By NICK CHILES
We agonized for a couple of days whether we would take our 13-year-old daughter with us to see Django Unchained. We flipped and flopped back and forth, weighing minuses and plusses:
Tarantino violence vs. historical significance.
Jamie Foxx brief frontal nudity scene vs. the beauty of the Jamie-Kerry Washington love story.
The realistic depiction of the brutality of slavery vs. well, the realistic depiction of the brutality of slavery.
In the end, Tarantino won.
We brought her along for the crazy Quentin ride, knowing that we would do plenty of debriefing afterwards—and we might need to have her turn her head at a couple of scenes of especially extreme violence (not to mention Jamie’s privates).
As we walked out of the theater, we were convinced we had made the right decision. Sometimes as a parent, in the daily, hourly, minute-by-minute judgment calls we are forced to make, we have to keep our eyes on the big picture (no pun intended). That was definitely necessary with Django.
Most of the Tarantino-ish gore was so splashy and over-the-top, it was almost like watching the Road Runner get blown up by one of Wile E. Coyote’s bombs. But the scenes that were most potentially devastating to a 13-year-old’s sensibilities were the ones intimately connected to the inhuman institution of slavery—a slave getting torn to pieces by dogs; one “Mandingo” fighter brutally destroying another one for sport, to the delight of the slave master played by Leonardo DiCaprio; Kerry Washington’s character receiving the nasty end of the master’s whip across her lovely back.
It was an intriguing counterpoint to Alex Haley’s Roots, which we had been watching all week on BET. Roots certainly didn’t downplay the violence, but a 35-year-old television movie can’t compete with a Quentin Tarantino vehicle in using the tools of cinema to shockingly illustrate the revolting elements of slavery. We were impressed with both the performances in Roots and its surprising acuity in addressing the major issues that seem still to be plaguing the African-American community—in stark disagreement with Tarantino, who annoyingly felt the need to mock “Roots” during the publicity parade that accompanied the run-up to the release of Django.
Quentin has always had a knack for spewing some annoyingly juvenile or self-serving nonsense that makes you wish that he would keep the artistry on the screen and not attempt to grace us with his brilliant sociological analysis.
“When you look at Roots, nothing about it rings true in the storytelling, and none of the performances ring true for me either,” Tarantino told The Daily Beast’s Allison Samuels. “I didn’t see it when it first came on, but when I did I couldn’t get over how oversimplified they made everything about that time. It didn’t move me because it claimed to be something it wasn’t.”
First of all, if you weren’t there to take in the majesty of Roots in the context of the times when it first aired, you can’t even begin to understand its beauty. In addition, I think there are multiple layers of nuance about African-American life and particularly black male-female relationships in Roots that Quentin will never be able to see but that we made sure to point out to our daughter:
The tension in the black female mind between her attraction to men who courageously defy authority—usually to their detriment/destruction and maybe the detriment of those around them—and her sometimes revulsion with those who have the strong survival instinct to keep their head down and stay safe.
The overwhelming desire of a black woman, who must obey the master all day long, to resist her man’s impulses to control her when they are finally alone.
The need for her man, with control over nothing else in his life, to feel like he must control his woman.
The devastating feeling of helplessness that her man feels when he can’t keep his beloved safe—and can’t ever hope to really make her happy.
It was all there, foreboding tensions and conflicts that are still alive 147 years after emancipation.
And at least Haley didn’t try to make an extra couple of bucks by issuing a line of Kunta Kinte and Chicken George action figures—as we’ve been dismayed to see that Tarantino is doing with a stunningly ill-advised line of “Django” dolls. (Seriously: who in the hell were these made for? How, exactly, does one “play” with a Ken-styled slave master and his shuffling, n*gger-hating manservant? Do kids who get the Kerry Washington figurine whip, strip and lay her out in the “hot box” when she tries to run away—for kicks? We’re so confused, and definitely don’t remember Quentin thinking it a genius idea to put out a line of Nazi dolls to “celebrate” the release of Inglorious Basterds. Just sayin’.)
The nuanced probing of male-female relations and interactions in Roots is something that Tarantino doesn’t even endeavor to explore in Django, which uses an achingly tender love story as the heartbeat of the film, the powerful force that drives the movie forward—but a love story that is so unrealistic and surface that it steps over into the realm of sci-fi type fantasy, about as close to real-life slavery as Cowboys vs. Aliens was to life in the American West. Of course the Tarantino approach is ultimately more emotionally satisfying than Roots, as Jamie and Kerry ride off triumphantly into the moonlight to live happily ever after—we can’t allow ourselves to think about what mayhem and heartache will surely be awaiting them at the other end of the road—but he doesn’t attempt to tell an historical tale, to painstakingly depict virtually every era of African-American life after Emancipation like Roots does.
No, Quentin is just trying to entertain, to use the disturbing traumas of slavery to create a can’t-miss hero with near-unanimous—or so we hope there aren’t many audience members rooting for the slave masters—audience support. What he does in Django shouldn’t even be compared to the task Haley took on in Roots—and shame on Tarantino for dragging down Roots to build up his movie. (If we’re being totally honest here, perhaps Quentin’s most brilliant move was in casting Samuel L. Jackson to create the most monstrous house n*gger ever conceived.)
That is what we told our 13-year-old after we high-stepped out of the movie house, having enjoyed the theater of Django Unchained and the badassness of Jamie Foxx. Private parts and brutal scenes notwithstanding, we were glad we brought her along with us so that we could help her juxtapose the artistic intentions of Haley and Tarrantino—the truth of our historic story in Roots vs. the fantasy of a guy who likes to make controversial movies with a smidge of historical context. The reality for our people was that there was no hopping on a horse with your significant other, shotgun in hand, and riding off into the sunset. Securing our freedom took much more than a six-shooter, a bag full of dynamite and a little slick talk.
Denene and I hope she was listening. We think she was.