Django Unchained – My Review

There are many things I enjoyed about this film. All the performances were excellent, my personal favorite being Samuel L. Jackson’s, who played an intense bastard of an Uncle Tom. The dialogue was sharp and funny, particularly that of Christoph Waltz’s character and one hilarious scene about proto-Klansmen fussing with their hoods. Tarantino was also brilliant with his use of violence, making the brutality against the white slaveholders satisfying to the audience while the similarly graphic pain inflicted on the protagonists and the innocent sickening and upsetting. However, I have a few issues with the story of DJANGO UNCHAINED. In order to explain what I mean by this, there will be spoilers. So, SPOILER ALERT

In DJANGO UNCHAINED, our hero Django (Jamie Foxx) is purchased by bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) for the purpose of identifying his former owners, The Brittle Brothers, who are wanted criminals. Schultz agrees to free Django after finding and killing the Brittle Brothers; he keeps his word and, at this point, Schultz offers to teach Django to be a bounty hunter. Django agrees to work together over the winter, after which Schultz will help Django find his wife Broomhilda, who’s still a slave. After finding the plantation where she is being held, Schultz and Django con the plantation owner Calvin Candie into selling them Broomhilda. Their rouse is discovered and a bloodbath ensues where both Schultz and Candie are killed. Django surrenders and is sold back into slavery, only to trick his new white slavers into untying him, allowing him to kill them and head back to the plantation. He rescues his wife and blows up the plantation’s main house after shooting the white residents and severely injuring Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson). Django and Broomhilda ride off together, happy to be reunited and free.

Now, before I continue, I want you to think about KILL BILL and INGLORIOUS BASTERDS for a moment. Imagine that KILL BILL had been the story of Beatrix Kiddo being found by a kindly assassin right after she’d come out of the coma caused by the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad’s vicious assault, when she was at her most weak and emotional. Imagine that this man trained her and helped her find those who’d hurt her, so that she could become a bad ass by the end of the film and kill Bill. Or imagine that INGLORIOUS BASTERDS had included the story of Shoshana (the Jewish French movie theater owner) as that of a child found by an undercover American agent right after she’d escaped the Nazis who murdered her family, when she was terrified and alone. Imagine that this man trained her and helped her keep an eye on Nazi activity, so that she learned to out-think the Nazis and successfully trapped and killed Hitler at the end of the film.

Basically, imagine that these horrifically wounded characters had to be saved and transformed into strong people by an outsider before the idea of taking a stand against their enemies even occurred to them.

That, right there, is my biggest issue with DJANGO UNCHAINED, both because I think it makes for a weak revenge story and because I think it’s (at best) patronizing to black people.

See, to me, the main reason revenge stories are enjoyable is because we like seeing those who’ve been tortured and humiliated rise up in spite of (or because of) this abuse to brutally defeat their antagonists. We like seeing power taken away from someone who doesn’t deserve it (i.e. Bill, Hitler) by someone who does (i.e. Beatrix Kiddo, Shoshana, the Basterds). So, when you introduce an outsider (i.e. Schultz) who has to train and encourage the persecuted main character (i.e. Django) to take action against their oppressors, you weaken both the protagonist’s motivation and lessen the injuries they’ve suffered. This makes for a less compelling story.

I especially find it disconcerting that Tarantino chose this plot for a black character, as it reinforces our cultural narrative that the systemic oppression of black Americans ceased only because peaceful civil disobedience made white Americans see the error of their ways. While it’s of course true that the tactics of Martin Luther King Jr were incredibly important to the success of the Civil Rights movement of the ’50s and ’60s, this version of events completely ignores all the instances in our history where black Americans stood up and demanded to be treated like human beings, whether it was in the form of slave rebellions or the Black Panther party. By omitting these aspects of our history, we take away the agency of black Americans and perpetuate the idea that they were given basic human rights only because white people allowed it. This ideology helps define black people as lesser beings who need white people, which contributes to both the passive and overt racism that black Americans face today.

To me, a better story would have been a fictionalized retelling of a slave rebellion (like the Nat Turner Rebellion), both because it would be compelling in the same way as KILL BILL and INGLORIOUS BASTERDS were and because it would work against this destructive cultural narrative. Imagine watching a group of downtrodden, abused slaves organize and rise up to exact bloody vengeance against their cruel owners. It would’ve been glorious and, in the Tarantino universe, a successful slave rebellion could’ve inspired others around the country and ended up being what started the Civil War. How bad ass would that have been?

