“DJANGO UNCHAINED”: Controversy and Myth

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“DJANGO UNCHAINED”: CONTROVERSY AND MYTH

Ever since the release of the 2012 Academy Award winning film, “12 YEARS A SLAVE”, Quentin Tarantino’s 2012 film,“DJANGO UNCHAINED” has been the target of a good deal of backlash and derision. Wait . . . I take that back. The film has received a good deal of derision even when it first reached the movie theaters during the early winter of 2012-2013.

Normally, I would have dismissed these negative comments. After all, “DJANGO UNCHAINED” became one of my favorite movies for the year 2012. It also proved to be a box office hit and won two Academy Awards – a Best Supporting Actor award for actor Christoph Waltz and a Best Original Screenplay award for Tarantino. So, why am I bothering to write this article about the film? If I must be honest, I recently read a few articles about the movie. Several accused Tarantino of writing a revenge fantasy on the topic of American slavery. I also came across one or two that compared it to the recent Best Picture Oscar winner, Steve McQueen’s “12 YEARS A SLAVE” . . . to the detriment of the former film. And I found myself becoming confused and rather annoyed. And when I get pissed off – even in regard to arts and entertainment – I have a tendency to react. This article is my reaction.

One of the major complaints against the movie was its depiction of violence. Okay . . . this is Quentin Tarantino, we are talking about. I have yet to come across a film of his that did not feature violence. Many of his previous films – including“RESERVOIR DOGS”, “KILL BILL” and “INGLORIOUS BASTERDS” – featured over-the-top violence. After twenty years of this, why did so many film critics raise a stink about the violence in “DJANGO UNCHAINED”? After all, the movie’s plot revolved around American slavery, upon which a great deal of violence was used to sustain it. And the system also produced a good deal of violence from many who tried to resist it. Surely these film critics were aware of this? Surely they were aware of the numerous slave rebellions – at least around 250 of them – that had occurred in North America between the Colonial Era and the eve of the Civil War. And I am not simply referring to the more well-known slave rebellions such as the 1811 German Coast Uprising, along with those planned by Gabriel Prosser and Denmark Vessey and Nat Turner?

A good number of people also accused the movie of being historically inaccurate. Film producer-director Spike Lee put in his two cents and declared that “American slavery was not a Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western. It was a Holocaust. My ancestors are slaves stolen from Africa. I will honor them.” Perhaps Lee’s ancestors never saw the American West. But a good number of slaves and former slaves did . . . even before the outbreak of the Civil War. The movie’s opening scene featured Django as part of a slave coffle being marched across Texas to one of the slave marts of that particular state. And guess what? Such incidents happened – especially during the Civil War, when many slave owners sent their slaves west to Texas to avoid being conscripted by the Confederate government to labor on behalf of its military. Slaves who attempted to runaway were punished in many various forms – including whippings like the one endured by Django’s wife, Broomhilda Von Shaft and nearly endured by one of Spencer “Big Daddy” Bennett’s slaves. The experiences of American slaves are so varied that I find myself wondering why Lee and many like him believed that nearly all slaves had only one particular experience – that of a laborer on a large-scale cotton plantation. Was the idea of a former slave becoming a bounty hunter that hard to believe? Would these same critics have felt the same if they knew about Nancy Gooch, a Missouri slave who had accompanied her master to California during Gold Rush . . . and later became a free woman when that state joined the Union? What would they say if they knew that she and her husband eventually became well off and owners of Johann Sutter’s mill (site of James Marshall’s discovery of gold)? Would they have felt the same if they had remembered the experiences of James Beckwourth, a Virginia-born slave who became a mountain man, explorer and fur trader; following his emancipation around 1824? Considering the varying experiences of Nancy Gooch, James Beckwourth and other slaves throughout U.S. history, why would anyone believe there was only one kind of experience? Former slaves – even before the Civil War – have become social activists, businessmen/businesswomen, authors and even slave owners. So, why would the idea of a pre-Civil War emancipated slave becoming a bounty hunter be dismissed as a fantasy?

