Sunday, August 16, 2015

Django Unchanged: So conventional its controversial

While waiting for my car to get an oil change, I walked over to the nearby Big Lots and found a DVD of Django Unchanged in the discount rack. I hadn't seen the movie since it was making the rounds of the theaters, and I did hanker to take another look. Having enjoyed seeing it again, I did a few google searches, and found, first of all, that there have been other Django movies before, except, this is the first one where Django was a gunslinger of African descent. Some of the others were a lot bloodier.

After reading a little, I realized that Django Unchained is no more, and no less than a well-done spaghetti western, just one more of the genre. The plot is quite as improbable as all the other spaghetti westerns, but do any of us take those seriously? Django Unchained happens to be a spaghetti western where some of the action happens in The South, and it happens a little before the Civil War, instead of a decade or two afterward. There was truly western settlement going on before 1860, and a good deal of commerce and migration from the southern states to the western territories, and back again.

Django Unchained also happens to assign a lead gunslinger role to a character, and therefore an actor, of known and visible African descent. Adding to all the fantasies and fables that make up the American Western, and of course the spaghetti western, what such a character might have been like, and done, is simply a bit of good clean fun. A bit bloody, but aren't they all? So this time some "white" bad guys get killed by a "black" good guy. About time.

Django Unchained is NOT a movie of great social and political importance. It doesn't pretend to be. It is not forgotten and suppressed history brought at last to the silver screen. That is its significance. We've come far enough down the road that we can now have black characters routinely included in such movies without having to have great social and political importance.

One can certainly quibble with some historical anachronisms. There weren't night riders out in masks or other regalia in 1858 or 1859. It wasn't necessary to have secret organizations inflicting that kind of covert terror. Slavery was legal. Most of the African-descended population was enslaved, and the "free colored" population was moderately prosperous, socially conservative, dependent upon "white" patronage. If the local gentry had wanted to go after Dr. Schulz and Django, they would have done so openly, or not at all. But the scene was good entertainment.

Further, Candie Land would NOT have been around for seventy years. More like twenty, maybe thirty at the most. Mississippi was still a wild frontier in 1835. Half the land in the state was only purchased from the Choctaw nation in 1830. In 1817, Mississippi had a constitution similar to South Carolina, requiring state representatives to own 150 acres of land, and state senators 300 acres. But that was thrown out in 1832 when small family farmers in the eastern part of the state revolted against the elites along the Mississippi River and Gulf coast, what was called the "whole hogs" rebellion.

The 1832 constitution prohibited importation of any new slaves into Mississippi for sale. But by 1840 the politics of the state changed again, as cotton became the dominant crop and large plantations again dominated. So people like Calvin Candie, with pretensions to French culture, but no French, were an upstart nouveau riche elite, having a history of perhaps 18-25 years in their garish imitation of gracious plantation living. If old Ben (whose skull Candie displayed) shaved Calvin Candie's father and grandfather with a straight razor, he did that back in Virginia or South Carolina. Seventy years before 1858 was 1788, and the federal constitution was only a year old. There were still only 13 states.

This is one reason that secession was such an infantile notion, when the Civil War finally broke out. Most of the people who identified so mightily in their independent rights as citizens of the sovereign state of Mississippi had been born somewhere else. Jefferson Davis, for instance, like Abraham Lincoln, had been born in Kentucky. Neither the state nor its residents had any significant history as a distinct people. It was a creation of the United States of America.

Finally, I've never found a significant reference to any universal rule against a person of African descent riding a horse. There were dark skinned overseers who rode horses, among others. Out west, the rather small number of free black settlers rode whatever they pleased.

That said, it was really fun to see the Brittle Brothers get their comeuppance. The careful acting and camera work of the enslaved Jody's expressions as she twisted around to see the overseer about to bullwhip her get a bullet through the heart fired by a tall black man in a bright blue suit was priceless. And the blood splashing across the cotton bolls in the field as the last dead Brittle fell off his horse... exquisite. It was the same kind of thrill as watching Hopalong Cassidy step inside a mining cabin and drill bullets through ten cattle rustlers before they could draw... only with a new twist.

One spelling error recurs in several of the commentaries already available on the internet about this movie: It seems that nobody knows how to spell Brunhilda. Everyone writes it Broomhilda, which is the name of a mid-20th century American cartoon character, a funny incompetent little witch on the comics pages. The legend Schultz related to Django, the good German name that some lady named von Schaft gave to her young slave, was Brunhilda, heroine of one of the finest Teutonic epics. Keep that straight people.

1 comment:

Daniel said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.