Thursday, 24 January 2013

Obama, Tarantino and slavery

Time and again these men and women struggled and sacrificed and worked till their hands were raw so that we might live a better life. They saw America as bigger than the sum of our individual ambitions; greater than all the differences of birth or wealth or faction.

This is the journey we continue today. We remain the most prosperous, powerful nation on Earth. Our workers are no less productive than when this crisis began. Our minds are no less inventive, our goods and services no less needed than they were last week or last month or last year. Our capacity remains undiminished. But our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions - that time has surely passed. Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.

Barack Obama, Inauguration Speech 2013

It seemed kind of appropriate that I saw Quentin Tarantino’s latest film, Django Unchained, on the day that Barack Obama, the first black President of the United States, gave his inauguration address. There was much to enjoy in Obama’s speech and much to enjoy in Django Unchained. Let me mention a few of those things:

1. Samuel L. Jackson gives the performance of his career. Jackson plays an old slave, Stephen, who is fiercely loyal to his plantation owning master, Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). Stephen is repaid for his loyalty by having the ear of his master and access to the contents of his drinks cabinet. Jackson plays this attendant as a stereotype Uncle Tom figure, a kind of benign grandpa figure that you might find singing zipeedeedooda in another film genre. However, there is nothing benign about Stephen. He is a malevolent racist - spewing racial hatred and dehumanising his fellow slaves. He has styled himself as a black spokesman for white supremacy and the guardian of a vicious system of oppression. Jackson’s characterisation captures all the self-loathing and moral contradictions within this racist collaborator. It is a performance of psychological daring - one that is bristling with danger and menace. It leaves you open mouthed and deeply uncomfortable.

2. A superb musical soundtrack which exercises more than a background function. The meticulously chosen music provides a referential depth to the screen action. Tarantino has a magpie ear. He lifts music from other films and mixes musical genres with little regard for the historical context of the film - country, rap, soul, love ballads, classical are all to be found in Django Unchained. It’s a kind of postmodern game, mixing high and low culture in musical mash ups, but it works because you believe Tarantino loves the music he chooses. There is nothing philosophically arch about his choices. Tarantino layers musical references in order to arouse an audience’s aural imagination and complement the visual, storytelling experience. So, for example, the opening titles of Django Unchained are accompanied by the Luis Bacalov’s romantic theme song from the 1965 film melodrama, Django. In lyrical and musical terms it positions Tarantino’s contemporary take on the western revenge saga somewhere between the cinematic history of the western and a philosophical reflection on slavery.

3. Tarantino’s dialogue fizzes with energy and irreverence. Westerns usually have very little dialogue. Traditionally, the heroes of these movies are the big, strong, silent types. Characters in westerns talk with their Smith and Wessons. In Django Unchained the characters are wordy and lippy. There is a wonderful scene where a lynch mob on horseback argue about a design failure in the bags they are using to cover their faces – the eyes have been cut in such a way that it makes it impossible for them to see where they are going. Their comical exchange of views unmasks the horrific absurdity of their racist actions and their own moral blindness. Such sharpness and precision of writing is a thing of pleasure.

4. Tarantino's courage. Hollywood’s treatment of slavery can be rather worthy and tentative. For example, think of Stephen Spielberg’s The Color Purple and Amistad. To my mind, only Lars von Trier’s Manderley has succeeded in challenging the stock cinematic responses to slavery. The Guardian film critic, Peter Bradshaw, remarks that “Slavery is a subject on which modern Hollywood is traditionally nervous, a reticence amounting almost to a conspiracy of silence – except, of course, in the explicit context of abolition. As far as Hollywood is concerned, the day-to-day existence of unabolished slavery has been what welfare reformists call the live rail: don’t touch it.” Tarantino’s Django Unchained is not an historical account of American slavery. Django Unchained is a provocative, cinematic essay on the concept of slavery and how human flesh becomes currency. I admired Tarantino’s courage in tackling the issue.

After the duff, over blown, Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchained is Tarantino striding back into town and shooting from the hip. The geek director offers us a slave trade spaghetti western interbred with a Jacobean revenge drama. There are longeurs, contrived plot moments (including one with the director doing an Alfred Hitchcock – don’t give up the day job, Mr Tarantino) and moments when ideas aren’t pulled off. Yet, Django Unchained remains bravura film making. It’s not for those with weak constitutions, but it is for those who want to see an important film director back on form and with fire in his belly.

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