Nearly a year ago, I had commented that with the release of “12 YEARS A SLAVE”, many have compared it to“DJANGO UNCHAINED” . . . and to the detriment of the latter. Look, everyone has their own views on what constitutes a good movie. If one prefers the 2013 film to the 2012 one, fine. The problem is that I have great difficulty in accepting the view that “12 YEARS A SLAVE” is superior to “DJANGO UNCHAINED”. Film critics and many others argue that the 2013 film is superior because it is a drama based upon historical fact. The film is a historical film biography about a free black man from antebellum New York, who was kidnapped into slavery and experienced nearly twelve years as a slave in Louisiana. As for “DJANGO UNCHAINED”, it is not biopic about a historical figure. The characters in the film, including Django Freeman, Dr. King Schultz, and Calvin Candie are all figments of Quentin Tarantino’s imagination. And as far as many are concerned, there is only one way to make a film about slavery. – a story based upon historical fact.

I might as well be frank. I noticed that the plot for “DJANGO UNCHAINED” had a few discrepancies. The movie’s narrative claimed that it began in 1858 – Two Years Before the Civil War. Actually, the year 1858 is three years before the war’s outbreak, not two. Also, Tarantino made another blooper with the movie’s time setting. Django and Schultz accompanied Candie to Candyland in early May 1858 . . . at least according to a scene that featured Candie’s head slave Stephen writing out a check for supplies. It is quite obvious that Tarantino got his time frame a little off. Was “DJANGO UNCHAINED” set between the fall of 1858 and the spring of 1859? Or was it set between the fall of 1857 and the spring of 1858? Who knows? Many critics and historians made a big deal about the presence of “Mandingo fighting” in“DJANGO UNCHAINED”. So did I. Like many others, I had claimed that there was no historical evidence of this sport ever existing. Well . . . perhaps we may have all been slightly mistaken. When author Kyle Onstott wrote his 1957 novel,“Mandingo”, he must have heard about the sport called Battle Royal that originated in Ancient Rome and reappeared in 19th century United States, and put his own spin on the sports. Although the sport of Battle Royal had consisted of three or more participants, it featured gladiatorial-style fighting that would be considered very brutal. The sport had originated in Ancient Rome and resurfaced centuries later in the first half of 19th century United States. The interesting thing is that many critics and filmgoers made a big brouhaha over the historical inaccuracies found in “DJANGO UNCHAINED”. I found this attitude very hypocritical, considering that inaccuracies of this kind have been found in every historical drama I have seen, including more highly acclaimed films such as “GONE WITH THE WIND”, “LAWRENCE OF ARABIA”,“GLORY”, “THE KING’S SPEECH” and the recent Best Picture Oscar winner, “12 YEARS A SLAVE”.

But if there is one thing that truly annoys me, it is the critics’ labeling of “DJANGO UNCHAINED” as a revenge tale. The film did feature characters either attempting or achieving revenge. The character “Big Daddy” Bennett tried to get revenge against Django Freeman and Dr. King Schultz for killing the Brittle Brothers, his overseers and wanted fugitives of the law. Dr. Schultz achieved revenge against one of the movie’s main antagonists, Calvin Candie, for the death of a Candyland slave and being cheated out of $12,000. Even Django managed to achieve revenge against the Brittle Brothers, the overseers who once worked for his original owner and some of the inhabitants at Candyland. And I believe it is possible to say that he got revenge against Lara Lee Candie-Fitzwilly, Stephen, Billy Crash and other Candie henchmen, when he returned to Candyland to save Broomhilda. But his main intent was to save Broomhilda and retrieve her freedom papers. I suspect that the revenge attempted or achieved in this film were merely consequences of the main plot. After all, both “Big Daddy” Bennett and Dr. Schultz paid consequences for their vengeful acts. And despite his original intent, Django managed to achieve some kind of revenge. But in the end, I do not believe “DJANGO UNCHAINED” is basically a revenge tale.

