Part One: Negotiating Romance and Sentimentality in Django Unchained

Deeps > Contemporary Film and the Black Atlantic > Sentimentality and Love > Part One: Negotiating Romance and Sentimentality in Django Unchained

“For God’s sake are you not sentimental in the least?” – Mr. Ford

“My sentimentality extends the length of a coin.” – Dr. King Schultz

 

“Sentimentality, the ostentatious parading of excessive and spurious emotion, is the mark of dishonesty…the wet eyes of the sentimentalist betray his aversion to experience, his fear of life, his arid heart; and it is always, therefore, the signal of secret and violent humanity, the mark of cruelty.”

– James Baldwin

 

“What I am tired of is sentimentality.”

– bell hooks

Measuring Authenticity

When Quentin Tarantino released Django Unchained in December 2012, Spike Lee declared that he would not see the film.  “The only thing I can say,” he told Vibe, “is that it’s disrespectful to my ancestors, to see that film.”  Using Twitter to further explain his antagonism towards Django Unchained, Lee wrote, “American Slavery Was Not A Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western. It Was A Holocaust. My Ancestors Are Slaves. Stolen From Africa. I Will Honor Them.”[1]

Lee’s remarks were not unlike those of American talk show host, Tavis Smiley.  In an interview with Newsweek, Smiley told Marlow Stern, “I’m troubled that Hollywood won’t get serious about making an authentic film about the holocaust of slavery but they will greenlight a spoof about slavery, and it’s as if this spoof about slavery somehow makes slavery a bit easier to swallow. The suffering of black people is not reducible to revenge and retribution (emphasis mine).”[2]

The biggest issue that the black community has taken with Django Unchained since its release is what Smiley refers to in his interview with Stern: the authenticity or rather, lack thereof, of the experience of slavery as represented by Tarantino.  Who gets to speak about the African American experience?  In what ways?  With what language?  To what extent? are some of the questions Django Unchained raises.  In “History Unchained,” an article published by Yarimar Bonilla from Rutgers, she asks the following questions in light of Tarantino’s production: “Are certain filmic genres, such as comedy, inherently inadequate for capturing the experience of enslavement? Are certain filmmakers more qualified, or more authorized, to render the experience of African American people? And must representations of slavery strike a certain mood? Can they be ‘wrong’ not just in their facts, but in their affect?”[3]

It is interesting to put Tarantino’s spaghetti western in conversation with Steve McQueen’s latest release, 12 Years a Slave (2013), which though speckled with historical inaccuracies seems to have faired better with critics, because of its brutal depiction of dehumanizing violence against slaves; its closer reach towards authenticity, if you will.

In an interview with Tarantino – featured below with additional interviews with the cast of Django Unchained – he tells Emmy winner, Jake Hamilton that part of his larger project in this movie is to create a film discussing slavery that resonates with viewers today.  Tarantino wanted to create something that was not simply “a relic from another time period.”  To do this effectively, as all of his movies ranging from Jackie Brown to Kill Bill to Pulp Fiction to Django Unchained have shown, Tarantino had to step into the filmic imaginary and many times reconstruct, if not completely abandon the sentimental story lines that run through many contemporary movies.

When Tarantino steps away from the sentimental, which I am defining here with the help of the Oxford English Dictionary as a term, which represents “feelings of tenderness, sadness, or nostalgia, typically in an exaggerated and self-indulgent way,” he leaves room for Django Unchained to become another sort of slavery film.[4]  Abandoning the sentimental means that Django Unchained can function as a comedy, a western, a drama, and an action film all at the same time.  In refusing to produce a film, which allows its viewers to grieve over slavery, he offers a new set of frameworks for encountering and imagining different forms of slavery, master-slave relationships, plantation life, and revolt, among other things.  Refusing to be sentimental means that Tarantino does not have to follow predetermined guidelines already established by previous filmmakers.

 

Allusive and Elusive Love

Arguably Tarantino’s biggest turn away from the sentimental occurs when he gestures towards Django’s romantic life but refuses to depict that romance – what we might imagine as a melodramatic slave love story – on the screen.  Shortly after Dr. Schultz (Christoph Waltz) buys Django (Jamie Foxx) and he invites Django to help him identify an overseer, the two discuss Django’s romantic life.  As Django tells the history of his wife, Broomhilda von Shaft who belongs to Calvin Candie, Schultz inquires about the role of marriage in the lives of slaves.  “I had no idea you were a married man,” Schultz remarks. “Do most slaves believe in marriage?”  The underlying question posed by Schultz is whether or not slaves believe in love even as they operated within a system that would seem to deny them of such a belief.

Kerry Washington who plays Broomhilda and intentionally bears the name Shaft since Tarantino was referencing John Shaft, an investigator from the blaxploitation fame, commented on the conceptual importance of love when describing her character.  “It’s [love is] humanity, when at the time they [slaves] were only three-fifths of a human being,” she told eonline.  “What makes her [Broomhilda] strong is her belief in love and that she is deserving of that love in a time when black women weren’t even afforded the luxury of that fantasy.”[5]  While Washington is not incorrect in describing the intellectual importance of creating a character who recognizes the high stakes that love – romantic love, self-love, and unconditional love – provide for a person stripped of all forms of agency, she fails to understand how her character not having a prominent role in Django Unchained works against the complexity she describes.

