A Guide to Black Cinema – Part 3: Django still chained?





A Guide to Black Cinema – Volume Three: Django Still Chained?


“Gentleman, you had my curiosity. But now you have my attention.”



There is no way around the fact that Quentin Tarantino’s 2012 western, Django Unchained, is an impeccably entertaining film. For those who haven’t seen it, the movie follows a Black slave in the American Deep South who is freed and embarks on a mission to save his enslaved wife. The blockbuster is energetic and explosive; it is stylish and cool; it is violently fantastical, headlining a revenge plot that gets more and more delicious the deeper the plot thickens. For me, it was a 10 out of 10. A gold star. But upon rewatch, the movie has genuinely left me feeling… empty.


I like the majority of Tarantino’s filmography, primarily for his distinctive style, finesse and, lets face it, remarkable eye for capturing cinematic nostalgia and repurposing it for the modern day through sleek visuals and snappy dialogue. But, for all this white man’s ups, there are evidently downs. Like, let’s see… oh yes, his obsessively repetitive use and violation of the N word throughout his filmography.


Aside from the F-bomb, Tarantino’s most commonly documented, scripted curse word is the heinously offensive N word, coming in at around 200 uses within his movies. It also doesn’t help that for the majority of time, whenever the word is used onscreen in these films, Tarantino is the one saying it (case in point, watch The Bonnie Situation segment in 1994’s Pulp Fiction where Tarantino uses the word four times in under a minute).


So maybe, just maybe, the white director with an obsession around the N word, no matter how fun and entertaining a director he is, shouldn’t be the one producing a Black western revenge movie.


It is a common problem found in moviemaking and general storytelling that Black stories are being told primarily from the voice and perspective of white creators as opposed to people of colour. Although the results, like movies The Help, The Blind Side, Green Book and, yes, Django Unchained, may seem on surface level inviting, challenging and progressive in nature, they actually offer more damaging portrayals of the Black experience than you may have initially thought. Despite their advocacy for equality and unity in our interracial communities, these movies actively sideline and detract from more deserving, in-depth films created and constructed within the Black experience by P.O.C. communities. White directors and writers producing films commentating on Civil Rights, racism and P.O.C. experiences may act on good intentions, but their films feed this Matrix-like notion that equality and unity can be achieved in a two-hour feel-good movie where the white characters learn to embrace their Black neighbour against all odds. These harmful cinematic depictions only continue to drive home the commodification of the Black experience, the appropriation of it for a Hollywood production, the tokenism it then reinstates of P.O.C. people and their culture, and the willing consumption of it all by western audiences as just another product.


So why specifically is it all so harmful?


Well, whenever a white storyteller dips their toes into the realm of Black stories, histories and experiences, the results are always primarily the same. These, let’s call them “white-on-Black movies”, exclusively tell their narrative through the perspective of a white protagonist which only goes to propel the insulting notion that Black stories can only be relatable to a widespread western audience if told through a white perspective.


Let’s look at 2011’s The Help as a prime example of a white-on-Black movie for which depicts the escalating tensions between suburban white communities and their Black maids and nannies during the American Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Although the film centres around notable Black issues in a time crucial to Black voices, it chooses to explore this time and place in history through the lens of a white woman as opposed to the film’s depicted Black women. In doing this, The Help pays upsetting homage to the white saviour trope that has clouded the Black experience in media for years.


The white saviour trope is a trope depicted in cinema that bares roots all the way back to the early days of European Imperialism where white colonisation was considered a liberation for indigenous cultures and communities to become more “civilised” in terms of western standards (yuck, hated saying that). The debris of this mindset is seen bubbling to the surface of modern white storytelling where a standard white protagonist is seen as the hero and saviour of a story obtaining a primarily Black cast.


1962’s To Kill a Mockingbird popularised this trope by displaying Caucasian lawyer, Atticus Finch, as the strong-willed, ruthless hero in a story involving the wrongful conviction of a Black man in the 1930s. Although the film was revolutionary and admirable for its time, the movie fetishized the white saviour trope, fuelling the idea Black or P.O.C. people need saving from white people by white people.


The white saviour trope still to this day lives on in countless white-on-Black movies, continuing to prioritise white stories and perspectives over the sidelined voices of Black people. Not only does the trope sideline these voices, but also it belittles them and minimises their impact on the story to the point these Black characters can’t even be considered literary characters in the traditional sense. The Black characters of these movies have little to no character development and no real story or hero arc. Rather, P.O.C. characters are shrunk down to their negative experiences, made to feel pity for by audiences or even to work as a tool to propel the development of the movie’s white protagonists.