If Django had truly been interested in revenge, he would have gone after the very man who had punished and later separated both him and his wife Broomhilda – namely their original owner, Carruthers. And yet, Django never bothered to go after Carruthers for revenge. He never even considered it. Why? Because his main goal was to find and rescue Broomhilda, before fleeing the South. Mind you, he would have never been able to achieve this without Dr. King, who offered $75 and freedom to Django if the latter would help him track down the Brittle Brothers. Django would have never become a bounty hunter if King had not suggested he become a partner in the latter’s bounty hunting operations during the winter in exchange for helping him track down Broomhilda in the South. It was not difficult for me to see that Django’s main interest during the film’s entire narrative was being reunited with Broomhilda and fleeing the slaveholding South for good.

And I cannot help but wonder why many critics and filmgoers were determined to label “DJANGO UNCHAINED” a revenge tale? Why was it so important for them to regard it as such? Their accusations reminded me of the fears that many 19th century Americans – North and South – had about freed slaves. Many of these Americans feared emancipation because they believed those former slaves would turn on their former masters and engage in indiscriminate killings of whites. Was this same fear behind the intent of many critics to label “DJANGO UNCHAINED”? Because the movie featured a black man and ex-slave killing a good number of people – especially whites – to achieve his goal of permanent freedom for both himself and his wife? Is this why the media dumped this crap on the public about it being a revenge movie?

I will not deny that Django Freeman had a vindictive streak within him. The casual manner in which he stepped upon the fatally wounded slave trader Dicky Speck after the latter had insulted him, led me to suspect this. However, Django’s killing of the Brittle Brothers was more about helping Dr. King collect a bounty (and acquire his own freedom) than any revenge . . . even if the former must have felt satisfaction in killing two of the brothers. Django and Dr. King’s violent encounter with “Big Daddy” Bennett and a group of night riders was more about saving their hides. I also suspect that Django had achieved some satisfaction in his killing of some of Candyland’s inhabitants. But I still believe the entire episode was more about saving Broomhilda . . . and ensuring that no one at Candyland would alert the authorities to her disappearance. A part of me cannot help but wonder if moviegoers and critics find it easier to swallow a movie about slavery or any kind of oppression if major non-white characters were to simply endure or resort to non-violent responses. Would they have preferred if Django Freeman had resorted to non-violent means to rescue Broomhilda? He tried . . . upon King Schultz’s advice. But the latter ruined Django’s chances with a violent display of temper that led to his own death and the re-enslavement of both Django and Broomhilda. Django, in the end, had to clean Dr. Schultz’s mess . . . with violence.

Over the years, I have noticed how the American public, media and historians are willing to glorify activists like Martin Luther King for resorting to non-violent methods of resistance against oppression. Yet, at the same, these same people, media and historians glorify this country’s violent resistance to British authority in the late 18th century. And in parts of this country – especially in various Southern states – the former Confederate States of America is still glorified for its violent attempt to break away from the United States in the early 1860s. In other words, when a violent or military resistance is led by elite white males, our country glorifies this action. When non-violent resistance is led by anyone who is from the middle or lower classes, non-white or a woman, our country glorifies this action. When violent resistance is led by anyone who is from the middle or lower classes, non-white or a woman, our society condemns this action. And for certain critics and filmgoers, Django Freeman made the mistake of resorting to violence to win the freedom of his wife and himself.

Let me repeat myself. I do not believe that “DJANGO UNCHAINED” is a revenge tale. Django’s goal in this movie was not revenge. If it was, he would have sought revenge against the character portrayed by Bruce Dern. Ironically, another movie was released near the end of 2012 – “ZERO DARK THIRTY”. What was this movie about? Namely the hunt for Bin Laden in retaliation for the attacks on September 11, 2001. “ZERO DARK THIRTY” was clearly about the U.S. government seeking revenge against Bin Laden for the attack. Even the leading character portrayed by Jessica Chastain became vengeful when another colleague and friend was killed during a meeting set up with a former terrorist. There were some critics and moviegoers who dared to accuse or criticize the movie for being a revenge tale. The mainstream media more or less avoided labeling it a “revenge flick”. Then again, I should not surprised, especially when revenge or retaliation in this film was sanctioned by society and the government. For the past victims of slavery, revenge on their behalf is not tolerated . . . even after emancipation had been achieved over a century-and-a-half ago. And especially not in a work of fiction.