Had Tarantino simply gestured towards Django and Broomhilda’s romance and then directed his attention elsewhere to some distant topic then we could consider the brief allusion to slave love as part of his work to avoid sentimentality.  But Tarantino does not do this.  Instead, while he fails to tell Django’s love story, he does let Schultz explain his own romantic past.  After Django reveals his relationship with Broomhilda, the camera intensely focuses on Schultz as he reminisces about his deceased wife.  While Django’s love story is denied, the viewers are prompted to feel sympathetic towards Schultz.

In the same way that Tarantino denies Django romance, he also denies Broomhilda a relationship or the luxury of even thinking about her past relationship.  This is most obvious when the house slave, Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), verbally interrogates Broomhilda about whether or not she knows Django and forces her to deny her relationship with him repeatedly throughout the second half of the movie.  At the dinner table when Calvin makes Broomhilda remove her dress so his dinner guests can admire the scars on her back, both Broomhilda and Django can do nothing to prevent this and Django, in particular, must look on in horror.  As Broomhilda and Django are forced to silently love one another from afar, Tarantino allows Calvin to have a fairly public incestuous relationship with his sister, Lara.  At times it would seem that Lara and Calvin are flaunting their love in front of their black slaves.

Even when Django and Broomhilda are reunited and ready to take to the road after Django has successfully killed most of the people in Candie Land, Tarantino does not film Django walking away hand-in-hand with his wife.  Instead, he has Django turn to watch Calvin’s house burn up in flames and then he looks at his wife.  Destroying a slave master is more important than reuniting with the alleged love of his life.

As stated earlier, if Tarantino was in fact trying to avoid sentimentality by not invoking a particular kind of emotion through romance in his film, then this would account for why he does not flesh out the Django-Broomhilda relationship.  But when he offers different representations of white love instead of or in place of slave love stories, then he inadvertently reveals that he only wants to show a particular form of love on the screen.

His decision to feature Schultz, Calvin, and Lara more prominently not only begs the question why does Tarantino choose to imagine more developed histories of certain characters, but also what does he fail to address when he writes his screenplay in this way?  Some of the questions Tarantino forces his viewers to consider include “was there no room for love in the history of slavery?” and “do certain love stories garner more attention and respect than others?”  As Betty DeRamus’ extensive scholarship on love stories from the Underground Railroad in her book, Forbidden Fruit (2005) reveals there is work being done to recover the romantic histories of slaves; work that attempts to counteract Tarantino’s blatant disregard for slave romance in Django Unchained.

In a recent discussion at the New School in New York between Melissa Harris-Perry and bell hooks included below, the two devote part of their conversation to considering recent movies about slavery and black culture that have circulated over the past few years (see 30 minutes into the video).  Whereas Melissa Harris-Perry struggles to bring herself to talk about Django Unchained, bell hooks explains how she saw Tarantino using parts of his movie to deconstruct familiar black tropes including the mammy.  At one point while the two are discussing Django Unchained, 12 Years a Slave, The Butler, and The Help, bell hooks refers to a quote by Baldwin which I have included as one epigraph for this post.  She cites Baldwin’s disdain of sentimentality, which he views as “a mark of cruelty.”  bell hooks follows up her reference to Baldwin by crying out that she herself is “tired of sentimentality.”  As she puts it, movies that emphasize sentimentality only serve as “vehicles for the expression of grief,” which she finds dissatisfying.[6]

If Tarantino accomplished anything through Django Unchained it is that he found a way to use fantasy to construct a movie that refuses to invoke exaggerated forms of sadness and instead did exactly the opposite.  While attempting to eliminate sentimentality by way of eliminating particular forms of romance renders Tarantino, to some extent, a hero or at least a respectable filmmaker in bell hook’s eyes, it unleashes a whole other set of questions about the politics of love in black history; questions that may or may not ever be answered satisfactorily by the filmmaker in question.

 


[1] From the entire interview: http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/12/25/spike-lee-goes-after-django-unchained/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=0

[2] For the entire interview: http://www.newsweek.com/tavis-smiley-quentin-tarantinos-django-unchained-63111

[3] Yarimar Bonilla, “History Unchained,” Transition Issue 112 (2013): 68-77.

[4] http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/us/definition/american_english/sentimental

[5] http://www.eonline.com/news/330255/quentin-tarantino-talks-django-unchained-character-named-shaft-no-accident

[6] See the entire New School discussion here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5OmgqXao1ng

 

How to cite this project: Sasha Panaram, Hannah Rogers, Thayne Stoddard. “Contemporary Film and the Black Atlantic.” Deeps, (Accessed on Date) http://sites.duke.edu/blackatlantic/

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