Instead, DJANGO UNCHAINED felt like a missed opportunity, despite its great performances and dialogue.

Don’t Call My Comic Book A Graphic Novel

Let me lay down a scenario for you:

One day a friend and I were having a drink in a public space (a novel idea!) when the word “Watchmen” caught my attention. A man in his mid thirties was speaking to a small group of people behind us, specifically a young woman. It was about the time the movie was released and he was describing having seen it. The young woman at one point said, “Wasn’t that a comic?” to which he responded, “No, it was a a graphic novel.”

It took every ounce of self control to not get up and stab the man in the throat for his arrogant utterances. You see, The Watchmen was a comic book. It was released monthly by DC comics.

The difference you ask? In the industry there is no such thing as a graphic novel. The industry terms are serial (monthly release), one-shots, trade paperbacks (individual issues collected into a book-like Watchmen or The Dark Knight), omnibuses (which were originally large collections that contained everything printed, including one-shots and such), and OGN’s or Original Graphic Novel. An OGN refers to a work that has never been printed in any other form. Think Blankets by Craig Thompson. No, Ghost World is not an OGN and neither is Sandman. They were serials. Comics. Yes, you read a comic you pretentious prick.

At the end of the day they are all comics. So What’s the harm in using the term “graphic novel” you ask?

You have to think about why you are using it. The harm is that people use it to distance themselves from comics while perceiving themselves to sound more intelligent.  In this country there is this weird stigma that art and words have to be kept separate. A painting: intellectual. A novel or poetry: intellectual. Put them together: for children. In my mind it opens up a whole new world of possibilities and removes boundaries of the imagination. The story telling methods become endless! Yet, even today comic books are viewed as a waste of time, lacking intellectual merit, and mainly made for children. The truth is far from that, as any comic fan would know, and it isn’t secluded to such media recognized titles as Maus.

Unknown Soldier by Joshua Dysart is set against the realistically depicted backdrop of modern day Uganda and all the politics and humanity issues one could ask for. 100 Bullets by Brian Azzarello has a brief but incredibly powerful scene that so perfectly delves into the psyche of a rape survivor while giving her a clear voice (seriously, how often does that happen when it isn’t a revenge fantasy? Has it ever?).  Superman: Peace on Earth by Paul Dini and Alex Ross has the man of steel trying to solve ALL of the world’s problems and learning that he can’t and must simply lead by example.

Intellectual?

You bet your ass. Good writing is good writing, no matter what form it takes. So proudly pick up an issue of Hellboy and announce to the world “Yeah I’m reading a comic, and it’s damn good too!”

Bridesmaids

I’ve never been a huge fan of Apatow Productions. This is not to say that I have anything against their movies, just that, with the exception of Superbad, the humor doesn’t resonate with me. However, Kate Beaton gave Bridesmaids a very positive review on her Twitter feed and many others have been calling it the female counterpart to The Hangover. This idea intrigued me, not to mention the fact that all the main characters were women and the script was written by two women. I had high hopes.

I must admit, I was disappointed. Despite some hilarious sequences (in particular, the one on the airplane and the one where Annie, the leading lady, tries to get Officer Rhodes’ attention), its overall quality made me wish I’d downloaded it instead of paying for a ticket.

The main thing that made this movie fail for me was how predictable the female relationships were. Annie’s antagonist was the bride-to-be’s new best friend Helen. They spent most of the movie competing with each other because, hey, that’s what women do, right? The portrayal of every main characters’ sexuality was equally boring: Annie compulsively had unfulfilling sex with a “hot” jerk because she was afraid of being single. Supporting characters Becca and Rita each had husbands who they didn’t enjoy sleeping with (due to inexperience and lack of communication in one case and rape in the other). In fact, the only character who actively enjoyed and sought out sex was Megan, the fat comic relief who was allowed to become a bridesmaid only because she was the groom-to-be’s sister.

The unfortunate reality is that this interpretation of female relationships and sexuality is the mainstream, so I’ve come to expect it from most movies. I was hoping this one would be different, like Waitress or Mean Girls or Whip It, but instead it was a well-crafted comedy that failed to accomplish anything of interest.