Is “Django Unchained” a Radical Movie? A Conversation with Sut Jhally (Part 2)

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.

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JEREMY EARP: Your argument that violence functions in radical ways in Django makes me wonder what you thought of another big Oscar contender this year, Lincoln … a film that’s very explicitly not about the violence of the Civil War and slavery, but about the political process that was required to end both. For that very reason, couldn’t a good case be made that Lincoln is the more radical film — in the sense that it completely subverts the normal narrative about violence in American media? Here’s a film that says politics, political struggle, democratic deliberation, and argument are the best and most effective ways to solve injustice – not guns, and not killing. So just in terms of its sheer and abrupt departure from Hollywood’s normalization of violence as the most effective way to redress grievances and injustice, can’t this be seen as a radical film in its own right?

SUT JHALLY: I liked Lincoln as a film, but I don’t think it’s a film about slavery as such, despite being about the Thirteenth Amendment. It has slavery as its subject, but it’s really essentially about parliamentary process and the nitty-gritty of constitutional politics. And while I enjoyed it, I don’t think it’s in any way a transgressive film. I don’t think it gets people to think differently about slavery. It gets people to think differently about slavery’s role within the building of a nation, which is primarily why Lincoln was so opposed to slavery. It wasn’t that he loved black people. It’s that he saw the institution of slavery tearing the country apart, and therefore felt it needed to be removed at its root to make the United States whole. And while I think that’s all presented pretty well, you never actually see slavery, or even slaves. The only black people you see are freed black people. Black characters are really secondary to the story that’s being told. So in that sense, the film is not really about race. And to the extent that it is about race, the story being told is about the role white people played in ending the institution of slavery.

Now I’m not an expert on the history of slavery, but I’ve heard it argued that slave rebellions and black resistance were really important factors in the abolition of slavery. In fact, a recent article by Thom Hartmann argues that the Second Amendment on the right to bear arms was designed to make sure that white southern slave patrols would always have the right to be armed against black people. None of that is in the film, because that’s not what the film’s about. It’s a very standard, feel-good Hollywood film. Come on, it’s Spielberg after all! That’s his function within the culture. It’s not to challenge fundamental assumptions about the history of the country.

EARP: Let’s switch gears. To move on to another criticism leveled at Django Unchained, what’s your take on Tarantino’s excessive use of the word “nigger” in the film?

JHALLY: Well, the issue is not just the use of the word. It’s really the excessive use of it, because, in fact, “nigger” is used in Lincoln as well. It’s used three times actually. So why aren’t we hearing debate about Spielberg’s right to use the word as a white filmmaker? I think the reason there’s been no debate about the use of the word in Lincoln is because, historically speaking, this is exactly the language that would be used at the time. Did southern whites not use the word nigger to refer to slaves? Of course they did.

EARP: Do you have any sympathy at all for those, like Spike Lee, who have criticized Tarantino’s excessive use of the word? Or do you see it mainly as the product of a certain kind of purist and overly moralistic left?

JHALLY: I think it’s a generational thing. I mean, does Spike Lee never say the word “nigger” in his films? Of course he does. The context may be a little bit different but it’s not about the word itself, it’s about the context within which it’s used. At this time, how would white people have referred to the slave population? What would they have called them, “Negros?” “Slaves of color?” It’s a Hollywood film. It’s Tarantino. It’s glamorized. It’s excessive in all these ways. And those who use this word the most are, of course, punished for it by Django in the most unsympathetic ways.

Actually, it’s interesting that the one time I recall happy violence being used against a black person in Djangocomes near the end when the Samuel L. Jackson character, Stephen, is killed. He’s killed in the same “happy” way the other whites are killed. There’s no tragedy to it because he’s a collaborator. The tragedy is reserved for people who are really victims. He’s black but he’s not a victim. In that sense, it was a very interesting choice by Tarantino. And whether he intended it or not, I think it functions politically. In a more simplistic film – one that treated blackness, on its own, as something essential to be honored – we’d expect Stephen to be killed with the same tragic edge and gravitas as the other black people in the film. But that’s not the case. Stephen is killed the same way the white people are killed. So it’s not simply racial. It’s also about morality and ideology.

EARP: Spike Lee also made news by announcing before the film was even released that he was not going to see it, on principle, as a matter of conscience and out of respect for his ancestors. For him, the idea of turning slavery into a spaghetti western was the height of disrespect. This gets to another issue entirely, one that has less to do with how black people are represented in the film than with who gets to do the representing. What do you make of this line of criticism?

