Sunday, January 6, 2013

The horror inherent in chains

Having recently seen Quentin Tarantino's latest film "Django Unchained", I came away satisfied but not quite. It does not feel quite as ambitious as the earlier "Inglorious Basterds", nor was it as intimate as "Deathproof", and while very entertaining at times, its pacing seemed constantly off. But this is not meant to be a review of the film as a film; I'd much rather mention the parts of the film that underscore the intense yet casual and systematic brutality of American slavery. What is surprising to me is that aside from a few excellent documentaries, there are very few feature films made about slavery, the lives of the slaves and the slave owners. Oh, there is Spielberg's excellent Amistad, and the amazing (in my opinion the best) Civil War film Glory, both of which have slave and ex-slave characters, but neither of which are about slavery. The rather poor adaptation of Uncle Tom's Cabin approaches the subject in more detail, but also with more paternalism (as indeed the novel did as well). What Django does extremely well, once we get past QT's signature dialogue, the morbid humour, the long and brutal shootouts and fight scenes, is how it shows the commonplace horrors of slavery in a way that really got under my skin once I noticed them.

*** Minor spoilers ahead ***

For me, one of the most striking shots, but one that I found after the film that the audience had missed, is a shot of the so-called 'hot box' - a half-buried wooden chest sitting in the middle of a lawn, well-outside of any possible shade, into which a recalcitrant slave is thrown as punishment, to endure the heat of the sun and all that it entails. Horrific punishment? Undoubtedly. But what really underscored the horror was that the hot box is situated in the middle of a perfectly manicured lushly green laws, whose greenery is broken by a well-beaten brown path leading only to the hot box. Let this mental image settle and digest for a minute. How many slaves would need to be escorted and thrown into the hot box year after year for their feet - and the feet of the guards - to make this well-beaten path? This one detail demonstrates both QT's genius as a film maker and the care with which he approaches the subject. One tiny detail suggests an entire system in place, rather than an arbitrary brutality.

Another equally striking scene is that of house slaves setting up a table in the fanciest European style (as the plantation owner is entertaining a European immigrant). Their movements are precise and practiced, the camera lingers on the motion of their fingers as the slaves carefully smooth the napkin after setting down each piece of cutlery and china. The scene is beautiful yet haunting - the juxtaposition between their status as slaves and the finery and opulence that surrounds them (is indeed in their hands!) is clear. This short scene serves as a preamble to a narratively more important dinner scene later on, but coming on the heels of the hot box (and one other scene) it has undeniable power. The director seems to be suggesting that the contrast isn't merely between wealth and slavery, but also between the different hierarchies among the slaves, and it does so in a purely visual way that is just as effective (if not more so) than Samuel L. Jackson's excellent performance as the house slave butler.

I'll conclude with another powerful scene. A character is walking with a beautiful slave girl on plantation grounds, inspecting it as it were. Throughout the long shot there is a sound of a whip cracking in the background and it's getting louder. The audience of course tenses up - we think we know what's coming. Yet observe the background and the slave girl giving the tour. Life is going on in the background, children playing, women washing linen, and so on. Can the slaves not hear the whip? Of course they can. Do they not feel pain and horror at having one of their number ? Of course they do. But to them the crack of the whip becomes the background noise of everyday life which is already brutish, nasty and short. The implication in the seemingly tranquility of life in the background is that such an occurrence is so systematic and pervasive that it does not bear thinking about consciously.

There are many other similar details, often tiny and background, that underscore the brutality of the system, and for that QT should receive high accolades indeed, because behind the dialogue, the Western tropes, the humour, the stylish (sometimes even cartoony) violence, "Django Unchained" is an honest and unflinching look at a very dark time and place in American history. Nowadays, despite having a black president, there are many attempts to whitewash the history, often in reaction to historical revisionism of 1960s-1990s. Textbooks are being rewritten to eliminate any mention that the Founding Fathers were for the most part slave owners, that many American presidents were slave owners and profited from it greatly, that slavery was not merely an evil perpetuated by individuals but that it was an integral part of American political and economic history. But that's a discussion for another time.