As for the backlash against “DJANGO UNCHAINED”, I realize that whatever negative opinions about this movie will never change. I can do nothing about it. One could also say that this article might be a waste of time. But you know what? I do not think so. For it allowed me to express my own frustrations over the negative responses to this film. And those frustrations were born from some of the criticisms and “revenge” label that was dumped on the film. It felt good to get this article out of my system . . . even if I do not end up changing any minds.

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Top Ten Favorite BRITISH EMPIRE Novels

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Below is a list of my current favorite novels set during the British Empire: 

 

TOP TEN FAVORITE BRITISH EMPIRE NOVELS

1 - Flashman in the Great Game

1. “Flashman in the Great Game” (1975) by George MacDonald Fraser – Set between 1856 and 1858, this fifth novel in the Flashman Papers Series is about cowardly British Army officer Harry Flashman’s experiences during the Sepoy Rebellion.

2 - Shadow of the Moon

2. “Shadow of the Moon” (1957/1979) by M.M. Kaye – This is a love story between an Anglo-Spanish heiress and a British Army officer before and during the Sepoy Rebellion.

3 - The Bastard

3. “The Bastard” (1974) by John Jakes – Set during the final five years before the American Revolution, this tale is about Phillipe Charbaneau aka Philip Kent, the Anglo-French bastard of a nobleman forced to seek a new life in the American Colonies.

4 - Flashman and the Dragon

4. “Flashman and the Dragon” (1985) by George MacDonald Fraser – The eighth novel of the Flashman Papers reveals Harry Flashman’s experiences in China during the Taiping Rebellion and the British march to Peking during the Second Opium War.

5 - Noble House

5. “Noble House” (1981) by James Clavell – Set during two weeks in August 1963, this novel is about a British businessman in Hong Kong, who struggles to save his family’s company from financial ruin through a deal with an American corporate raider.

6 - Zemindar

6. “Zemindar” (1982) by Valerie Fitzgerald – This novel is about a young Englishwoman named Laura Hewitt, who accompanies her cousin and cousin-in-law to India to meet the latter’s wealthy half-brother. All three get caught up in the outbreak of the Sepoy Rebellion.

7 - Tai-pan

7. “Tai-Pan” (1966) by James Clavell – Set during the immediate aftermath of the First Opium War, this novel is about a British trader and his dealings with his family and enemies during the formation of Britain’s Hong Kong colony.

8 - Liberty Tavern

8. “Liberty Tavern” (1976) by Thomas Fleming – This novel is about a former British Army officer, who operates a New Jersey tavern and serves as guardian to his stepchildren during the American Revolution.

9 - The Far Pavilions

9. “The Far Pavilion” (1978) by M.M. Kaye – This bestseller is about a 19th century British Army officer, who had spent his childhood believing he was Indian. He experiences love with an Indian princess and war during the Second Anglo-Afghan War.

10 - Forget the Glory

10. “Forget the Glory” (1985) by Emma Drummond – This novel chronicled the experiences of an unhappily married British Army officer, who falls in love with wife’s maid during a long journey from India to the Ukraine during the Crimean War.

“FLASHMAN” (1969) Book Review

“FLASHMAN” (1969) Book Review

Forty-one years ago, an old literary character was re-introduced to many readers, thanks to a former Scottish journalist named George MacDonald Fraser. The author took a character from a famous Victorian novel and created a series of novels that placed said character in a series of historical events throughout the middle and second half of the 19th century.

The 1857 novel, ”TOM BROWN’S SCHOOLDAYS”, told the story of a young English boy named Tom Brown and his experiences at the famous school, Rugby, during the 1830s. One of Tom’s travails focused on his abuse at the hands of an older student – a bully – named Flashman. However, Flashman got drunk at a local tavern and in the following morning was expelled by Rugby’s famous headmaster, Dr. Thomas Arnold. Fraser took the Flashman character, gave him a first name – Harry – and continued his story following the expulsion from Rugby in the 1969 novel, ”FLASHMAN”.

