[update below] [2nd update below]
I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again: I really liked this movie. It is highly entertaining and with great acting, is funny, offbeat, zany, you name it. It made my top 10 list of 2012 and was my pick for Oscar best picture (though having yet to see ‘Zero Dark Thirty’). But I have just now finished reading a biting critique of the film by political scientist Adolph Reed Jr. of the University of Pennsylvania, which, while not causing the film to fall out of my top 10, is, I will readily admit, very good, indeed excellent. In addition to skewering Quentin Tarantino’s film Reed also does a number on ‘The Help’—a film I appreciated rather less—and delivers a few body blows to ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’—which I did not unreservedly like—and other race-themed Hollywood pics while he’s it. His dense, learned, wide-ranging essay—title: “Django Unchained, or, The Help: How ‘Cultural Politics’ Is Worse Than No Politics at All, and Why“—is very long—clocking in at almost 14,000 words, plus substantive endnotes—but is well worth the time and effort.
In a nutshell, Reed argues that
Django Unchained trivializes slavery by reducing it to its most barbaric and lurid excesses…[and that] perpetrating such brutality was neither the point of slavery nor its essential injustice. The master-slave relationship could, and did, exist without brutality, and certainly without sadism and sexual degradation. In Tarantino’s depiction, however, it is not clear that slavery shorn of its extremes of brutality would be objectionable. It does not diminish the historical injustice and horror of slavery to note that it was not the product of sui generis, transcendent Evil but a terminus on a continuum of bound labor that was more norm than exception in the Anglo-American world until well into the eighteenth century, if not later.
Central to Reed’s argument is the linking of the films in question to the increasing ideological predominance of neoliberalism over the past three decades. His analysis here is very interesting. I liked this passage in particular
Libertarianism is a shuck, more an aesthetics than a politics. Libertarians don’t want the state to do anything other than what they want the state to do. And, as its founding icons understood, it is fundamentally about property rights über alles. Mises and Hayek made clear in theory, and Thatcher and Friedman as Pinochet’s muse in Chile did in practice, that a libertarian society requires an anti-popular, authoritarian government to make sure that property rights are kept sacrosanct. That’s why it’s so common that a few bad days, some sweet nothings, and a couple of snazzy epaulets will turn a libertarian into an open fascist.
Absolutely on target. À propos, I had a post in Sep. ’11 on libertarianism and fascism, in which I (and Michael Lind, to whom I linked) said much the same thing.
Reed is really very smart. I remember well his book The Jesse Jackson Phenomenon, which I read during the 1988 Democratic primary campaign. Most of my lefty friends enthusiastically supported Jesse’s candidacy that year but I most decidedly did not (I backed Dukakis after Hart pulled out of the race, though did, as a symbolic gesture, vote for Jesse in the 1984 IL primary), and found Reed’s critical stance toward Jesse a breath of fresh air.
Back to Tarantino’s film, TDB had a piece last week on “Django Unchained’s bloody real history in Mississippi.” The lede
Critics have carped that Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained is outlandish history, but two new books show that, in fact, Mississippi was even more violent and bizarre in that period. Historian Adam Rothman on a bloody incident of mob justice and slavery.
The new books are Walter Johnson’s River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom (Belknap Press) and Joshua D. Rothman’s Flush Times and Fever Dreams: A Story of Capitalism and Slavery in the Age of Jackson (University of Georgia Press).
The upshot: the South sucked. And it still does. It was—and remains—the most reactionary, retrograde, and all around depraved region of the Western world. The continuum of the slave owners and their petits blancs enforcers—such as depicted in ‘Django Unchained’—and today’s southern GOP base is manifest. Ça ne se discute même pas.
In his essay Reed takes issue with the positive assessments of Tarantino’s film by some of his academic associates, including this one by Lawrence D. Bobo, the W.E.B. Du Bois Professor of the Social Sciences at Harvard University. IMHO, Bobo’s review isn’t bad.
UPDATE: Hussein Ibish, in a rather critical review, asks “Who’s really exploited in ‘Django Unchained’?” Answer: you, the spectator. (March 5)
2nd UPDATE: I never had a post on ‘The Help’, which Adolph Reed Jr. discusses in his essay linked to above. My mother has now written on the film on her blog (March 4, 2015), along with the 1964 indy film ‘Nothing But a Man’, which I haven’t seen. As for my views of ‘The Help’, I thought it was okay. Maybe a little too “Hollywood-ish” at the end. The main critique I’ve read of it is that the condition of black maids in the deep South during Jim Crow was, in fact, far worse than is depicted in the film.