Opinion: Fiction, representation and ‘Django’

I think it does, somewhat. Maybe there is validity in the school of thought that sees this film as yet another example of trivialising of the histories, by way of fiction it is argued, of groups such as black Americans thanks mostly to the Hollywood machine.

If one considers the case of George Lucas's 2012 Red Tails for example, it seems strange how such an incredible film could not even garner any attention from the Hollywood studio execs. Apparently it was not bankable or marketable but Lucas went on to expose how these excuses were trite when he cited how it was the all-black cast of the film that didn't take with the Hollywood execs as opposed to the film itself. 

If one follows Lucas's logic and argument at the time, it seems that the portrayal of black people in real as opposed to fictional leading, regal and heroic roles is not too encouraged in Hollywood. Examples are few and far in between.

So what makes Quentin Tarantino's film a success then? I'd say it is definitely not because Django, played by Jamie Foxx, is a hero in the form described above by Lucas. The film's success rather, is owing to the fact that Django is a hyper-realistic and fictionalised character, his representation is pure entertainment.

The film has been the recipient of both critical acclaim and unabashed criticism. Among the film's most verbal critics is Spike Lee – a director who is as widely renowned for his own style of filmmaking as Django Unchained director, Tarantino. Lee, tweeting about the film late last December wrote: "American Slavery Was Not A Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western. It Was A Holocaust. My Ancestors Are Slaves. Stolen From Africa. I Will Honour Them."

'In the name of art'
It's safe to say that Spike Lee is not a fan of the film nor its director. But is there validity in his and the claims of many others that Tarantino has his own prejudices, which he masks "in the name of art"? And that the issue of black American history has been given short thrift and little importance in the manner that it is retold and revisited? From my own view, having seen the film, I think that too much attention has been given to a film that has long since been set up as a deliberate work of fictionalised history.

Tarantino's Django Unchained is not that different to his Inglourious Basterds. It is as much a fiction as it is a Spaghetti Western, and it screams this. The comic relief that comes in the scene where the KKK members are in disagreement over the design of their white hoods is hilarious. It is also a subtle but obvious mockery of white supremacy, exposing the absurdity of it all. Of course the film is not without its misses. The terrible scene where Tarantino, like Lee, inserts himself as a character into the film and pretty much rubbishes one's sense of performance art appreciation with his acting, is a perfect example.

Luckily, the film has its saving graces – Christoph Waltz, Samuel L Jackson and Leonardo DiCaprio are incredible but I wouldn't be quick to get too excited about the film. It's a good film yes, but I don't think it's great. In my humble opinion it doesn't come close to Reservoir Dogs or Pulp Fiction, which will forever be Tarantino's Off the Wall and Thriller. Despite all of this, we shouldn't fool ourselves – it is also a perturbing film to watch. Some moments of laughter are but palliatives to the temporarily sombre moments of reflection that follow. As I sat watching some of the cringeworthy scenes of the film there was the nudging suspicion that the absurd and fantastical aspects of the film are there to make it a little easier for white audiences to comfortably sit through it and, dare I say, enjoy it.

I suppose in a way, it is understandable that there are opposing views to the film's success on the basis of what it references. It would help if some critics actually watched the film, such as say, Spike Lee – before they attack it altogether.

For one thing, the incongruous treatment that the film gives to history is not symptomatic to the number of times the word "ni**er" is used in the film. Django Unchained is an explicitly fictionalised narrative with an equally fictionalised protagonist. While it may spark a healthy dose of debate, these little characteristics of fact should be borne in mind.

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Mpho Moshe Matheolane
Mpho Moshe Matheolane is a Motswana from the little town of Mahikeng. He is a budding academic, researcher and writer with interests in art, history, semiotics and law. He sits on the Constitutional Court Artworks Committee – a clear case of serendipity – and is a firm believer in the power of an informed and active citizenry.

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