Whiteness Unchained: When a National Shame Becomes Camp

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Only recently did I learn of the longstanding feud between Spike Lee and Quentin Tarantino. This was a result of internet research I did after seeing a preview for Tarantino’s new movie Django Unchained, and after a dear friend sent me a link to Lee’s refusal to see the movie because it was “disrespectful” to his ancestors. As much as I agree with him intellectually, I can’t agree on the basis of having ancestors in common. In the social legacy of whiteness, there exists a privileged position of detachment from the pain of chattel slavery that renders this a historical event, rather than a historical experience with generational meaning. In the US, there is no understanding in white consciousness of being dehumanized as chattel. Slavery is not my history, heroic Blackness is not my identity, and any form of fictionalized vengeance that combines the two is not my story to tell. Quentin Tarantino has a different opinion:

“As a writer, I demand the right to write any character in the world that I want to write. And to say that I can’t do that because I’m white … that is racist.”

He made these remarks in 1997 in response to criticisms from Spike Lee at the time, but they read as if they were said yesterday. I finally went to see the movie (which was as exciting as going to the doctor), but I’ll address one piece of whiteness at a time.

This is what I wondered at 3 AM with Tarantino’s defense still as fresh as a pile of shit in my mind: so anyone can speak on… anything they want? How many conferences on obstetrics and gynecology would doctors attend if they were conducted by plumbers? Who asks their barber or hairdresser to explain organic chemistry? Who gets their legal advice from a veterinarian? These qualifications seem to warrant higher levels of respect in their differentiation, and in the demand that only the experienced and knowledgeable represent themselves. Credibility and poetic license are reserved, however, and given without question to the white tradition of producing anthropological studies or creative fantasies about the non-white “other.” This would be the lesser-known genre Tarantino has been exploiting for most of his career.

Samuel L. Jackson in a Blues Brothers suit carrying a wallet branded with “Badass Motherfucker” is a character. That is recycled and revised Blaxploitation fiction. However, a Black couple separated by slavery and beaten by members of the KKK are not the creative property of Quentin Tarantino. These “characters” are based on historical facts and lived experiences of racist violence. When I think of famous Black filmmakers in Hollywood, I struggle to think beyond Spike Lee and Tyler Perry; when I think of famous white filmmakers in Hollywood, I struggle to keep track. This structural inequity and white supremacy in US show business makes Tarantino’s accusation of (reverse) racism highly untenable. The fact that one of these precious few Black filmmakers dared to challenge the racism of a white director’s movies, one of the few in Hollywood who could tell a story like Django Unchained without racism and be entitled to tell it, makes Tarantino’s accusation deplorable and ridiculous.

Even a movie supposedly centered around a slave turned bounty hunter in pursuit of revenge is a movie that stars white people with Black people in supporting roles. And to be accurate, slavery is reduced to nothing more than a geographical backdrop, social scenery, and circumstantial setting for a signature Tarantino parody—this time using a Spaghetti Western formula. But there was something about selling this as a Western that confused me. I had no trouble comprehending the references in the throwback “Wild West” font of the opening credits, the desert-like landscape, and John Wayne outlaw music. However for the rest of the movie, audiences were apparently meant to believe a Western was taking place in the… Antebellum South?

I got a sickening feeling after the movie spent its ten minutes in Texas and shifted to southern plantations, that the era of chattel slavery was chosen because it provided new opportunities for Tarantino to explore/exploit gratuitous violence. And I’m not talking about the many white people whose heads were blown through and whose dicks were shot off, or the projectile blood from any number of body parts exploding like a can of red paint on the receiving end of a shotgun. This is all typical for a Tarantino flick. I’m talking about the two mandingo slaves who fight to the death in Calvin Candie’s parlor, ending with both men covered in blood and the victor not only clawing his victim’s eyes out by hand, but also smashing his face with a hammer. I’m talking about the slave who is attacked and torn to death by a pack of vicious dogs, a punishment ordered by Calvin Candie. I’m talking about Jamie Foxx as Django hanging naked from his ankles almost visibly castrated by a white slaver with an orange-hot blade, and Kerry Washington as his wife Broomhilda whipped and nearly bashed in the head with a hammer by Calvin Candie. As it turns out, the institution of slavery was not violent and/or awful enough, but must be saturated with a series of humiliations and atrocities in its storytelling.

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All I can say about Leonardo Dicaprio’s performance as Calvin Candie is that it made him less of a convincing actor and more of a convincing racist. He was a little bit too believable for me, and by that I mean the slave master stole the show from the slave.

