Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Django: An Unlikely Black Fairytale

I met Robert Croston in Teach for America purgatory summer training. Dude is an awesome school leader and had something smart to say about Django, so I'm turning over the mic.

At it’s core, Django: Unchained is a counter-narrative and graphic fairytale about a black man’s commitment to honor his marriage vows and reunite with his wife despite the institutional fetters of slavery.

But of course, this is no kid's fairytale. The damsel in distress is an enslaved comfort woman and the knight in shining armor is a runaway turned bounty hunter. In this story, the dragon gets shot through the heart, the ogre gets kneecapped, and the castle is blown to smithereens.

Django (Jamie Foxx) is a black slave that hooks up with a bounty hunter by the name of Dr. King Schultz (Christopher Waltz), who gives him freedom and a new job: hunting white fugitives. Despite his new employment and emancipation, Django never gives up on rescuing his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), who was sold down the river to Mississippi's fourth largest plantation: Candieland. Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) owns the plantation and his loyal houseman Stephan (Samuel L. Jackson at his sinister best) runs the show. 

When Django tells Schultz his story, the German marvels at Broomhilda's name and recounts a Norse legend about a maiden named Broomhilda who was freed from mountaintop captivity by a shining knight. As the bounty hunters mount up for their quest, it's hard not to see the enterprise as a fairytale. 

Foxx does not have to act an ass like the last black actor to land a major role in a fairytale box office smash. In fact, Django, according to Monsieur Candie, is more than a Mandingo fighter, a violent black male slave dripping testosterone; he is a 1 in 10,000 type “nigger” (sic). His ability to defer gratification—for blood or sex—in order to carry out the clever ruse they use to purchase Broomhilda’s freedom distinguishes him summa cum laude from all other Romeos and Prince Charmings. 

Unfortunately for a fairytale about black lovers, Foxx’s and Washington’s performances are on the pedestrian side. Apparently all that was needed was pretty faces and household names to fill the roles. Interestingly, Django’s altruistic appeal to take Broomhilda’s beating for running away is the single most passionate scene they share during the entire film. Foxx and Washington spend little time on screen with each other expressing their love in words or touch beyond the predictable passionate kiss after the heroic rescue of the final scene.

Django’s selfless love compels him to traverse KKK-saturated lands and defy black codes to rejoin his wife. But beyond his death-defying conquest, Django’s love for Broomhilda is only weakly portrayed by his daydreams, which call to mind a General Mills farmer imagining his long-lost award-winning sunflower.  Broomhilda is more like Django’s stolen property, an object to be possessed rather than a cherished companion. As a married man, I would have preferred to see daydreams of the wedding ceremony, “honeymoon”, or a hand holding stroll through the field. 

Despite all this, Django is an American Legend. Django does what maybe 1 in 10,000 men would do as a fugitive: He risks almost certain death to infiltrate and destroy the master’s house in order to save his wife and restore his family. Django is more than a cinematic tale of gore. It's a clarion call to black men to fight for their families no matter the racially oppressive economic and social conditions of America. Even so, as Americans, we should consider the Broomhildas of our personal and collective hearts held captive by any number of institutional “isms,” especially racism and capitalism. Pursue her with a reckless abandon; there is no tomorrow.

-Robert Croston

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