Is “Django Unchained” a Radical Movie? A Conversation with Sut Jhally (Part 1)

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Django Whipping

Jeremy Earp, Director of Production at MEF, sat down with UMass Communication Professor and MEF Executive Director Sut Jhally to talk about the interplay between violence, race, and cultural politics in Quentin Tarantino’s Oscar-nominated film Django Unchained.

JEREMY EARP: There’s been a lot of discussion and debate about Django Unchained – not only about the film’s handling of race, but also its depiction of violence. The violence question has been especially pronounced given the film came out around the time of the Sandy Hook tragedy. And I’d like to start there. Where do you stand on the question of violence in this film? Do you agree with those who have argued that while this is clearly an anti-slavery film, it also glamorizes gun violence in ways that are troubling – especially given the kinds of violence we see playing out in the real world?

SUT JHALLY: I have to say up front that I’m not particularly sympathetic to Tarantino, mostly because of the way he’s handled violence in his past work. We need to bear in mind that violence in movies is never just violence – depictions of violence tell a story about who can do what to whom and can get away with it. And these stories position viewers in specific ways in relation to that violence. I think that in the past, and to a great extent in Django as well, Tarantino has been guilty of glorying in what the pioneering media scholar George Gerbner called “happy violence” – violence that’s delivered with a joke, violence that’s not very serious, violence that’s glamorized. It becomes a cartoon version of violence, and it masks the real pain and tragedy that always accompany violence in the real world. So in a Tarantino film, every time you laugh at the absurdity of violence – rather than being horrified by it – you are experiencing violence in what Gerbner called a “happy” way. A pretty characteristic example of this in Tarantino films occurs in the scene in Pulp Fiction, when John Travolta accidentally blows someone’s head off and Tarantino plays it for laughs. The result is to minimize how we think about real-world violence. And that’s been the major way I’ve thought about Tarantino’s use of violence over the years.

I also haven’t been very sympathetic to Tarantino’s dismissive take on the effects of movie violence in the real world. I don’t think media violence has the kind of direct effect that a lot of people assign to it – there’s not a lot of research to support the view that there’s some kind of simplistic, monkey-see-monkey-do effect on human behavior. That said, I do think media representations have some effect on how we see the world, on our attitudes about the world and towards other people. And I think these attitudes, in turn, can shape how we behave in the world. In fact, there’s a lot of good research – like the work of the cultural indicators project out of the Annenberg School – that shows exactly these sorts of effects. And Tarantino seems to want to ignore all of that. He’s been outspoken in denying any connection at all between media representations and real-life attitudes and behavior. He has continually dismissed and scoffed at any hint that his films might be part of a larger culture that affects his audience. And, maybe worst of all, he’s been willing to hide behind the silly, tired notion that he’s just an “artist” and therefore not responsible for how people might be influenced by his films. At the very least, artists should take responsibility for what they unleash on the world.

All of this being the case, I was actually pleasantly surprised by Django.

I actually think it’s a very nuanced film. Nuance isn’t a term normally applied to Tarantino; but in this film, at least, I think he very clearly uses violence in multiple ways – and I think it has multiple effects. There are in fact two distinctive types of violence depicted in the film, each with its own relationship to the film’s broader treatment of race, racism, white supremacy, and slavery. On the one hand, you have the typical happy violence, Tarantino’s trademark shoot-‘em-up stuff. But what’s most interesting here is how he directs this style of violence almost exclusively – with one key exception – against white people. When white people are being blown to bits by Django and Mr. Shultz, it’s presented almost like a joke. There are limbs flying off, pieces of flesh coming off bodies, and it’s all done in a way that’s cartoonish, always with a knowing sense of irony. This is all typical Tarantino: utterly predictable, nothing transgressive, nothing unique.

But there’s another kind of violence at work in the film as well: the violence directed against the black slave population. When this violence comes, the tone suddenly shifts: there’s nothing happy or jokey or cartoonish about any of it. The violence directed at black people comes across as real, and we feel its tragic dimensions. It’s excruciating the way he presents this violence, and it forces you to witness and endure and process the brutal inhumane dimensions of slavery as an institution. Unlike the happy violence, which draws you in, here you feel the need to look away. The sheer barbarity of what you’re seeing – the knowledge that it’s real, that violence like this really happened, that it was legal and accepted in the United States – all of this makes these scenes really difficult to watch. It goes beyond blood and guts and choreographed violence. The pain of flogging is brought out in excruciating detail. We see dogs literally rip a slave apart. We see brutal depictions of “battle royals,” where two black men fight to the death for the entertainment of white people. That violence is real in the film. It’s not glorified. You don’t look forward to it. You don’t joke about it. And in this way, it positions us, as viewers, like Dr. Schultz, who can’t stand to watch.

The most important thing, in my view, is that these depictions of violence force us to empathize with the victims of this violence. To me that’s the key – especially when it comes to the question of how white people experience this film.

EARP: What’s your sense of that – how white people experience this film, and how this might differ from the experience of people of color?

