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Django Unchained

Harry Browne

A just cause or just more bodies? Comparing real life political violence to Tarantino’s new blockbuster leaves a bad taste – Harry Browne 


I don’t know many genuine pacifists. When I was a kid in the US, I sported a peace-sign around my neck from an early age, but saw many of the most passionate opponents of the Vietnam War simultaneously supporting, say, the IRA in Northern Ireland, or Israel fighting its Arab neighbours.

When I got to Ireland in the 1980s, lots of people who wanted ‘peace’ in the North nonetheless professed solidarity with the ANC in South Africa or the FMLN in El Salvador. Some Irish politicians who were averse to bloodshed when IRA bullets were the cause were cheerleaders for, say, the US war against Iraq in 1991, where the merciless death-toll on the roads to Basra alone may have exceeded in a few hours the numbers killed by the IRA throughout the Troubles.

It is, evidently, very hard to separate one’s sense of the legitimacy of a cause, or of a set of actors, from the legitimacy of the means they use to advance it. The question is complicated further when body-counts themselves become a measure of legitimacy.

I recently returned from Gaza, where comparative death-tolls are frequently wielded to highlight the brutality of the 2008-09 war (roughly 1,400 dead Palestinians versus 13 Israelis) and the one last November (160 versus six). But the imbalance in the means of violence, suggestive though it is, explains little, and does not begin to capture the crushing oppression, the incapacity to lead a normal life, that the people of this once-beautiful strip of land have to endure between outbreaks of ‘war’.

Given the ubiquitousness of political violence, the relevant question about Gaza is not “how dare they fire those rockets?”. We should ask, instead, what decent or fearful or otherwise-restraining impulse causes Palestinians to use violence as little as they do?

Leonardo Di Caprio’s creepy Calvin Candie attempts to answer a similar question about African-American slaves in Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Django Unchained’. An amateur phrenologist, Candie believes Africans have a “submissive” ridge on their brains. Candie and his plantation will learn the hard way that phrenology is rubbish, but Tarantino has been criticised for suggesting that Jamie Foxx’s killing-machine, Django, is the “one n—-r in 10,000” with the desire and capacity to fight back effectively — and for making his resistance so indiscriminately brutal.

Substantial slave rebellions in the pre-Civil War South were pretty rare, but the balance of violent capacity probably explains why: many risings and alleged risings were bloodily nipped in the bud. Nat Turner led a rebellion in Virginia in 1831, however, that killed about 50 white men, women and children, and which indicates that Tarantino may even have soft-pedalled what violent resistance to brutal oppression looks like when it is “unchained”.

Movie audiences are shocked, and laugh a little, when Django blows away a relatively harmless white woman who poses no direct threat to him. How would they react to the reality of Turner, who by his own confession sent his fellow-rebels back to kill a baby that had been forgotten while they slaughtered the rest of the white family? Black folklore says that the heroic Nat, who had previously played with that same baby on his knee, dashed its brains against a wall.

William Styron, in his 1967 novel The Confessions of Nat Turner, made Turner personally cowardly, sexually repressed, a house-slave whose scripturally inspired rebellion didn’t conceal his contempt for other black people. Tarantino is the anti-Styron: his Django is clever, competent and focussed, more closely resembling the rebel of black mythology. Much has been made of his film’s violence, but Tarantino’s camera largely averts its eyes artfully from direct violence against black people, while it positively revels in the tearing of white flesh. (When Django’s German friend Schultz (Christoph Waltz) is sickened by an attack on a slave, Django explains it coolly with the film’s best line: “I’m just a little more used to Americans than he is”).

But Tarantino, lover of Hollywood’s version of heroism, can’t or won’t imagine what collective resistance might look like – e.g. the thousands of slaves who, once the Civil War started, headed for Union lines to join the fight against slavery. Or the millions of Palestinians whose resistance may consist of no more than continuing to live, and love life, in their own country.