Django Unchained directed by Quentin Tarantino (Weinstein Company, $29.99)
I expected the epithet “nigger” to be overused in Django Unchained. It is a Quentin Tarantino film after all, and Tarantino is proficient in hyperbole.
I was not prepared, however, for the countless eruptions of laughter following those scenes — and there were many — in which “nigger” was used or when some other form of racist-turned-comedic line was offered. Indeed, watching Django in a crowded, downtown Brooklyn theater with a mostly white and, from what I could gather, entertained audience was as assaulting as the overdone Tarrantino-esque moments of “heroic” bloodshed. When the movie ended, my friends and I pondered how our experience might have been different if we watched the film in a theater with a predominantly black audience. Would there have been as much laughter?
While a range of critical reviews has been written about the limitations and brilliance of Django, little has been said about that which the film allows, enables, and precludes. Like all cinema, Django invites spectatorship, but of a certain contextual flavor. And the spectator, as noted by documentary filmmaker Youness Abeddour, “is not simply a passive viewer, but he/she interacts in the action of the film, taking the pleasure of watching and giving a meaning to the film.” The mostly white audience members in Brooklyn were rather interactive spectators, to be sure.
The audience is offered a limited and imaginary picture of US chattel slavery as Salamishah Tillet, University of Pennsylvania professor and author of Sites of Slavery: Citizenship and Racial Democracy in the Post-Civil Rights Imagination, notes in her review. Tarantino is successful at creating a pastiche in which the brutal reality of racist violence against enslaved black people is transformed into an electrifying and hilarious spectacle of contemporary comedy for the white audience. Take, for example, the boisterous merriment that ensued in the theater I was in after Django (Jamie Foxx) appeared in a white town only to be curiously gazed upon by onlookers who had never before observed a “nigger on a horse.” Many white spectators were amused; this black person was not.
Ishmael Reed similarly recalled in his Wall Street Journal review that he watched Django in Berkeley “where the audience was about 95% white.” He went on to state, “They really had a good time. A row of white women sitting in front of me broke into applause as Django blew away the white mistress of the plantation who was [sic] sort of silly frivolous set up like some of the blacks in the movie.”
What do the many moments of hilarity on the part of white people viewing Django in theaters across the country communicate? And to whom?
What is, precisely, so funny about excessive use of the label, “nigger”?
Why did hundreds of white audience members in Brooklyn feel at ease snickering at the banter of Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), the “nigger”-hating house slave in blackface who loved his owner, Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), and protected the plantation where he was enslaved, the perversely-named Candie Land?
Why are some white people seemingly comfortable with vicarious participation in the movie’s racial violence?
These were the questions on my mind as I watched the film and wondered if I was somehow invisible in a theater surrounded by white folks who, for once, behaved as if they had license to laugh at the “nigger” on the screen and not be reprimanded by a black person in their proximity.
Indeed, Django brings to the fore the anxieties and fantasies of the white viewer and it makes space for cathartic release, namely, the passing of guilt. Some white viewers in the audience in Brooklyn, and apparently Berkeley, clapped when the always smiling Lara Lee (Laura Cayouette) — Candie’s “beautiful sister" who figured in the movie as a representation of a "good" white person among the many who were not — was blasted to her death by Django.
In the scene, Django shoots Lee and her body is forcefully thrown from a doorway, into another room, and off the screen. She is no longer visible to the audience. The brutal killing of Lee seemed to have signaled a moment in the viewing experience where justice was finally served. Lee’s killing could easily be read as signifying the exoneration of guilt maintained by some white people in the U.S. today as a result of the heartless chattel slavery industry of our past. White guilt, just like Lee's body, is literally blown away — from the screen and the conscience of the white viewer.
Django met my expectations. It was gruesome, phantasmagoric and embellished. I was not surprised by Tarantino's ahistorical and comedic moves. I was, however, troubled by three hours of white spectatorship that rendered the presence of African-Americans in the audience as spectacularly invisible. Unlike the white characters in the film who never saw a “nigger on a horse” and were too shocked to laugh when they encountered Django traveling into town, the white movie goers in Brooklyn were less modest and found reason to offer aloud their amusement at the "hilarious" racism.
Tarantino created a perverse tale of the enslaved black, and white slave owner who profited from the enslavement enterprise, which should leave all of us asking of white audiences when it’s over: What, exactly, was so damn funny?
—Darnell L. Moore (Originally published by New Black Man (in Exile))