JHALLY: White people are obviously a big part of Tarantino’s audience, and to the extent that this film is getting them to empathize with the violence of slavery – not to laugh at, but to empathize with the pain endured by black slaves – to the extent the film succeeds in doing that, then it’s getting people to engage with violence in a different – and I think really important – way.

I went to see the film in Springfield, Massachusetts, and the audience was mostly young to middle-aged, male, and white. They were clearly Tarantino fans, and you can bet that a lot of them were there for the happy violence they’ve come to expect from Tarantino – for violence without real consequences, violence as pure entertainment. And they got some of that – even though here, again, one of the interesting things is how most of this violence is perpetrated by a black man against white supremacists. That’s played for laughs, which is pretty radical in and of itself, but the really important moments come when the film then turns things entirely around and forces white viewers to empathize with black people who are oppressed by slavery and institutionalized white supremacy. That’s an even more radical act, in my view. I can’t think of any other place in popular culture where a white audience has been forced to do that.

Those are the main reasons I think Django is perhaps the most radical film of the year –its depiction of racialized violence, and the fact that it has the power to draw in white audiences that might otherwise avoid the subject of slavery altogether. This film forces Tarantino fans who wouldn’t necessarily go and see a film about slavery to confront slavery in all of its horror. That’s extremely effective – it’s politically effective.

EARP: On the question of effects, you said at the start of your response that it’s not enough to talk about the direct effects of discrete examples of violence, that we always need to get at the dominant story about violence the culture tells. I’m trying to square that with your conclusion that Django is subversive. Isn’t it the case that the dominant story American culture tells about violence – especially gun violence – is that it’s a legitimate and effective way to solve problems? And isn’t it the case that Django in fact does nothing at all to subvert this story about violence? True, it’s a black guy killing whites – but, in the end, isn’t it still violence that’s being glamorized here as the great equalizer?

JHALLY: When I say it’s the most radical film of the year, why is it radical? It’s not radical around what it says about the uses of violence as a solution to these things. It’s radical around one thing, which is that it gets white people, and I’m generalizing here, but it gets white people who would otherwise never think about slavery and never think about black people and never think about what has happened to black people, it gets them to think about racism, slavery, and America’s history of institutional white supremacy. Does it get them to think about it differently? I don’t know. But it does get them to think about it. It forces a conversation.

Now it could well be that people are not affected by this confrontation with the brutality of racism at all, but that’s just a part of cultural politics. There’s never a guarantee what the specific outcome of a political intervention is going to be. That’s always going to be fluid. But the fact that we don’t arrive at one set answer – or at the answer we would hope for – doesn’t negate the value of the intervention itself. There can still be an intervention that forces a new set of questions. And I think it’s impossible, if you’re a white person who doesn’t walk around with racism and the legacy of slavery at the forefront of your mind, not to watch this film and at least think about slavery and white supremacy in their most brutal manifestations. What other films have forced that kind of discussion about slavery? What other film has forced white Americans to deal with the fundamental violence, the murderous and brutal nature of slavery in the way this one does? It’s really one of the great silences of American culture.

Sure, it’s just one film – and only one part of one film – but I think that’s all one message within our media system can do. It can’t change the system on its own, but it can disrupt it. It can force people to pause and think differently about it. To the extent that Django succeeds in doing that, I think that’s what makes it radical. At the same time, I understand it’s also wrapped up within the normal Tarantino things – the glamorized violence, all the dead bodies. But this is the way cultural politics always works. You can’t just subvert the dominant stories – and the dominant ideologies they hold in place – all at once, in one grand, totalizing gesture. You’ve got to do it a little bit at a time. How else do you have this conversation?

EARP: But let’s just stick with the question of violence for a minute, especially debates around the cumulative impact of media violence, and the larger stories we tell ourselves as a culture about violence. Isn’t it a concern of yours that the very things you’re citing here as subversive in the end are more or less undone by the larger regressive message that violence offers a solution to problems? Are you saying that in Djangothis may be the same old story about violence, but it somehow becomes subversive, and progressive, simply because it’s black people killing white people? Isn’t the film still saying that violence is a viable way to redress grievances? Wouldn’t a more subversive film go another route entirely – disrupt this most dominant of our dominant narratives about guns and violence?

JHALLY: My answer to that would be you don’t have to look to Tarantino films to do that. Look at the rest of the movies in Hollywood. Look at the rest of the culture where violence is presented in this way. One film is not going to change that. So when you think about Tarantino doing this film –

EARP: You’re saying he doesn’t have to do everything …

JHALLY: Right, he doesn’t have to do everything – and he’s using a formula that his audience is familiar with. But once they’re inside that formula, that genre, he is subverting it. And that’s the thing about using “the language” that’s already there. How do you engage the audience? You can lecture them, you can harangue them, you can tell them they shouldn’t like this stuff – and you’ll be left without an audience. They’ll tune you out. If you want to meaningfully and practically engage the audience, and this for me has always been our bottom-line goal here at MEF, how do you do that? Well, you have to use the language that’s already there. You have to use the images that are already there. I did this with the very first film I did, Dreamworlds.

