(Doubly Belated Post on) Slavery, Violence, and Cinema

Caveat No. 1: The link-bating wossisname that I am, this article isn’t actually about 12 Years a Slave, in spite of the image at the top. Sneaky. (For more on this, see below.)

Caveat No. 2: I know I haven’t written anything here for ages (there is a book to come in 2014 that explains some of that), so I thought I’d add this — of which I was reminded because of the publicity around 12 Years a Slave. Which I really must go and see.

Caveat No. 3: The following piece was written this time last year, in the wake of the release of another highly-publicised cinematic slave narrative, which chimed rather ghoulishly with yet another spate of gun violence in the US.

(So basically, there is absolutely nothing topical in this post, which was triggered by a film that’s been out 2 weeks and is about one that’s a year older. Um. Sorry about that. There is something bizarrely and horribly fitting, though, about publishing an article on this subject in the week that this story breaks.)

Django Unchained, Violence, and Physicality

django sunglasses

A paradox of violence sits at the centre of 21st-century society: at the same time as the world of experts and critics dismissively ‘peers over its glasses at the study of film or television’ these very media outlets are being blamed for escalations in real-life violence. Indeed, the US NRA (National Rifle Association) responded to the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT, in late 2012 with yet another castigation of the contributions of the media to violence in contemporary society.

Into this paradoxical situation, Quentin Tarantino released his most recent film: Django Unchained (2012, www.imdb.com/title/tt1853728) contains the cartoonish violence and gore characteristic of the auteur’s oeuvre, which he has previously described in interview as, in his opinion, ‘the biggest attraction’ in cinema. It is unsurprising, then, that the director’s films have often attracted criticism for their scenes of graphic violence: Reservoir Dogs (1992, www.imdb.com/title/tt0105236) left one contemporary reviewer ‘sickened by the coldness of [its] visual cruelty’; after Pulp Fiction (1994, www.imdb.com/title/tt0110912), the director was described as coming across like ‘someone […] scrambling for any way to offend sensibilities’; and Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003, www.imdb.com/title/tt0266697) was said to inflict ‘intolerable cruelty on its characters, and on its audience’.

Given that the director’s work has been in the main critically and commercially well-received, however, such reviewers have been in the minority — and Tarantino appears to have been largely unaffected. Yet, in the run-up to the 2012 film awards season, an interviewer’s questions about the violence in Django Unchained prompted a surprisingly angry reaction. Why is this? Is there anything demonstrably different about Django Unchained that warrants such a response? And how might such differences influence wider debates about cinematic – and real-life – bloodshed?

Rather than being simply a vehicle for lashings of red paint, spattered sets, and acerbic one-liners from John Travolta (Pulp Fiction) or Uma Thurman (Kill Bill: Vol. 1; Kill Bill: Vol. 2, 2004, www.imdb.com/title/tt0378194), Django Unchained is a revisionist period piece about the ante-bellum southern United States. Like Tarantino’s previous film, Inglourious Basterds (2009, www.imdb.com/title/tt0361748), which focused on the Nazi Party’s oppression of Jews in Occupied France, Django Unchained aims to re-tell a more-or-less familiar strand of history from the point of view of the oppressed minority: in this case, enslaved African Americans. And in doing so, in both these films, Tarantino empowers the victim: the deliberately implausible and unrealistic ending of Inglourious Basterds, in which Hitler and his adjutants are shot and then burnt in an explosion engineered by a Jewish Frenchwoman in mid 1944, is echoed in the similarly ridiculous pyrotechnic denouement of Django Unchained, which climaxes in Django, a freed slave, dynamiting the main house of a slave plantation, having killed all the white occupants and left for dead the black apologist head house slave, a position described by the straight-talking lead character as ‘pretty f***ing low’.

As is clear from this description, Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained do not mark a move away from Tarantino’s roots in cinematographic violence. On the contrary: they are, if anything, more graphically violent than the director’s early cinematic work, and highlight his fascination with the inscription of pain onto the bodies of others. The protagonist of Inglourious Basterds, an American marine with a particular hatred of Nazis, leads a band of killers – the eponymous ‘Basterds’ – who roam Occupied France enacting a simple but brutal motto: ‘We ain’t in the prisoner takin’ business. We in the killin’ Nazi business.’

Aldo the Apache – named for his native-American heritage, but also to explain his love of removing the scalps of his victims and displaying them as trophies – nevertheless frees a few of his captives; he only does so, however, having ‘give[n them] a little somethin’’ that, unlike a Nazi uniform, they ‘can’t take off’: he carves a swastika into each freed prisoner’s forehead with a knife. There is an echo here of the forced tattooing of prisoners at Auschwitz in the 1940s, in which the imprisoned body was mutilated – not just written on, but written into – for the purposes of identification after death.

In the past, Tarantino has exhibited a fascination with bodily mutilation: in an infamous scene from the early film Reservoir Dogs, one character is tied to a chair by his torturer, and has his ear sliced off. Inglourious Basterds, however, sees this fixation on the idea of marking another’s body taken to new heights: Aldo’s torture is not simply designed to pain the other, but to write a message in the skin.

This linking of inscription and semantics continues in Django Unchained, as Django and his wife, while still slaves, are literally branded as runaways, with a small lower-case ‘r’. The viewer is shown the marking of Django’s wife, as a flashback focuses on Broomhilda’s torso being held in place while a red-hot branding iron moves towards her face; as if to implicate the viewer in the injustice being marked onto this human body, the glowing metal ‘r’ appears to be pushed towards Broomhilda’s face from directly behind the camera, as if the person doing the mutilating and the viewer of the film are one and the same.

