Django Unchained: The Politics of Language

Posted on May 3, 2013


Django Unchained (2012, The Weinstein Company)

Introduction

The first full-length post on Django Unchained, my choice as Best Picture of 2012 was my first guest post and first translated post. However, owing to the accolades I gave it, and the wait, it was time to post my own thoughts on the film. This is the second of four posts. The first can be found here.

The Politics of Language

This brings us to the racial component of the film. Here’s where the mistaken impression about genre can come in for many people. There is comedy in this film, but it’s not a comedy. This is no more a comedy than For a Fistful of Dollars is. Yes, it’s funny the way Django turns around his former owners line and says to him “I like the way you die, boy.” It’s also funny when Clint Eastwood in For a Fistful of Dollars changes his intial coffin order to four. It doesn’t make either film a comedy.

However, the facade of a western is where the similarity between the film ends. The moments of overt comedy are there for you to laugh at in Django Unchained. The Klan eyehole scene may have been the funniest scene in any film I saw last year simply because it was such an ingenious cutting down of a hateful organization that seeks to taunt, terrify and kill. Yes, even some of the laughs can be tinged with uneasiness, but that’s the goal.

The death of slave owners is designed to be laughed at, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there were some deadened reactions to that. Upon introducing another, even more risqué skit than he had done previously (this one about a white family with a coincidentally racist name) Dave Chappelle said something to the effect of “Apparently, people didn’t think killing a slave owner was funny. I could watch that all day.” Which brings us to another source of controversy in this film the usage of the N-word.

Django Unchained (2012, The Weinstein Company)

Is it difficult to listen to it that many times, and spouted so hatefully? Of course. Especially when either Django or Stephen uses it. That’s the point and intent for a modern audience. Then there’s also the fact that that’s not far off the frequency you would’ve heard back then.

Yes, some words invariably cause issues as I noted in The Gay Dilemma, but when a script is well-crafted you can go a step beyond what is a generally accepted politically-correct norm and make a point as in The Sitter. I’m not one for censorship, and am in favor of artistic license, and the word belongs in this film as much as it does in Huckleberry Finn. In others it may be gratuitous and unnecessary, but that’s why I tend to take things like this on a case-by-case basis.

Furthermore, one shouldn’t allow the presence of a word, even one as disparaging and denigrating as that one, obscure the totality of the film. While he does get assistance, Django gets necessary training to be able to be the hero of the story, which he is. Will Smith’s assessment about Django’s secondary nature is only accurate if you’re into counting words of dialogue. King’s departure from the narrative gives Django plenty of time when the tale is his alone. He’s the one who has flashbacks and whose goals drive the story. Most importantly, in terms of race, Django’s nobility and heroism is not shown solely through his fortitude, his ability to withstand punishment like Kunta Kinte; his strength is his ability to fight back. And as much training as he gets, his intelligence is something he’s born with not given.

Posted in: Commentary