The beginning of the novel saw the seventeen year-old Harry Flashman trying to find a new profession following his expulsion from Rugby. Due to his father’s wealth and his maternal Uncle Bindley Paget’s social connections, Flashman found a position as a junior officer in one of Britain’s most elite Army regiments, the 11th Hussars aka the Cherrypickers. And thanks to his talent for toadying and projecting a sense of style (inherited from his aristocratic late mother), Flashman managed to win the support and favor of the regimental commander, the haughty James Thomas Brudenell, 7th Earl of Cardigan. Unfortunately, Flashman’s ideal life as a leisurely Army officer came to an end. His involvement with the French mistress of a fellow officer kicked off a series of events that led to Flashman being swept into the First Anglo-Afghan War (1839-1842). One of those events included seducing one Elspeth Morrison, the sixteen year-old daughter of a wealthy Scottish merchant. After being forced to marry her by her relations, Flashman was kicked out of the 11th Hussars and sent to India by Lord Cardigan, who regarded the marriage as a step down the social ladder for the usually favored young Army officer.

It was in Afghanistan that Flashman earned the nickname, “Bloody Lance” by taking credit for his servant’s killing of four Afghan attackers. There, he also met one Ilderim Khan, the son of a pro-British Afghan nobleman and became the latter’s lifelong friend and blood brother. This friendship would end up saving Flashman’s life during the Sepoy Rebellion in”FLASHMAN IN THE GREAT GAME”. Flashman also managed to earn two deadly enemies – an Afghan warlord named Gul Shah and his mistress (later wife), a dancer named Narreeman. The source of the pair’s enmity toward Flashman originated with his rape of Narreeman.

More importantly, ”FLASHMAN” allowed readers to view many important events of the First Anglo-Afghan War. Not only did Flashman meet many historical figues such as Lord Cardigan, Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, the Duke of Wellington, but also Alexander Burnes, Akbar Khan, William Macnaghten, Thomas Arnold, and the incompetent commander of the British Army in Afghanistan, General William Elphinstone.

I must admit that my opinion of the novel has changed a great deal over the years. Originally, I held a low opinion of”FLASHMAN” for years, comparing it to the more epic-like sagas such as ”FLASHMAN AT THE CHARGE” (1973),”FLASHMAN IN THE GREAT GAME” (1975)”FLASHMAN AND THE REDSKINS” (1982) and ”FLASHMAN AND THE DRAGON” (1985). I still regard these four novels in a higher regard than ”FLASHMAN”. But I must admit that perhaps I had been a little unfair in my regard for the 1969 novel. It is actually a solid adventure story filled with historical interest, witty humor, sharp action and excellent pacing. Some fans of The Flashman Papers have expressed disgust or disenchantment with the Harry Flashman character portrayed in this novel. I suspect that a great deal of these negative opinions may have stemmed from Flashman’s rape of Narreeman. And I understand. However, many of these fans also complained about the young British officer’s crass style and manner – especially toward his father’s mistress, Judy. One has to remember that Harry Flashman aged from 17 to 20 years old in this story. He did convey some semblance of the style, common sense and instinct that would fool many people and serve him for years. But as an adolescent on the threshold of twenty, he had yet to learn some of the hard facts of life. As for his rough treatment and negative opinion of Judy, I suspect that his ego suffered a massive blow, when she rejected him, following a one-time bout under the sheets. A blow that he obviously had failed to recover from after six decades, while ”writing” his memoirs.