Case in point, 2009’s The Blind Side which sees Caucasian parents adopting a young Black man and building his confidence to become a football star. The movie favours the story of the parents and their hardships around inviting a Black man into their lives, rather than the story of the Black man and his hardships about entering a white community to pursue his dreams and talents. The P.O.C. character doesn’t exist in the movie as its starring protagonist but rather as a sad, almost pathetic side character whose development purely benefits the more central growth of the white parental protagonists. The movie depicts the P.O.C. character as if he had never even experienced happiness or pleasantries before being embraced into this white family, hence focusing in on illustrating his weaknesses and need for liberation. This then creates set up for the story to centrally dial in on the white parents whose life is seen to change due to the progressiveness they are showing in their life, their community and to this Black boy by saving him from a dark future. Not once does the movie find its inciting drama from the Black character facing scrutiny, but instead from the parents facing scrutiny for being involved with the Black character. You see, the white saviour trope is damaging as, in its exhaustive bindings to white guilt, it perhaps unknowingly but problematically depicts white people and their own brushes with inequality to being just as much victimised by racism as P.O.C. communities.


And how do these white-on-Black movies get regularly received? With amassed applause, universal acclaim and accolades upon accolades upon accolades. For her role in The Blind Side, Sandra Bullock won Best Actress at the Academy Awards, never mind the fact African-American actress, Gabourey Sidibe, was up for the exact same award for her performance in the Black directed and Black written film, Precious, that same year. These white-on-Black movies are not only damaging in a narrative sense, but also just in general representation.


Awards are a big deal in Hollywood; they offer a platform to artists, give their work recognition and even kickstart careers. So, when awards as big as the Academy sidestep films from Black voices about Black issues to instead reward films from a white voice about Black issues, that is what continues to instigate the issue of misrepresentation in modern media.


I think the final straw for me in this instance was when in 2019, at the 91st Academy Awards, Best Picture didn’t go to Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman or Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther, but to Peter Farrelly’s Green Book. Now Green Book may be a film about a homosexual Black man pursuing a music career in the Deep South, but it’s told from the perspective of his white saviour driver, denies a richer, heartier look at the deep-rooted issues of racism in America, includes sequences of the Black character having his culture explained to him by the white character and even concludes with the most pathetic attempt to be inclusive with the white family inviting the Black character over for dinner. Green Book will honestly have its audience believe that racism can just be solved in a two-hour film. The movie is just so absurd in its depictions of Black America and lacks any of the layers displayed in its oppositions, BlacKkKlansman and Black Panther. And, of course, its all because it was made purely by white dudes (seriously, look up the clip at the Oscars when Green Book won and count the amount of Black people you can actually see collecting the award onstage).


So, let’s tie this all back to Django. Looking beyond the movie’s entertainment value, what is it not offering that equates to such an empty feeling it leaves in its viewers? Well, first off it is a white-on-Black movie, but secondly would it be wrong to assume that it’s because of these movies that an avid Caucasian film buff like Tarantino, who’s only ever been taught to consume white media, can only produce a shallow depiction of Black narratives because he has only ever witnessed these narratives through white creators and consumers? Is this all just the snake eating its own tail?


See, we can only ever learn and draw inspiration from the media that is prioritised to us. If all we watch is movies like The Help, The Blind Side or Green Book then we are not opening are minds enough to be inclusive and entertained by the stories and creators that better deserves our attention. We must learn to disavow that for which we are trapped in, educate ourselves on what else is out there and listen to the voices that have called to us for decades. I am not at all saying you cannot sit and enjoy a movie like Django (I mean, I do), but you have to understand that, if that’s all you watch, then you will never find substance in the eye of the beholder.


Solution? For every Django you watch, watch a The Harder They Fall (a stylised hyper-violent Black western revenge movie actually told by Black storytellers in 2019), because, you see, takeout pizza may be yummy, but it leaves you somewhat empty and not full. Opposingly though, nothing will ever beat the authentic taste of a homecooked Italian Margherita.



Read Nahum’s other columns HERE.



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  1. Tony Taylor says

    My favourite QT film.

  2. Another excellent essay Nahum, spot on.

    I started to get uneasy with QT around Kill Bill and by Django I had seen him for what he is, an exploitative control freak with no moral awareness. I continued to watch his films (up until Hollywood) to check my sense of him and each time the same finding comes to me, that he is a grubbly little teenager who wants to see gore for the sake of it. So he wraps it up in a “meaningful” story as if that hides what he is really doing, finding another way to be cruel, I mean film cruel acts. Of course he has an incredible eye for capturing narratives in a highly visual way and an incredible ear for dialogue and that is what propels his stories. But the films are as shallow as fuck. That might be okay in Pulp Fiction (because you know, it’s taking on the pulp fiction genre) but then he gets sociological. And, as in Django, by framing his story through a slave narrative revenge he thinks he gets to demonstrate a social conscience. But as you have noted, he doesn’t give a damn about meaning. His copious use of the N word, across his films, I suspect, is because he wants to and no one is going to stop him. Exploitative, to the nth degree. He ripped off a great Hong Kong movie, City on Fire, to make Reservoir Dogs.

  3. John Harms says

    Thanks Nahum. It’s interesting, and sad, that those of us at high school in the `70s, and interested in ideas, were never introduced to these understandings and hence were unaware, and caught inside the stereotypes. How things have changed – for me thanks to university study – as textual analysis revealed the power contained in language, and pointed to those who were advantaged by stereotypical understandings, and those who suffered at the hands of it.

    I look forward to your next column.

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