Tarantino's Django: Unchained: Hollywood’s Nigger Joke
by Cecil Brown
In order for a joke to work, Mary Douglas, the eminent British anthropologist, wrote that one had to have a social context for it to operate in. “We must ask what are the social conditions for a joke to be both perceived and permitted,” she asked in her wonderful little essay, “Jokes.”
“My hypothesis,” she writes“is that a joke is seen and allowed when it offers a symbolic pattern of a social pattern occurring at the same time.”
With Django: Unchained, the symbolic pattern–I’d call it historical context–is Hollywood itself. “If there is no joke in the social structure,” Mrs Douglas observed, “no other joke can appear.” In Hollywood, there are lots of jokes in the system!
The social pattern that allows Quentin Tarantino’s “Nigger joke” to work is set in the South, two years before the Civil War, but my point is that this is only a pretext for Hollywood itself.
Some critics, like Betsy Sharkey in the Times, think this film is a masterpiece. Sharkey calls it, “the most articulate, intriguing, provoking, appalling, hilarious, exhilarating, scathing and downright entertaining film yet.”
African American critic Wesley Morris hated it. He called it “unrelenting tastelessness — [...] exclamatory kitsch — on a subject as loaded, gruesome, and dishonorable as American slavery.”
Ishmael Reed, the novelist, pointed out how the Weinstein Company promoted an advertising campaign to get a black audience by promoting Jamie Foxx as the star. In fact, Foxx is only one of the stars, along with Christoph Waltz and Leonardo DiCaprio. As Reed points out, Foxx spends most of his time looking at Mr.Waltz and then looking at Mr. DiCaprio, with a puzzled look on his face, as if to say, What’s dese white folks, talkin ‘bout?
My aim in his essay is to examine the way in which the symbolic system is a reflection of the social system. “What are the social conditions for a joke to be both perceived and permitted,” Mrs Douglass wrote in that little essay, “Jokes.”
What are the social conditions that would permit Django to be the big howling, empty nigger joke that it is?
One of these social conditions, certainly, involves the relationship between black actors and Hollywood as a symbol of the plantation system.
In his review of the film, for example, Mr. Reed said that Sam Jackson, in the role of the conniving, omnipresent, evil slave, is “playing himself.”
If Jackson had not dominated the Hollywood system in such a sly way, then his role as Stephen, the master-worshipping house slave to Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) would not have its loaded, edgy, uncanny realism. The plantation is called CandieLand (Candyland) and is meant to refer to Hollywood itself as a producer of entertainment (Candy). Get it?
If Jamie Foxx is not known in Hollywood as a resourceful hustler, who will play almost any role, then his part as the “bad nigger” Django would not be so compelling (and lubricous). If he was not the “New nigger on the block,” then the confrontation between him and Sam Jackson’s character, Stephen, the off-the-hook house slave, the scene would not be powerful (and dumb) at the same time.
The dramatis persona forms a homology with the enacted characters on the screen. The key that unlocks Tarantino’s sensationalistic mosaic is that it reveals the inner game of how the Hollywood studio and the plantation slave institution exploited black people.
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