this focus on the material and monetary side of slavery, at the expenses of “historical accuracy,” which posits Django at the very heart of contemporary racial issues. As Michelle Alexander substantiates in her book The New Jim Crow, the institutional racism that Obama would have archived for good, is alive and bad. Almost as bad as it ever was for, as Alexander’s volume chillingly proves, “an extraordinary percentage of black men in the United States are legally barred from voting today, just as they have been throughout most of American history.” Mass incarceration, as it happens, responds in fact to a very practical financial necessity, that of domestic cheap labour. With the war on drugs providing a moralistically convenient recruiting tool.
Discrimination has just undergone a rebranding; a new post-racial design projects a pacified vision of a just America, open to anyone, even to a Black president. Through linguistic racial cleansing the discourse around racism has reached a sort of happy ending that Django vehemently refuses by gushing out the repressed horrors. Tarantino violently restates the centrality of race – may Spike Lee forgive us, also for the use of the controversial signifier nigger – while abolishing current liberal notions that see race as merely residual, a thing of the past. While “serious” cinema, from Birth of a Nation to ZDT, has inscribed a cleansed version of history in the American consciousness, Tarantino uses “sleazy” entertainment to delegitimize it.
By drawing from – and paying homage to – the b-movies’ aesthetic and poetically visceral repertory, Tarantino sides with the wretched of the 7th Art. In Lincoln instead the stylistic frame of reference is represented by the fulsome pomposity of 19th century painting, self-commissioned art that relegates history to the museum of the righteous. Coincidentally enough Spielberg has in his (early) career passively benefitted from the formal innovations of exploitation filmmaking (films like Jaws and Close Encounters would have been unthinkable as blockbusters without the preliminary innovations of the Cormanian factory). Tarantino’s re-imagination of exploitation cinema counters the polished and family-centric vision of Spielbergian cinema. Through political incorrectness, Django addresses the patronising benevolence of the founding fathers of modern Hollywood. By letting in to the diegetic realm of the film the immoral blues of 21st century (gangsta rap), Tarantino flippantly opens a crack in the post-racial farce of Obama America. It is an insolent move, as insolent as Django’s mocking parade as he leaves the ruins of an immoral white house behind him, riding into an alternative future with his beloved Broomhilda.
Celluloid Liberation Front is a multi-use(r) name, an “open reputation” informally adopted and shared by a desiring multitude of insurgent cinephiles, transmedial terrorists, aesthetic dynamyters and random deviants. For reasons that remain unknown, the name was borrowed from a collective of anti-imperialist blind filmmakers from the Cayman Islands. Twitter feed here.
Read also: Jacob Mertens, ‘“It was Dr. Schultz, in the library, with a hidden pistol up his sleeve”: Django Unchained (2012)’.