Django Unchained: Roots & Routes

Half a dozen black men in shackles, with festering welts on their backs, shuffling across a barren landscape, herded by two white men on horseback with guns.

A note that says we’re “somewhere in Texas,” and opening credits in tacky, red font.

Roberto Fia’s voice crooning the twangy, but Italian, theme song from the original 60’s version of Django.

The scene changes to a dark, cold night.

When the music stops, there’s nothing but the loud pulse of clinking chains.

From beginning to end, the moving images convey movement, transport, travel, journey, evolution, escape, venturing off into expansive, unknown landscapes and into unknown futures.

Sometimes the movement is solemn, ugly, and industrial. Shackled feet trudging through thick mud. A human conveyor belt with no visible beginning or end.

Then there’s the stoic odyssey through snow, across deserts, and eventually into the deep south.

Django Unchained is steeped in the symbolism of roots & routes.

Western Genre

This film was inspired by the classic, American film genre of the western, which features the classic American hero of the cowboy.

The title of Django Unchained and the plot to rescue a stolen love, are remixes of the original 1966 western, Django, by Sergio Corbucci, which has had a few sequels over the years.

The actor who played Django in 1966, Franco Nero, actually makes a significant cameo in Django Unchained in that infamous scene when Django spells his name and explains, “The D is silent.” Nero’s character simply replies, “I know.”

That scene is merely one display, I believe, of the fact that this was not just a whim for Tarantino. He grew up watching westerns the way I grew up reading Nikki Giovanni and Langston Hughes. It’s quite possible that watching those movies as a boy inspired Tarantino to make films in the first place.

Like any inspired artist, he’s not just remixing the old; he’s paying homage to the artists and the work that preceded him and keeping it alive for younger generations to appreciate.

The nod to westerns of old is the roots of this film. The remix is the routes.

Tarantino essentially says, here’s what my predecessors have done, and here’s how I can build on that, moving forward with a vision that’s all my own.

I love the intentional allusion to history in any type of work, and the will to perpetuate the evolution for a contemporary context.

Here’s how Tarantino explains the roots & routes (my term) of his own film:

Technically it’s a southern, done in the style of the western. The way we think of westerns, the characters go on a western odyssey. We start with our characters in Texas, to give everybody a sense of the familiar. And then we start moving toward where the cotton is. 

Southern Setting

Imagine pure, bright, white cotton . . .

Growing in tailored rows in a large field.

Can you see it?

The soft, billowy, fluff of a flower.

Now see it gushed with red drops of blood.

That’s one of my favorite images from Django Unchained.

And the ubiquitous presence of roads. Seems like every other scene features Django riding horseback through the streets of a town or down long stretches of country roads

Roads clearly symbolize roots & routes. They’re solely meant to facilitate transportation. On roads, we leave one place and travel to another.

With that physical movement, we occasionally experience a spiritual movement― a new start, a sense of freedom, or return for a reckoning, all aptly applied to Django Unchained.

I also feel particularly connected to this film because it was shot on an actual plantation in Louisiana. No Hollywood, replica set here.

Regardless of where they live now, many people who watch Django Unchained have Southern roots. Their ancestors routed to other regions of the American countryside, possibly experiencing their own type of real life western.

And of course, all Americans, not just southerners, share deep roots in American slavery.

Context of Slavery

How do you go all the way back to allow the ghosts of slaves or ancestors to speak through you? Jamie Foxx

Slavery sparks much debate about Django Unchained, controversy that enticed me to see it even more!

The roots & routes of slavery are parallel tracks in this film.

We get the typical slave narrative woven throughout: lowered eyes, quivering voices, the crack of whips, black mistresses, hungry hounds, lavish power and wealth, phrenology, and the overall social order of the day.

Simultaneously on the screen with those images is a former slave who looks white men in the eyes, talks assertively to them, turns the whip on them, and calls them BOY.

The route from slavery is that a time will has come when a black man doesn’t have to sit by, powerless and unable to protect his black wife while she’s captured, sold, beaten, and raped.

This is bigger than an escape route. The black man doesn’t just escape from this group of slave owners; he defeats them.

Like Django, the audience must journey into the South and into the past to confront evil and reclaim what’s ours, which I think is ultimately pride.

I say pride, because of the evolution of one, minor character, depicted solely by his facial expressions. (I’ll let you watch the film to catch that cue.)

There’s so much more to say, but my self-imposed word count has dwindled, and despite the fact that it’s become one of my new favorites, I’m simply not inclined to write more than one post on this movie.

