Just saw Quentin Tarantino’s new film Django Unchained. I was excited to see it. The first review I read was Spike Lee’s statement that he wasn’t going to see it because it was an insult to his ancestors. The debate about who as the right to tell a story concerning slavery was in my head when I went into the theater. In grad school we read William Styron’s defense of his The Confessions of Nat Turner (Pulitzer Prize 1967). That book had an interesting trajectory by first being welcomed by the Civil Rights movement to a book reviled by African Americans, even though such notable authors as James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison defended Styron’s right to write what he wanted. The given reason about who has the right to tell a particular story comes up, as in Tarantino’s case. As an artist, to take up a persona and render that character as a real and feeling human being, whether the character is a villain or hero, and create emotional weight and drama is what we do. To say I cannot tell a particular story because I am not of a particular group is censorship. And seriously, what fiction writers out there haven’t written outside their social class, gender, sexuality, era, race or even species? Does this mean I can only write about poor white kids who grow up in the desert during the 20th Century? Should Shakespeare have not have written Hamlet?
Of all things artistic, it must be handled with emotional honesty, especially with actions that make people cringe, so what if it happened. Are the Danes angry because Hamlet is mad? The violence directed at writers and filmmakers (no matter how shitty the film) is repugnant and the censorship they try and force on others equally repugnant, but that is a different subject.
Now back to Tarantino. I don’t think honestly deals with his characters. They become caricatures, and the brutality of slavery is shown with a mix of cartoonish and carnivalesque elements, so that I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to be horrified or be amused. I felt like when a freshman in ’08 was telling the class why Obama would be a lousy Commander in Chief while picking his nose. How can I take him seriously? The story is weak. The plot device of evil Bond villains to give the good guy a way to escape not withstanding, I think the subject of characterization is important in the debate of who can tell a particular story. Brommhilda is undeveloped and I don’t feel for outside of the fact she’s Candie’s slave. Django or Dr. Schultz are not rendered in a way that makes me care about them in an emotional way either. I feel we are supposed to be automatically sympathetic for them because they are/were slaves or killing bad guys and freeing slaves. It seems clever dialogue is supposed to flesh them out. Tarantino made me care about Vincent Vega and Jules. About Mia Wallace and Butch. He made me care about Mr. White, Mr. Orange, Mr. Pink, and he made me care about Clarence and Alabama. Actually he made me care about Candie and Stephen in that I really wanted them to get their comeuppance. Seriously well acted and written characters.
I know a lot of folks have on their Tarantino goggles. The criticism has centered around his depiction of slavery, how may racial epithets his characters use (also a Spike Lee criticism from earlier films), and the gratuitous violence, but what we should really be talking about is how well he did or didn’t render his characters and how he should have staked out the emotional ground of what it is to be human. To render them true. In 1968, Eugene D. Genovese wrote in The New York Review of Books, defending Styron, “I should respectfully suggest that although the oppressed may need history for identity and inspiration, they need it above all for the truth of what the world has made of them and of what they have helped make of the world.” We should care about the characters and their struggle no matter who wrote them, and in the case of villains a hope for them to be brought low.