EARP: You were basically offering a feminist critique of MTV music videos – but, because you mobilized these same images over the course of your analysis, some people criticized you for engaging in the very objectification of women you were trying to challenge.

JHALLY: Yes, a lot of people were critical of my strategy for exactly that reason. They thought that by using the language of the image that dominates the culture to critique that very same language, I was simply reaffirming it, not challenging it – even though I was offering an explicit critique of these images. I disagreed. I knew I needed to show these images in order to force students to think about them in new ways, to de-familiarize these images and stories, to make them strange, so that students could achieve some critical distance from them yet engage them at the same time. I knew that if I wanted to talk to people who saw these images as normal, as second nature, then I would need to do so by working with and through these images, not at some scholarly remove from them. The pedagogical and cultural question is always: How do you take these images and subvert them in some way? And my strategy was one of overkill: to show one image after the other so that after a while the experience of watching this torrent of images –decontextualized from the original music that went along with them – would move people from pleasure to discomfort. You’re using the language of the image, but you’re getting people, young people in this case, to think about them in a different way.

EARP: So to bring this back to what Tarantino is doing, you’re saying that Django uses the dominant conventions of violent films to subvert our dominant stories about race, right? I get that part of it. But that still leaves open the question of how subversive, or radical, a film like this can really be given that it simultaneously reinforces a very dangerous narrative about gun violence: a narrative that says that if you have a grievance – in fact especially if you have a grievance – blowing away the people who are screwing you over is not only the answer, but a glamorous one at that. Couldn’t a case be made that this makes this film even more regressive politically than the old genre Westerns precisely because it gives the film an allure of progressive credibility – even as it reinforces an incredibly reactionary, and very traditional, message about the efficacy of violence?

JHALLY: That depends on whether you think violence can ever be represented. This was one of the things that George Gerbner said when he talked about violence: that not all depictions of violence are the same or equal. There is violence in Shakespeare, in great literature, that shows the tragic consequences of violence. And, again, the main critique of Tarantino to this point, and most Hollywood films, has been that you never see the pain and the real tragic consequences of violence. Well, I think it’s impossible to look at the violence that’s depicted against black people in Django and simply not be affected by that – to say that this violence is presented in a glorified or glamorized way. This is not happy violence. There’s happy violence in the film, but not this.

EARP: Well, what about the happy violence then? Over the years, MEF has leveled a sustained critique of happy violence in popular culture, zeroing in on its normalizing and desensitizing effects on people’s attitudes about violence. Are you somehow less interested in the effects of this kind of violence in this case because it’s directed at white people? Wouldn’t a more “radical” film force us to see the pain and reality of the white people being killed in this film as well – even if, maybe especially if, they’re white supremacist slaveholders? Isn’t that exactly what Shakespeare would give us? In fact, isn’t that what distinguishes tragedy – the refusal to reduce people to caricatures? You’re certainly not suggesting that when the victims of happy violence are people in positions of dominance, it’s okay to glamorize killing them, are you? Wouldn’t that be a really dangerous position given how many mass shootings have been perpetrated by marginalized figures who saw themselves as bullied and ostracized and kept down by the system? Aren’t these precisely the kinds of people who would be very likely to identify with Django over the white people in this film – even if they, themselves, are white?

JHALLY: But if there is not enough of that happy violence, which is what his core audience expects – and this is actually the basis of westerns in general, the “spaghetti western” in particular) – then there will be nobody watching. You’d have admirable purity in the message, but you’d likely have zero interaction with an audience. At that point you might as well not make a film. And again, when you look at the happy violence in Django, I do think that the film is radical to the extent that it gets white people to cheer along with a black person who is shooting up white racists. For them to identify with Django, however superficially, is a very interesting contradiction, racially speaking.

EARP: So you’re okay with audiences – including young men, whether they’re white or black – identifying with and cheering on shooters because they’re black?

JHALLY: Within this genre, within this narrative, if you want to move the conversation along, that is what you have to adopt. You can say, Well, I just refuse to speak that language. But if no one hears what you’ve said, what’s the point? I think that’s actually why I say that Django is the most radical film of the year.

EARP: So that’s the key.

JHALLY: That’s always the key for me. Not the message by itself. This, at least to me, is what cultural studies is about. It’s not literary analysis. It’s not just about “here’s this film and here’s one way of understanding it, here’s another way of understanding it,” and so on. That’s literary studies. What cultural studies asks is how this message works in this culture at this time.

EARP: If the ultimate goal is a nonviolent society, you’re willing to compromise that – or certain elements of that – in order to move audiences in a certain way?

JHALLY: I don’t know if it’s about compromise. It’s more about thinking politically, not artistically. How do you think about issues like these politically? And in one sense, that’s what MEF has always done. I definitely agree there is a danger of things working against what you’re trying to do because you’re using the dominant language, the master’s language, if you will. But if you want to be in the real world – and be politically relevant in the real world – there is no other option.

End of part 1. See Part 2