JHALLY: The question of who gets to speak has actually always been a diverting question. I had it when I first made Dreamworlds. People said, who are you to deal with female representation – this is a women’s issue, we’re the only ones who can speak, etc. This kind of identity-driven politics presupposes that only certain people can speak about certain things, and in this case it presumes that slavery is not about white people as well. Why can’t a white guy make a movie about white racism? The same goes for issues around femininity and masculinity. Should men be barred from engaging feminist issues because they’re men? How does that make sense if feminism, at its best, also represents a radical critique of masculinity and manhood? Could someone credibly argue that men shouldn’t be allowed to critically examine men – and sexism – from a feminist standpoint? Who are you to say this is just your history? This is my history as well.

EARP: So it’s less about who gets to represent whom than it is about the responsibility that comes with representation? Can you talk about the issue of responsibility?

JHALLY: The real question, when it comes to representation, is what you want the representation to do. How do you want to move discussion forward? All communication is about what you want to do. Communication’s not just about representing something in some abstract way, and leaving it at that. By definition, you want to have an impact. That presumably is the reason Spike Lee makes films – he wants his films to be seen and to change how people think about race. My initial response to Spike Lee would be, “You’re pretty much the most powerful black filmmaker in Hollywood, why haven’t you made a film about slavery?” If he thinks this is such an important subject, why has he not made the definitive film on it? But then to turn around and say, “No, you can’t make this film because this is mine, because it belongs to me and my ancestors” … I just think that’s unwise. It’s not about who has the right to make a film about slavery. It’s about what the film tries to do. And you’ve got to see it to evaluate it on that basis. And then critique it on that basis – not before the fact in some kind of pure way steeped in identity politics. If he were to watch the film and come to the conclusion that Tarantino’s whiteness distorted his perspective on slavery, that’d be a relevant critique. If you can show how the identity or biography of the author shapes the way a cultural text is constructed, then of course that’s fair game. But simply to say that Tarantino – or white people generally – aren’t allowed to speak about this is the worst kind of essentialism. And it can lead to a dangerous kind of political paralysis.

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EARP: It can make white people afraid to engage these things?

JHALLY: Absolutely. I mean I don’t know how many white commentators on race have really talked about Django. I know there have been some prominent absences. I do wonder if there’s some reluctance there. I wonder if some white critics and commentators have bought into the notion that when you talk about race, it’s really about blackness and about black people. If so, it’s bound to leave them asking: Who am I to say anything about this representation of black people?

EARP: Especially if prominent African Americans like Spike Lee have preemptively said that he’s uncomfortable with the movie.

JHALLY: At that point you’re not just talking about race; you’re also talking about broader notions of cultural politics and who has the right to be able to speak. Do only Jews get to speak about Israel? Do only Arabs get to talk about Palestinians? I hope not. It narrows the debate. It narrows the discussion. And these discussions desperately need to be opened up – no matter how messy they might get – not shut down.

EARP: Final word. Which of these statements rings most true to you: Despite its brutal and effective critique of slavery, Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained is a violent movie that in the end glamorizes and normalizes violence in dangerous ways. Or: Django is ultimately – and surprisingly – an anti-violence movie that uses the tools of violence to make an anti-violence statement. Which of those two seems most accurate to you?

JHALLY: Well, I’d say it’s both of these things. It uses the language of glamorized violence to force people to think about violence – especially the institutionalized violence of racism and slavery – in new ways. So it does both. It’s not one or the other. In that way, I think it’s an open question, and I’m willing to leave it open. For me, it’s the most radical mainstream film of the year, and that’s because of what I anticipate its effects will be. When I went to see it, there were all these guys milling around in the lobby afterwards, and they were talking about which Tarantino film was their favorite. And what I thought was, these guys would never have gone to see a film on slavery and here they are having to discuss this, having to confront slavery and reconcile it with the fact that they’re these irony-loving Tarantino fans. Stuart Hall talks about the dirty semiotic game where knowledge and power interact. And that’s exactly what cultural politics is all about. If you want to be in cultural politics, it’s a dirty game – an unpredictable and uneven semiotic game where reality and lived experience interact with all these questions of representation and narrative and cultural imagery. The bottom line is that you have to have an analysis that works in this context.

End of interview. See Part 1