Jun 032011

Quentin Tarantino has turned in the script for his next film, Django Unchained.

According to one review of the script:

Django is a freed slave, who, under the tutelage of a German bounty hunter (played by Christopher Waltz the evil Nazi officer in Inglorious Basterds) becomes a bad-ass bounty hunter himself, and after assisting Waltz in taking down some bad guys for profit, is helped by Waltz in tracking down his slave wife and liberating her from an evil plantation owner. And that doesn’t even half begin to cover it! This film deals with racism as I’ve rarely seen it handled in a Hollywood film. While it’s 100 percent pure popcorn and revenge flick, it is pure genius in the way it takes on the evil slave owning south. Think of what he did with the Nazis in Inglorious and you’ll get a sense of what he’s doing with slave owners and slave overseers in this one.

As Tarantino himself said earlier:

I’d like to do a Western. But rather than set it in Texas, have it in slavery times. With that subject that everybody is afraid to deal with. Let’s shine that light on ourselves. You could do a ponderous history lesson of slaves escaping on the Underground Railroad. Or, you could make a movie that would be exciting. Do it as an adventure. A spaghetti Western that takes place during that time. And I would call it ‘A Southern.’

The reason I’m writing about this and other topics only loosely tied to BDSM is that it’s about the discourse of slavery. There are lots of ways to write and talk about slavery. You have Roots, which is the big budget, mainstream TV miniseries treatment, in the earnest melodrama mode. You have Goodbye Uncle Tom, which is the exploitation/enraged quasi-documentary/polemic mode. You can argue that one’s more politically progressive than the other, but you can’t completely discount the other. It is saying something about slavery, and we need to listen to it, at least.

Over on the DoubleX blog, Debra J Dickerson has misgivings:

But I do worry that Tarantino will over rely on stock incidents of slavery porn: whippings, auction blocks, rapes. Slavery and white supremacism were so much more complicated than that. Why does the master holding Django’s wife have to be cruel? He’d have left her there if she’d been working only under Union rules and spent her evenings sipping mint juleps on the veranda in complete equality with Massa? Slavery wasn’t evil because some masters were. Slavery was evil because, however humane its conditions, it is a crime against humanity. Making the wife’s owner a beast … it worries me.

Dickerson outlines a variety of scenarios of betrayal and emotional cruelty fostered by the institution of slavery: the children sold away from their parents, husbands from wives, the moment when you realize that person you grew up with owns you, and so on. These are emotional hurts, and arguably deeper than lash marks.

But they’re the core of a dramatic movie, not an action movie. And Tarantino wants to make an action movie.

However, for all it’s action-movie style and glamour, I think Kill Bill did have something to say about gender relations, emotional manipulation and abuse, sexuality and sexual violence. Note that, while Volume 1 ended with a giant battle and a duel, Volume 2 ends with a dramatic scene, of Bill and the Bride talking over a table. The actual fight is over in less than twenty seconds. Tarantino revels in the form of the action movie, but what’s ultimately driving the entire story is the interpersonal dynamic, the mutual betrayal, between the Bride and Bill.

Thus, I think that Tarantino will come up with an emotional drive for his story, and one that is more complex than a straightforward captivity/revenge/women-in-distress narrative. Or rather, he could. (I keep thinking of the scene in Pulp Fiction, when Tarantino inserts himself as a character, who drops multiple N-bombs in front of a black man who happens to be a professional killer, and gets away with it.)

Dickerson’s reference to “stock incidents of slavery porn: whippings, auction blocks, rapes” suggests just how easily writing about slavery can slide over into the exploitative or pornographic. Django Unchained could slip and fall into that. Or we could view it as just another way of writing about slavery.

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