Django Unchained

Django Unchained ★★★★★

It’d be easy to say I know what y’all are talking about when you call this technically mediocre and politically disgusting and leave it at that.

Fact is, I don’t. The transmutability of story, both forward in the Brunhilde tale’s resonance in a new time and place and backward through the revisionism that positions Django to receive it, not simply as romantic fairytale but as necessary liberation. “I know how he feel.” And not as the self-conscious leader of a movement but as an individual unencumbered by decorum. The first representational evil was that black people were villains. The second was that they were pitiful victims. The third was that they could only be certain kinds of heroes. Enter blaxploitation with a budget. “Don’t get carried away with your retribution! You’ll lose sight of why we’re here.” / “You think I lost sight of that?” How many movies have sat us down for some obligatory handwringing where any black radicalism is concerned? Django, on the other hand, is an instantly sympathetic freedom-fighter, radicalized by circumstance and armed with a story; “1 in 10,000” not for his unique ability, but for the uniqueness of his opportunity to act on it (cinematically if not historically). He’s going to climb the mountain.

With Django’s drive and method totally self-evident, rather than justifying him we’re instead shown one of the most detailed and clear-eyed depictions of American slavery and its mechanics ever in U.S. cinema, consistently framing it not just in emotional terms but in economic and scientific(!!) ones. Tarantino prepares us not to stomach Django’s actions, but instead sickens us with the systems that surround him—“I’m just a little more used to Americans than he is”—so that maybe, just maybe, we'll be eager for the cleansing apocalypse he brings to this damned plantation.

A country unwilling to recognize itself as an ugly empire will see itself consumed by the people for whom its stories of freedom and liberation actually mean something. “Why don’t they kill us?” Maybe we will die at the hands of our fantasies. We clearly didn’t use them right and they don’t belong to us anymore. Audre Lorde may not have been wrong to warn us against trying to dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools, but we all know Quentin’s going to indulge the thought.

Saw this two times in three days on release and never once caught my breath. The movie that showed me what movies could be.

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