Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Erin Aubry Kaplan: 'Django' an unsettling experience for many blacks

'Django' an unsettling experience for many blacks
by Erin Aubry Kaplan
LA Times

Quentin Tarantino's slave-era spaghetti western has some questioning the propriety of using a still-festering period of U.S. history as a platform for a bloody, profanely comic pop entertainment.

Tracey White's initial impression of "Django Unchained," Quentin Tarantino's new slave-era shoot-'em-up extravaganza, could be summed up in three words: smart, funny and ugly. Sitting through a recent screening in Beverly Hills, the L.A. costume designer was mostly absorbed and found herself laughing aloud at particularly outrageous moments.

But White, who is black, said her feelings evolved significantly. Two days after reflecting on the matter of slavery and Tarantino's treatment, she pronounced the movie mostly ugly.

"He [Tarantino] gets a good product out of it in terms of wit and a visual look," said White. "But when it was over I found myself wondering, 'What is he trying to do?' I enjoyed the movie when I was in there, but I still have a problem with Tarantino when he deals with our race."

White will certainly not be alone among African Americans in her ambivalence about the gleefully outrageous film. While "Django" has nabbed almost uniformly warm reviews and four NAACP Image Award nominations (including for best picture), the fact is that it is an extremely Hollywood-ized vision of a critical black American experience.

Some blacks are already calling the revenge-fantasy movie, especially its graphic and highly stylized violence, insensitive, exploitative and ahistorical. Filmmaker Spike Lee, a longtime critic of Tarantino, said this month that he refuses to see the movie, and calls his spaghetti-western approach to slave history "disrespectful."

Many moviegoers will know something of what they're getting into. Violence and the liberal use of black idioms and so-called urban culture are Tarantino hallmarks, notably in early films such as "Pulp Fiction" and "Jackie Brown," and they've always stirred controversy. But this movie is different because it mines slavery, the complicated source material for so much black culture and fountain of violence in American history.

It is an institution whose horrors need no exaggerating, yet "Django" does exactly that, either to enlighten or entertain. A white director slinging around the n-word in a homage to '70s blaxploitation à la "Jackie Brown" is one thing, but the same director turning the savageness of slavery into pulp fiction is quite another.

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