My first attempt at writing about it approached the length of a graduate thesis. Here’s what my subheadings were for the original post:

  • audience
  • cast & crew
  • colorism
  • directors
  • genre
  • the German
  • humor
  • location
  • love
    • male & female
    • self-love
  • masculinity
  • the *N* word
  • slavery
  • soundtrack
  • violence
    • against blacks
    • against whites
  • women

Seeing as how I didn’t want to spend all of 2013 writing about this one film, I scrapped that draft and tried two more times. Even though I saw so much in the film, I had to choose the path that beckoned me the most.

I’m sure you have thoughts. Share them in the comments.

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Colorism: Talk About Media Coverage

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Here, I’m not going to focus on the commonly analyzed role media has on colorism. Usually we report on the dearth of dark skinned women in movies and television. We might report on how dark skinned actresses are more often cast in the antagonistic/comedic/sidekick roles. People have even commented on the airbrushing of women’s skin to make them lighter in magazines.

The focus of this series of posts is more meta, in the sense that I’m talking about the act of talking about colorism. Therefore, what I’ll give you in this post are thoughts on colorism as a topic or story-line in media.

The issue of colorism literally gets little air time relative to other issues.

For example I’ve seen many shows and movies that deal directly with biases against overweight children and adults. In fact, I wanted to write this post after watching the premier episode of the ABC Family comedy State of Georgia, starring Raven Symone. In this episode Georgia (Symone’s character on the show) auditions for an acting role, only to have her hopes dashed when the casting director tells her: “When they talk about the big seduction scene, they don’t mean the size of the actress.” (The scene was powerful, but I don’t want to ruin it.) This scene and others like it are important because they give young girls like Raven Symone a great example of how to deal with such bias. The character’s reaction surely empowered me. (FYI: Drop Dead Diva on Lifetime, another show I enjoy, also includes weight bias in its storyline.)

I think the focus on colorism gets less air time because “mainstream” individuals and entities still control much of the media, and they primarily target so called “mainstream” audiences. Because we’re talking about color, “mainstream” means white in this context. Whites don’t deal with colorism amongst their own race the way people of color do, so the topic doesn’t show up in the media they produce. That, of course, doesn’t mean colorism can’t be addressed in such media.

Maybe I just don’t watch enough television, but I’ve yet to see a show that overtly includes the issue of colorism in the storyline. A few movie makers have done a better job of including the issue in their storylines, or at least in a short line of dialogue. Spike Lee’s School Daze probably reigns as the most infamous of such films, with its sorority scene, but what have we produced recently?

A more contemporary film, Dark Girls, epitomizes talking about colorism, not just showcasing it in action. The documentary genre lends itself to talking about issues. Dark Girls doesn’t premier until October, but we already see it affecting people in profound ways. More and more people mention it on blogs and social networking sites, and many women have come out and shared their personal stories in writing and video.

Joy Daily has also made colorism the topic of discussion in a YouTube series she titled Complexion Obsession. Her slant is toward hip hop videos, and the comments of the rappers and video models are revealing.

I advocate for making colorism the topic of discussion rather then an incidental consideration in discussions on other topics. It’s not enough just to know that colorism exists or to point out instances of colorism, though we can stand to do more of that too. We need to realize the adverse effects of colorism and harness power against it. That requires a direct analysis of the issue, not an incidental observation after which we merely shrug our shoulders.

The media is not solely responsible for such discussions, but since the media plays such a huge role in perpetuating, propagating, and even cultivating colorism, we will have to use media as part of the solution. Yes, we need more dark skinned actresses and actors cast in desirable roles, but we also need more storylines that express the emotional aspect of colorism. It’s not enough to show dark skinned girls and light skinned girls battling. We need to show these same girls making strides in dealing with the heart of the matter, growing to understand and love each other and love themselves, and ultimately empowering themselves against the racist influences that led them to battle in the first place. Developing such a story arc requires that colorism take center stage every once in a while.

As I hope to do with this small series of posts, we also need to talk about colorism. However, we need to do more than just ask if Beyonce’s skin was lightened in an ad. We need to ask and answer: What books, movies, songs, museums, affirmations, websites, games, or honest discussions can I share with my child starting before the age of five and continuing on to help her or him have a healthy perspective on skin color? All of these are forms of media that we can wield against colorism. Which of them do you already hold in your hand?

With love, from Sarah L. Webb