Around 2010, I lost the ability to sit in a darkened room and watch a movie that didn’t interest me to its conclusion. The first movie I ever walked out of was Robin Hood (Cate Blanchett, Kevin Costner, didn’t think it was possible to ever go wrong with that combination but there you have it) during my first trimester of pregnancy with Benji. Admittedly, I was already feeling a bit nauseous. But the move was too blah and I just couldn’t bring myself to keep sitting there. Later, I tried watching it again on DVD and failed.
Since then, I have become more discriminating about which movies I go to watch in the cinema. To some extent, this is a budgetary as well as a logistical problem seeing as we have to be more conservative with both our money and our time since having children. But it is more an internal change, because of all the post-kids-bedtime activities we could pick, catching a movie is probably the easier to arrange and least taxing. Unfortunately, I’ve lost the tinted classes that enabled me to suspend disbelief and stop rolling my eyes.
So I’ve seen increasingly fewer movies, and mostly I’ve been able to know which will work for me just from reading the blurb and if in any doubt, a couple of reviews. Thus, on Friday, I found being tasked with planning movie night and not being able to pick a single thing. Finally, I settled of Les Miserable but V refused. I was also keen on Life of Pi but timings didn’t work. So we abandoned it, until Saturday when a friend at a party mentioned Django Unchained and that it was by Quentin Tarantino, a fact I hadn’t noticed when perusing Friday’s options.
We went and I’m glad:
- Ironically, at the party, the one thing about the film that was mentioned to us almost as a selling point was that it’s a blood fest. On a side note, it is a little boring to observe men feel obliged to make these apparently macho comments. Maybe I am being unfair and being a Tarantino film, we should have known it would be more. Then, being a Tarantino film, one would expect a blood bath and it needn’t be mentioned. I got the impression that this was some macho thing to mention. And the female point of view, was that we should watch it because Jamie Fox is hot.
- After I watched the film, I found both these opinions terribly distasteful. This is a film about slavery and violence. It is not, like Kill Bill, an aesthetic celebration of violence. Quite the contrary, it is the exposure of the savagery and pathology of violence in its specific racial avatar. It is also not a film about the beautiful body of a black man. The defining image of Jamie Fox’s body in the film for me was when he was hung up naked and tortured. To be fair, there is another glorious image of Jamie Fox’s body early on when he casts off the sack-cloth of a slave and claims the jacket of a fallen overseer. But the drama there was in the lash marks on his back. I believe as women we need to stop and think before we indulge in this reverse objectification of men. At least, contexts such as these should make us pause.
- Nevertheless, maybe it’s a good thing no one told me this is a movie about slavery (and I hope my saying so is not going to put anyone off). I avoid watching movies about slavery because I know they are going to make me cry. They are probably excellent films but like all films and books that purport to deal with depressing subjects, I give them a wide berth because I’m already depressed. Sometimes I may accidently watch a film whose subject is man’s terrible history and streak of cruelty and I never regret it but I can never really bring myself to choose this kind of film.
- The difference between this film and other films on the same subject is that right from the beginning the slave is not victim but hero.
- And also – and this for V was the defining thing – there is humour. It is incredible how many outright laugh out loud till your side hurts and you begin to feel embarrassed but you can’t stop laughing moments there were in this film. (Almost that entire sentence needed to be hyphenated, I know.) This is another Tarantino hallmark and maybe I would have gone and watched it even if I knew it was about slavery because I should have known it would be redemptive and not depressing, and also funny as hell. There are a few extremely talented people in this world who can take something as horrible as the slave experience and find a way to make the audience laugh, not at the slaves (though sometimes with them) but at the absurdity and downright crazy of those who promoted slavery. My absolute favourite was the Klu Klux Klan segment, which I won’t say more about so as to not give anything away, since I am very sure all of you are going to rush out and buy tickets for this film on my express recommendation.
- It seems Tarantino has found a new muse in Christoph Waltz of Inglourious Basterds fame. The villain of that piece is the hero is this, and as stellar as the nice guy as he was as the brute.
- Leonardo Dicaprio once again proves that Titanic was an aberration and he is one of the greatest actors of this generation. In his character, Mr Candie, is all the pathological pent-up madness of the racist. And this, I feel, is one of the crucial thrusts of the film. These are not people we can excuse for being socialised into racism. Their brutality goes beyond enculturation. It is an expression, encouraged by culture but very much their own, of the worst of the human instinct for cruelty.
- I am haunted by the portrayal of Mandingo wrestling, a concept I was only passingly familiar with until this film. This portion, and some others, I just closed by eyes through. I have no idea how much they showed. The sound was enough. It was like a descent into hell. Some research says that mandingo wrestling may not have happened at the time, for which I am entirely grateful. But even if fighters did not fight to the death, it seems entirely possible that they were forced to fight till they brutalised each other. Again, this is not a celebration of violence. It is a call to remember, to face the horrors of the past in their raw form, to repent.
- Moreover, the wrestling scene, and another one which follows it of the savage treatment of a wrestler who tries to run away, is evocative of another idea at the heart of this film. That under all the Southern gentility it basically just boils down to money. A wrestler who denies his master his 500$ worth is deemed worthy of the most brutal death, a fact argued for eloquently by the cultured master, and a black man might sleep and dine in the big house if he has enough money to back him.
- Somehow, I got the impression that this film ties into the Newton shooting and the call to arms against arms. It seems to expose to hypocrisy and historical prejudice of the ideology of the majority of those advocating gun ownership. This is probably just my reading though.
- I have only a passing familiarity with film history and thus missed many allusions. Read about them here.