The comic camp created around this national shame is expressed and made sympathetic through many exchanges of witty banter and Tarantino’s tendency to make heinous villains handsome, charming, and/or funny. A hooded white militia spends at least five minutes having a *hilarious* argument about one of their wives insufficiently cutting the eye-holes in the white “bags” on their heads. Although no one in the movie explicitly called them the KKK, they wore symbolic hoods and made a brief allusion to attacks in their “full regalia.” An opportunity to make the most excessive, outrageous, and overdone scene involving the KKK in their “full regalia,” and Tarantino didn’t take it. He made a subtle hint at these things that younger or less informed people in the audience might not notice. He made these characters look like simple vigilantes on horseback with cheap pillowcases on their heads. Yet when Django is given the “freedom” to purchase his own “valet” uniform, he emerges from the store with a white bow at his chin, a blue satin coat to match his blue satin trousers, silk stockings, and buckled shoes—an entirely unexplained transformation. Multiple comic spectacles are made of Black characters and the brutality of the violence they suffer, but the KKK only give a quick mention of their “regalia.”

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That is not Tarantino’s style; he doesn’t deal with any subject matter delicately, discreetly, sensitively, conscientiously, or with subtlety. Yet the KKK were somewhat disguised and miraculously escaped his confrontational and sensationalist plagiarism.

I could never imagine the diverse experiences Black folks might have when/if they see this movie, nor can I, as a white person, legitimately or personally take offense to the use of the N word. I can only comment on the extent to which I became more convinced the instances of the N word outnumbered the lines of dialogue Black characters had in the movie. After hearing the word fifty times, I stopped counting. Kerry Washington spoke less than ten times in two hours and forty five minutes. She is seen being ruthlessly whipped and branded as an object of abuse, or as a figment of Django’s imagination, until her physical form is finally produced when she is dragged naked and screaming from Calvin Candie’s “hot box”—a box in direct sunlight, mostly buried underground, and locked from the outside. Any other Black women who appear on screen are speechless, disoriented, or helpless. Django, whose name is the title of the movie and his vengeance the focus, spends 90% of the story saying next to nothing. Ultimately, this was an exploration of the white villain versus the white hero. And, oh yeah, a slave gets his wife and his freedom in the end.

There are two white heroes in Django Unchained. Dr. Schultz (Christoph Waltz) is the compassionate white bounty hunter who heroically dictates the terms of Django’s service and his freedom—an emphasis on white kindness and generosity, which I would say is the least important narrative to privilege in a movie about slavery. Schultz is, after all, the star and the one who avenges the slaves by killing Calvin Candie in the end. He was so overcome by his disgust for Candie’s racism that he just couldn’t help himself. After this climactic assassination, the last few moments where Django kills the rest of the white people in the movie and Calvin Candie’s “House Negro” (Samuel L. Jackson) seem like an afterthought. Django is given his moment only after Schultz has had his. The second white hero, Tarantino himself, delivers his version of victory, justice, and power to slaves by giving a happy ending to Django and Broomhilda.

This is the question I always have whenever filmmakers practice racism by appropriating stories from/inventing stories about POC: if this is a fantasy, if this is creative fiction, then why is racial oppression an inevitable and nonnegotiable reality? It seems the facts of white supremacy must remain true to life when any number of ridiculous things—a German bounty hunter disguising himself as a dentist, or a white woman writing the memoirs of Black maids—are unlimited in their fabrication. These fantasies are about good white people who grant some form of freedom to unusually talented characters of color, lending more attention to the Great Emancipator Complex than to well-developed and substantive roles for POC. As long as audiences are somewhat comforted by this, and equally entertained, one of the most gruesome tragedies in human history can be easily converted into a disgraceful and campy bloodbath. It is a filmmaker’s “right” to do so.

—DD

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4 thoughts on “Whiteness Unchained: When a National Shame Becomes Camp

  1. nope says:

    “In the US, there is no understanding in white consciousness of being dehumanized as chattel.”

    Maybe not for white men. Women have been historically dehumanized as chattel in pretty much every culture worldwide. In some places we still are.

    • This post is not about “every culture worldwide,” which is quite an expansive category on which to speak as an expert. Because I don’t care to entertain this kind of derailing, I will just say this post is specifically about the US and this is how I am specifically accountable. I will agree that white women have been denied rights, legally regarded as property to their husbands, and have experienced a variety of oppressions, including ableism, ageism, sexism, homophobia, etc.

      However.

      This is likely where our agreement ends: white women do not experience or understand racial oppression. Universalizing the idea that chattel slavery (a specific US institution) is something any female-identified person in the world can relate to makes it seem as if every woman has had identical experiences, which is not true. Women with white skin in the US were never forcibly removed from their homelands as disposable labor, they were never brutally separated from their partners and children to be shackled and sold as property at public markets, and, although they may have been the subjects of white male ownership, they were not racially constructed as less than human. They may have been sexually inferior to white men, but they were and are considered superior to any other gender from any other ethnic identity. That is a long and indisputable history in this country.

