Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Django: A Critical Reflection

The gospel demands of us a commitment to a long-term process of self-examination in order that we might understand how our national past remains embedded in the present, like an unsevered umbilical cord.
Ched Myers, Who Will Roll Away The Stone (1994)

The great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do.
James Baldwin

I'm just a little more used to Americans than he is.
Django, on why he is less disgusted than his German partner Dr. Shultz when a runaway slave is ordered to be eaten by dogs

In his 3rd volume of Systematic Theology (Witness, 2000), published just days before his death, the highly underrated and underread Anabaptist ("baptist") scholar James McClendon, laid out a clear structure of cultural engagement for "radical" Christian disciples (and deeply useful for all people of faith and conscience). He offered a "theology of culture" that has three distinct "trajectories" rooted in three legendary theologians of the 20th century: Paul Tillich, who eagerly and irenically searched the secular landscape looking for meaning [HOPE]; Julian Hartt, who sought to expose the lies and illusions of wider culture that counterfeit our lives [WARNING]; and John Howard Yoder, who called upon communities to pledge allegiance to the biblical "reign of God" in ways that (more often than not) subverted American culture [DEMAND]. All three of these emphases are needed for an effective witness.

McClendon's cultural rubric rejects a simplistic either-or dualism that labels everything as either good or evil. Using Navajo religion as a case study, McClendon emphasized that Christians, by valuing both critical study and disciplined devotion ought to be neither relativists nor absolutists:

Its business is to affirm them where they are true, to correct them where they are harmfully wrong, and to complete them by showing the relation between these stories and an inclusive story of all the earth…to repeat, the gospel is not a simple no or yes to Navajo ‘religion’ but declares a simultaneous yes and no.

McClendon's work is a godsend in a world of mindless American entertainment consumption. We, indeed, are amusing ourselves to death. Building off the work of British philosopher Alisdair MacIntyre, McClendon dignosed American culture at the dawn of the 21st century, as "fragmented," a clash of competing metanarratives about what Life is essentially all about. Any work of art (including TV, movies, books, etc) makes claims about our telos (the goal of life) and the virtues and practices that make up our time on planet Earth. Unfortunately, our narratives awkwardly and uncritically fuse together, making life confusing and uncentered.

Borrowing from McClendon, I present to you a critique of Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained, a film garnering widespread acclaim, including $130 million at the box office and an Oscar Best Picture nomination.

Hope: Tarantino is a genius at unveiling just how gruesome humanity can be. In Django, he reminds us just how twisted race relations have been, particularly in the years anticipating the American Civil War. African Americans were so "thingified" (MLK) that they could be bought and sold, breaking up the family unit at will. Indeed, it was a shock to Southern whites when Django had the audacity to ride a horse, as Leonardo DiCaprio's Calvin Candie passionately pushes his slaves into vicious Mandingo fighting-to-the-death against slaves of rival slave owners. We know that Hollywood has fictionalized the Mandingo enterprise, but slave owners would send slaves to box it out for pure entertainment.

Tarantino's presentation of life in the 19th century American South beckons us to consider the continued racial injustice that plagues our nation and our world. Our overcrowded prisons and dilapidated schools are overwhelmed with African-Americans who have grown up in impoverished innercities, while our corporate farms are harvested by immigrant labor, undocumented and poorly compensated. On top of this, our corporations are getting more and more sophisticated outsource slavery to Third World locales that make everything from iPhones to the Dallas Cowboys.

In short, we must be reminded of the hideousness and insanity of our history, both personal and national. Indeed, we are all greatly shaped by the mentality and actions of previous generations. We do not start afresh. Only when we dare to enter the darkness of the past can we embrace a true journey of healing, joining our oppressed and marginalized brothers and sisters in their demand for personal dignity and systemic justice.

Warning: Django is porn for all those who harbor revenge fantasies. Tarantino soaked German Jews in redemptive violence in Inglorious Basterds and, who knows, perhaps will come alongside the 18th century frontier Native American or late 20th century gay high school student next. Tarantino, in fact, set out to make this film the photo negative of the legendary African-American Roots:

One thing both men agreed on was a scene in Roots that served as an example of what not to do in Django Unchained. The last act of the final episode features the character Chicken George being given the opportunity to beat his slave master and owner in much the same way he’d been punished and tormented. In the end the character chooses not to so he can be “the bigger man.”

“Bulls--t,” exclaim both Tarantino and Hudlin in unison as they discuss the absurdity of the scene. “No way he becomes the bigger man at that moment,” says Tarantino. “The powers that be during the ’70s didn’t want to send the message of revenge to African-Americans. They didn’t want to give black people any ideas. But anyone knows that would never happen in that situation. And in Django ­Unchained we make that clear

But this is a vital problem despite the longing we all have for the world to be put to rights, that the evil-doers will be done right. Redemptive violence is a myth on two major counts: (1) because over and over, throughout history, it has proven to both repeat and intensify what the Brazilian priest Dom Helder Camara called "the spiral of violence;" and (2) after the revenge fantasy (in all its glory!) has concluded there remains a deeply disappointing pit of unfulfillment in our souls--sure enough, evil is blown away by evil, but as Gandhi enunciated so beautifully, "an eye for an eye makes the whole world go blind." Only forgiveness and a creative strategy towards restorative justice can heal the epidemic of abuse and atrocity lurking in the corners of our world.

Demand: If not revenge, then what? The narrative weaknesses of Django call all people of faith and conscience to a more bold and courageous vision of nonviolent resistence and enemy love. This is pacifism, not passivism. It will take power to assert ourselves, confronting injustice in its manifold forms. We will need to embrace a more strategic creativity that employs a variety of weapons of peace and love, like boycotts, protests, marches, artistic appeals, education, satire and a commitment to a holistic lifestyle of nonviolence that considers what we eat, how we communicate and where we work in our grand conspiracy to extinguish hate and abuse from the world.

According to Cornel West, it has been the African-American experience itself that has been a "leaven in the loaf" of American history. Isn't it a wonder, West asks, that there has never been an emergence of a black al Qaeda in the United States, after centuries of violence and terrorism against them? Indeed, Django flips the script on the legacy of Martin Luther King who, influenced by Jesus and Gandhi, consistently and coherently devoted his movement of confronting the vicious presence of racism, poverty and militarism on the American landscape to the practices of love and forgiveness. This, West consistently points out, is portrayed in the words of the grieving mother of Emmett Till: "I don't have a minute to hate. I am going to pursue justice the rest of my life."

Our world desperately needs practitioners who are militantly committed to peaceful confrontation with power and creative solutions to the many problems, both individual and systemic. A robust critique of Django, during a week celebrating King's prophetic witness, implores us that this task is fiercely urgent.
So far I've only seen 4 Oscar nominated films: Lincoln, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Silver Linings Playbook and Django. In my opinion, Playbook is at the top of the list because of its unique beauty, raw honesty and overwhelming redemptive quality. This narrative is committed to the last and the least becoming the first and the finest. The bipolar and broken are restored to sanity through dance and a daring embrace of the darkness in their souls. This is far more compelling that solutions and fantasies based on heinous killing.

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