Broomhilda (the name, a corruption of the German ‘Brünnhilde’, is given by the slave’s German first owners, and the association with the Brünnhilde of Teutonic legend – a warrior princess imprisoned by her father and rescued by her lover – encourages the poetically-minded German Dr King Schultz to accompany Django in his quest to free his wife) is the site of another foregrounded example of bodily scarring. Early in the film, we are shown Broomhilda being whipped by a white overseer; later, we see her scars when her ‘tore up’ back is exposed for inspection by the voyeuristic slave-owner Calvin Candie. This calls to mind a similar black, female fictional character: Sethe, the protagonist of Toni Morrison’s novel Belovedhas endured a whipping that leaves her back a mass of scars like ‘a tree […] in bloom’; Sethe’s slave-owner told one of his men to ‘open up [her] back, and when it closed it made a tree. It grows there still’ (1987, 93, 20). Sethe’s ‘tree’ is a symbol of both the injustice of slavery and the potential for re-growth — Morrison refers to trees at several points in Beloved to emphasise ideas of survival and regeneration.

The two most graphic examples of violence in Django Unchained are not actually perpetrated by white people, however, but carried out by proxy: a slave is torn apart by dogs on the orders of Candie, for attempting to run away from the ‘Candyland’ plantation; and two slaves fight to the death, bare-fisted, in one of Candie’s ‘mandingo fights’. (A prominent historian of the period, Edna Greene Medford, has stated she has ‘never encountered something like [Mandingo fighting]’, and that such a practice – willfully damaging slaves – would be counter-intuitive in a society in which slaves were viewed as property. [Ed.: not the first time in history that oppressors have done something apparently ‘counter-intuitive’ for the purposes of asserting their authority and dominance, though?] It is likely, then, that Tarantino’s inspiration for this ‘sport’ was the ‘blaxploitation’ movie Mandingo [1975, www.imdb.com/title/tt0073349], featuring graphic slave-on-slave violence, for which the director-and-film-buff has previously professed an admiration.)

That these two episodes of violence against the black body are not directly inflicted by white characters seems to add to their horror. The awful arrogance of having dominion over another’s body extends beyond physical intimidation and into a mental terrorization: this is the psychological domination that forces two men to fight, desperately, to the death, and also which says ‘you are so inferior to me that I don’t even propose to punish you physically myself, but to simply expose you to the excesses of my dogs’. Elaine Scarry’s theorisation of torture and the human body in The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World explains the use of an ‘agent’ (although in Django Unchained this is first another human and then a hungry dog, Scarry asserts that the ‘simplest level [of agent] is the weapon’): ‘[w]hat assists the conversion of absolute pain into the fiction of absolute power is an obsessive, self-conscious display of agency’ (1985, 27). The ‘self-conscious display[s] of agency’ in Django Unchained underline ‘the fiction of absolute power’ at the heart of slavery.

It is the horrific episode of canine mauling that indirectly triggers the climactic bloodbath at ‘Candyland’. Candie outwits Django and Schultz in their quest for Broomhilda, and only agrees to release her at vast expense; Schultz, while Broomhilda’s paperwork is being signed, fumes over the injustice of the situation, and has flashbacks to the tearing apart of the slave, earlier in the film. These grisly flashes are accompanied by Beethoven’s ‘Für Elise’, which a viewer assumes at first is a post-production soundtrack; it is only when the camera moves away from Schultz’s face that we learn that this epitome of classical, artistic beauty is being played on the harp in Candie’s front room. Schultz, enraged by this juxtaposition of murderous brutality and his own beloved German culture, antagonises Candie, in a scene which ends in Schultz shooting Candie, Candie’s bodyguard killing Schultz, and Django gunning down almost everyone in sight: over two hours into the film, here is the expected Tarantino bloodbath. (There is a beautiful inter-film dramatic irony, here, as the actor Christoph Waltz, protagonist in Tarantino’s two most recent films, plays both the Nazi officer who is the recipient of Aldo’s final swastika inscription in Inglourious Basterds, and also the quasi-abolitionist who enacts vengeance on the slave-owning villain of Django Unchained.)

Like the slow crescendo as the film builds up to this moment of fake-blood-spattering madness, Tarantino’s career has been moving towards this point: it is as if the gore of Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, and the Kill Bill franchise has finally been placed in a socially important context. Tarantino has served an apprenticeship of cinematic violence, and is now putting that violence to good use in exploring culturally and historically significant narratives. (This is not to say his awareness of weighty racial issues has come out of the blue. Sixteen years ago, a character in Jackie Brown [1997, www.imdb.com/title/tt0119396] – in another piece of prescient Tarantino casting, played by Samuel L. Jackson, the head house slave in Django Unchained – opens the door for the considerations of slavery and violence in the later film when he bluntly asks the following, of another black man: ‘Who’s that big, Mandingo-looking n***er?’)

All this is a round-about way of getting to my final point about the relationship between cinematic and social violence, of which Tarantino is an excellent example. If the violence of his early films is an apprenticeship for his later work – which forces us to re-think attitudes towards other races – then violence in cinema can be used as a way of comprehending ‘man’s inhumanity to man’. This, then, is one explanation for the director’s explosive anger at criticism of violence in this film: he was angry because the violence is justified by the debates about slavery, race, and the body opened up by Django Unchained. And far from being a troubling contributing factor to contemporary violence in the world, such debates enable a greater understanding of the ideological frameworks behind real-life violence.


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