      I will never agree that the white woman sitting in her silk stockings on the porch of her wealthy white husband’s plantation knows, understands, and relates to the Black woman enslaved to pick her husband’s cotton and wipe her children’s asses. I can’t honestly agree that these women share the same struggle when their privileges and positions are powerfully different. The valid oppression of sexism does not enable white women to understand the oppression of racism–this is one part of the social fact of having white privilege. We (white folks) cannot speak for the pain and experiences of people of color. Female-identified or not, these experiences are not our own.

      –DD

  2. “Multiple comic spectacles are made of Black characters and the brutality of the violence they suffer…”

    Were we watching the same movie? It’s almost always the white characters who get the comical, bloody explosions of gore we’ve come to associate with Tarantino films. The examples are almost too numerous to cite, but in particular one of the faceless white guy/guard on the ground during the (first) massacre in Candie’s house stands out.

    He charges into the room and gets immediately cut down by Django. A firefight ensues with Django and some other nameless white guys taking cover and flinging mostly-blind pot shots at one another… nearly all of which somehow manage to hit that same white guy’s knee, kicking up ludicrous gouts of blood each time. Not just once, repeatedly, in a way that was definitely calculated for cometic effect.

    Not to mention that during that whole scene, white people are filling the “nameless, faceless mass of antagonists” role normally reserved for Indians or Mexicans in Western films. Which was the whole point, to cast a light on and deconstruct the racism inherent to the stock tropes of the Western-period film.

    But even more than that, this movie stands out for being one of the only Tarantino movies where violence is portrayed as a source of genuine horror; namely, every instance of violence that’s directed toward slaves rather than white people.

    The whipping of Hildy is presented in a grainy, gritty, handheld flashback, with a focus on her face and the pain and anguish she experiences — in stark contrast to the present-day execution of her tormentors, where one takes a comically long time to die (after being shot through a Bible page that covers his heart), complete with a post-asskicking one-liner from Django, and the other is whipped repeatedly, with the cinematic focus being on Django’s wrath as the whipped overseer cowers and grovels in a way in an exceedingly undignified way.

    The “Mandingo” fight proceeds in a similar way. Candie and his Italian friend/competitor watch on in amusement, but the fight itself is not staged in an amusing or entertaining way. Tarantino’s camera treats it as the brutal, ugly event that it is, rather than flashy or artful. And we know that he LIKES to do flashy and artful fights, so making this one ugly is clearly an artistic choice on his part.

    And then, finally, there’s the incident with D’Artagnan and the dogs. At the time when it occurs, it’s presented as being too horrific to even be seen. The focus of that scene is instead on Django’s crossing of the moral event horizon while playing his “black slaver” character — he knowingly allows D’Artagnan to die in order to keep the plan intact. Only later do we actually see what happened, as Schultz is so haunted by the horror of it that his breezy, easy-going façade finally collapses. And, again, the bits of flashback we see presented in a profoundly gritty and disturbing way. There’s blood and gore, but it’s realistic blood and gore, not the ludicrous blood fountains seen elsewhere in the movie.

    None of this invalidates the discussion about ownership of the slave experience, which is certainly a valid and important discussion. But I really do have to take issue with this aside, even though I realise it’s somewhat nitpicky on my part, as I feel it really does treat the movie unfairly and misses the point about what it’s trying to do.

    • Critics of this post and I were clearly not watching the same movie. That much is obvious. While I agree with you that Tarantino’s use of gore has a certain cartoonish quality, I think my point about the comic spectacles of Black characters and violence is the one being missed.

      First and foremost, I did not personally find the Black violence in the movie comic. I found it hugely problematic that comic spectacles were made of the Black violence, and by this I mean white characters always had clever remarks, witty monologues, or one-liners to deliver before a gruesome scene of Black violence unfolded. The lines were written to be amusing, but I did not respond to them in this way. And this point also referred to the fashion Django chooses to wear, which seemed like more of a punchline to me, confirmed by how most of the audience in the theater laughed at him when he emerged from the tailor.

      There is a difference between comedic violence and making comic spectacles of scenes of violence. I’m also not buying the argument that Tarantino was trying to accomplish something “profound” by making the slave violence in Django particularly graphic and brutal–especially when I consider the fact that violence against Jews did not get a similarly accurate portrayal in Inglorious Basterds. So I don’t think Tarantino deserves any award for selectively depicting graphic slave violence when he was restrained in his discreet depiction of Jewish violence in a movie about the Holocaust.

      –DD

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