Friday 30 September 2016

James Dempsey: Quentin Tarantino looks unflinchingly at the ugly history of the American south

Published 19/01/2013 | 10:30

Quentin Tarantino says this year's Venice Film Festival line-up is 'eclectic'
Quentin Tarantino says this year's Venice Film Festival line-up is 'eclectic'

IS brushing aside the claims of racism in Django Unchained simply letting Quentin Tarantino off the hook?

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That’s what African-American filmmaker Spike Lee would have you believe, after very publically boycotting the film in his on-going and mutually antagonistic spat with mainstream cinema’s favourite beatnik.

From the outset, it’s hard to see where Lee is coming from. Django is the story of a slave freed from the shackles of servitude, who becomes a gun-wielding bounty hunter dishing out righteous vengeance against his former owners. Surely the very essence of the film is the redemptive struggle to break free from slavery?

Not so, says Lee, probably the most pre-eminent African-American director of his time. He has gone so far as to say that seeing the film would be disrespectful to his ancestors, and taken serious umbrage at Tarantino’s cultural sensitivities in applying a Spaghetti Western aesthetic of fetishised violence and vibrant colour schemes to a period of history he likens to an “American Holocaust”.

However, by steadfastly refusing to even see the film, Lee’s comments and criticisms have only focussed on the most superficial of factors, based on preconceived prejudices towards Tarantino, and what he has gleaned from the trailer. Namely, the use of the N-word.

Tarantino has never shied away from using this most provocative of racial epithets, famously incurring the wrath of civil rights’ leaders for the 38 times it appears in Jackie Brown.

Django Unchained, considering the film deals directly with a time when African-Americans were essentially livestock, unsurprisingly ups the ante, bringing this number to 110. Those who find Tarantino’s language colourfully cavalier in the first 10 minutes may well struggle to remain indignant in the two and a half hours that follow.

And it should be noted that The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a bona fide classic of American literature, see the N-word used 213 times.

No, by boycotting this film, Spike Lee has missed out on something truly enthralling. For with Django Unchained, despite an ill-advised cameo with antipodean accent, Tarantino has delivered an intelligent and blisteringly blunt drama, and should be heavily praised for his revolutionary take on the old west.

The film is set two years before the civil war, and is rich in its evocation of antebellum antiquity and its damning portrayal of the lifestyles of the wealthy and amoral. The villains, played with the trademark zinging dialogue we’ve come to expect as a matter of course in a Tarantino flick, are southern gentlemen by name only, smooth characters ready to explode as spitting sadists in the blink of an eye.

The true hero of the piece is Christoph Waltz’s Dr. King Schultz, whose interest in Django begins as professional, but over time develops into a fraternal bond of mutual respect. That Tarantino chooses to make heroes of the black slave and the European immigrant should go some way to revealing his thoughts on white-American attitudes towards the history of the United States.

In a sense, Tarantino has deconstructed perhaps the most iconic image of American culture, the cowboy, that mythical idol of frontier possibility, and tied him indelibly to the most infamous image of American history, the slave.

By forcing contemporary audiences – and for a modern R-rated Western, Django Unchained has been a massive hit, particularly with African-American audiences – to look unflinchingly at the dark and ugly history of the American south, Tarantino has created a cinematic hero of unforgettable impact.

Follow James: @jim_on_a_whim

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