”FLASHMAN” also had its share of interesting fictional characters. I have already mentioned the villainous Gul Shah and his mistress (later wife) Narreeman. I have also mentioned the young Afghan who became a close friend of Flashy’s, Ilderim Khan. But he had an even larger role in ”FLASHMAN IN THE GREAT GAME”. And as I had mentioned, Elspeth also appeared in the novel. However, her presence in the novel would not be truly felt, until the last chapter that featured Harry’s homecoming. Fraser barely explored her personality in the novel, but he did allow a peek into her promiscuous and self-absorbed nature in that last chapter. One particular character, Sergeant Hudson, proved to be a reliable source of defense for Flashman during the retreat from Kabul. During this event, Flashman experienced one of the most bizarre moments of his life, while being rejected by the young wife of an Army officer named Mrs. Betty Parker, whom he was trying to seduce:

“‘What the devil’ says I. ‘What’s the matter?’

‘Oh, you brute!’ she hissed – for she had the sense to keep her voice down – ‘you filthy, beastly brute! Get out of my tent at once! At once, d’you her?’

I could make nothing of this, and said so. ‘What have I done? I was only being friendly. What are you acting so damned missish for?’

‘Oh base!’ says she. ‘You . . . you . . .’

‘Oh, come now,’ says I. ‘You’re in very high ropes, to be sure. You weren’t so proper when I squeezed you the other night.’

‘Squeezed me?’ says she, as though I had uttered some unmentionable word.

‘Aye, squeezed. Like this.’ And I reached over and, with a quick fumble in the dark, caught one of her breasts. To my amazement, she didn’t seem to mind.

‘Oh, that!’ she says. ‘What an evil creature you are! You know that is nothing; all gentlemen do that, in affection. But you, you monstrous beast, presume on my friendship to try to . . . Oh, oh, I could die of shame!’

If I had not heard her I shouldn’t have believed it. God knows I have learned enough since of the inadequacies of education given to young Englishwomen, but this was incredible.”

This last encounter with Mrs. Betty Parker struck me as a hilarious metaphor for the blindingly naïve morality that had began to encroach early Victorian society.

”FLASHMAN” also provided some interesting historical vignettes from the First Anglo-Afghan War. And young Flashman managed to witness or participate in a good number of them. The novel allowed him to be the sole surviving British witness to the murder of political officer, Sir Alexander Burnes and his younger brother, Charles. He also witnessed the murder of another political officer named Sir William Macnaghten, along with Last Stand at Gandamak and the Siege of Jalalabad. But Fraser’s pièce de résistance in ”FLASHMAN” proved to be the disasterous Kabul retreat in which the British contingent under General Elphinstone were forced to march from Afghanistan to India in cold weather and dire circumstances:

“From other accounts of that frightful march that I have read – mostly Mackenzie’s and Lawrence’s and Lady Sale’s – I can fit a few of my recollections into their chronicle, but in the main it is just a terrible, bloody nightmare even now, more than sixty years after. Ice and blood and groans and death and despair, and the shrieks of dying men and women and the howling of the Ghazis and Gilzais. They rushed and struck, and rushed and struck again, mostly at the camp-followers, until it seemed there was a slashed brown body every yard of the way. The only place of safety was in the heart of Shelton’s main body, where the sepoys still kept some sort of order; I suggested to Elphy when we set off that I and my lancers should ride guard on the womenfolk, and he agreed at once. It was a wise move on my part, for the attacks on the flanks were now so frequent that the work we had been doing yesterday was become fatally dangerous. Mackenzie’s jezzailchis were cut to ribbons stemming the sorties.”

Reading the above passage made me wonder about the wisdom of the current Western presence in Afghanistan. And there is nothing like a British military disaster to bring out the best of Fraser’s writing skulls. It proved to be the first of such passages in novels like ”FLASHMAN IN THE GREAT GAME” and ”FLASHMAN AND THE REDSKINS”.

In the end, Fraser did a solid job in initiating what would proved to be The Flashman Papers in his first novel,”FLASHMAN”. Granted, the novel’s first part set in England struck me as slightly rushed. And the Harry Flashman character seemed a bit crude in compare to his characterizations in the novels that followed. Like many other readers, I found his rape of the Narreeman character hard to stomach. But Fraser did an excellent job in re-creating early Victorian Britain, British India, Afghanistan and the First Anglo-Afghan War. In short, ”FLASHMAN” turned out to be a solid start to an excellent series of historical novels.