In 1915, director D.W. Griffith released “Birth of a Nation” to wide acclaim, creating many of the techniques still used by filmmakers today. His lush, three-hour epic is still considered a great film despite its unquestionable racism, most specifically in the scene where the heroic KKK members ride to the rescue of an innocent white woman about to raped by a grotesque, evil black man.
Today we have another masterful three-hour film in answer to Griffith’s “Nation” - Quentin Tarantino's "Django Unchained." Ironically this film has the same plot. A heroic black man rides to the rescue of an innocent black woman about to be raped by evil and grotesque white men. It is a film that is both exhilarating and uncomfortable to watch. There were several instances I looked across the theater at a predominantly white audience and felt a tension in the theater I had never felt before.
"Django Unchained" will likely be the most successful Blaxploitation film ever made. Judging by its enormous box office success on Christmas Day, it could also be Tarantino’s biggest hit. In an era where the most well known black figure in cinema is a tall black man in drag, there is suddenly a black hero with mainstream appeal. One who will not meekly sit at the back of a bus or tolerate hatred by marching peacefully. And his coming has been heralded with thunderous applause.
What does “Django Unchained” mean for America?
The impact of “Nation” was that it was used as a recruiting tool for the KKK. It demonized the idea of interracial marriage and the concept of black voting. It slandered the abolitionist while blaring the warning of “The black threat.” Griffith portrayed white former Union and Confederate soldiers, as new allies under the white hood. Near the climax of the film, a title states, "The former enemies of North and South are united again in defense of their Aryan birthright."
When "Nation" was shown at the White House, President Woodrow Wilson infamously said the film was “like writing history with lightning. And my only regret is that it is all so terribly true." The fallout for "Nation" has affected our culture both artistically and politically for almost a hundred years. It was an insult to people of color.
“What is Django's" impact? I ask again. This is not a film that will simply have its day and pass silently into the night. Tarantino is going to have the Tyler Perry crowds lining up in droves, in addition to a large white audience. There will almost definitely be rip offs if not a sequel. What will they entail? A higher white body count? More soundtracks with the lyrics, “Respect me nigga,” as more black men go on the rampage, blasting their enemies with bullets?
When Django, played by Jamie Foxx, shot a white female slave owner in cold blood there were groans and then cheers in the audience. As I listened to the applause at the credits, I asked myself, “What are these people applauding for? Do they know?” Is it because the underdog has suddenly shown his fangs? Is it because of white guilt? Would they clap so loudly if this film had been directed by Spike Lee?
The intellectual would be able to boil down this film. The real villain here is not the gleefully malignant Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), but the “Uncle Tom” character Stephen played by Samuel L Jackson. Stephen, though a slave, clearly pulls the strings at Candie’s plantation. He is proud of his position. He realizes Django’s quest to save his wife and is determined to stop him. The sight of Django on a horse infuriates Stephen. He looks at Django as an upstart; a threat to the white race, who must be destroyed. Upon deconstruction, "Django Unchained" is not as much about black vengeance as it is about the ability of all of us, regardless of race, to discriminate indiscriminately. But most of Tarantino’s fan base will not dig so deep.
To the naive viewer, this film may only seem to be an attack on the white race. I remind you, Tarantino is white. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone kill hundreds of white men in their movies, and no one bats an eye. Is this any different? I invite all of you to draw your own conclusions, but ask that you watch Tarantino’s new film responsibly. Love it or hate it, it’s not going to go away.