Django, in chains: Jesse Williams on Tarantino

"My personal biracial experience growing up on both sides of segregated hoods, suburbs and backcountry taught me a lot about the coded language and arithmetic of racism," writes actor and former history teacher Jesse Williams. "I was often invisible when topics of race arose, the racial adoptee that you spoke honestly in front of." With that personal context, he explores the movie Django in a op-ed, and there's a scene by scene analysis in a post on his personal blog. (thanks, meris colby)


    1. Have you ever seen the movie Goodbye Uncle Tom? It’s terrible an inaccurate, but somehow still more accurate than Django seems to be, based on this review.

    2.  Such a cynical expectation.
      I think that enough of a majority of bb commenters skew to the “decent” end of things that it’s very rare for a crank like that to get a firstie in.

    3. Are you saying the author is the butthurt’d?  I’m confused.  What is your opinion?  Your post lacks any personal opinion both about the movie andor this recounting of it.

      I would have liked to hear your opinion about the film instead of being encouraged by a person whose opinions I respect to grant more eyes to this sad and hateful rant.

      I am predisposed to agree with you so I assume you linked this to express that the film was beautiful and this guy is an ass.

      I could go piece by piece as well, but instead I will leave you with one thing that I LOVED about the movie that I learned from reading this article was a subjective experience when I thought it was an objective message in the film.

      The author starts, ‘Dr. King commandeers a saloon and pours beers for the both of them. There is an odd series of obsessive, tight shots of King’s hands pouring and preparing the mugs of beer, wiping away the foam, etc. I promise I’ll come back to that later.’

      I perked up!  Thinking: O shit is he going to talk about it?!  He is, he is!  Yes!  I loved that part… I gots to read ahead… my excitement is too much!

      I read ahead, and the author continues, ‘…Which is odd because back in town, where Dr. King commandeered that saloon, we had plenty of time for a barrage of elaborate and irrelevant close ups of King’s hands pouring draft beers and wiping away the foam, etc. Why is that? Why must the field slaves remain faceless and out of frame for the entirety of this nearly three hour film but we have exhaustive closeups of pouring the perfect draft

      WHAT?!  How could you read that in that scene?  I thought for sure everyone saw it the way I did…  Here we have two people.  One person has lived in a life where he was introduced to the wonders of beer.  Introduced and encouraged to interpret and approach creatively.

      Whether King spent his entire life mastering the perfect pour for the perfect glass of beer, or whether he was mentored to take care in even the pouring of the drink, matters little to the scene.  What matters is that his attention is real.

      Why this made the scene so beautiful is because when he went to pour the two beers for himself and this other person, a person whose life would have deprived thaem of the knowledge King here holds on how to pour the perfect beer, King showed equal care to both glasses.

      Had he visualised them as inequal, fuck even just as seperate, then he could have easily poured himself the perfect pour, and simply slopped together the second glass.

      But he chose to share his knowledge with this other person, and share this beautiful experience of the perfect glass.

  1. There was another article saying that this movie is a WHITE revenge movie, which is also interesting.

    1. Tavis Smiley hated the film in part because it didn’t portray what he felt was one of the most important aspects of the black experience in America: that the vast majority of emancipated slaves WEREN’T interested in dishing out violent retribution against their former masters, as many had feared. So I get where the “revenge against slavemasters is a white man’s fantasy” bit is coming from.

      1. I haven’t actually seen the movie, but—at least from the reviews—I don’t necessarily get that its intent was to portray the experience and/or intent of a majority of emancipated slaves.

        1. I haven’t seen it either, just the arguments. Many good points seem to have been made on both sides, and that was one of them.

          There’s always more pressure on a filmmaker when they’re approaching an important topic (such as slavery) that has been woefully under-represented in film. Tarantino probably wouldn’t be catching as much flack about the film if there were other slavery movies out there to provide some kind of balance.

  2. Jesse Williams has a point and I’m sure the Roman slaves thrown in the arena weren’t accurately represented in the film Gladiator either.

      1. I’m guessing you’re being sarcastic (thank you ;) but my point was that Hollywood’s main motivation is making money and not accurate documentaries.

  3. Thanks for sharing this. I haven’t seen the movie; the previews made it look like a ham-handed attempt to cross Roots with Spike Lee with a side of gratuitous violence. This article might help me decide whether or not it’s worth seeing: is the movie insightful, or painfully out of touch?

    1. It is Tarantino. I think you would not go see Inglorious Bastards and expect Schindler’s List. It is much more of a bloody homage to Spaghetti Westerns than trying to make a point about anything. 
      That being said, there are some very uncomfortable scenes. They are uncomfortable because they are unflinching in visualization of what slaves probably did have to endure.
      Some call this exploitation. I am not going to get into that argument because it really is in the eye of the beholder. We all have different backgrounds, what is offensive to one may not be to another. That does not invalidate either parties’ genuine feelings.
      All I know is that it was entertaining for me and it opened my eyes in a way that school textbooks and even movies like Roots did not.

      1. Did you read the piece, though? He specifically contrasts how Django treated slavery, and all black characters other than Django, with how Inglorious Basterds treated the holocaust and Jews under the Nazis. One of the big criticisms was that none of the black characters other than Django seemed to show any agency in resisting their enslavement.

        1.  Exactly. From everything I’ve read all the other blacks in the film seem to look on frightened, or confused. Hardly the slave revolt an actual revenge film like this calls for.

          “Django” is just a random guy, who, to no credit of his own, was plucked from slavery by an impressive white man and led on a journey to save his wife.

        2. Yeah I think he brought up a lot of good points in the article. Some of them were more in the line of either typical Hollywood plot holes (Django forgetting about his wife so he can have a big shootout) like I would expect in a Red Letter Media review or wishing the movie was something that it was never intended to be.

          But there were a number of points like the one you mentioned that I can see where people can validly argue the exploitation angle.

      2. It is Tarantino. I think you would not go see Inglorious Bastards and expect Schindler’s List.

        That’s true, but there were quite a few movies about WWII and the Holocaust made before Inglorious Basterds (including Schindler’s List) so adding a historically inaccurate exploitation movie in that case had a different cultural impact.

        The reason a slavery exploitation movie is more problematic is that Hollywood hasn’t given us enough “straight” films on the topic to provide any kind of counterpoint. Basically there’s just Roots, and that was a T.V. miniseries from 1977.

        1. I can appreciate that. But it is a lot of baggage to hang on a director not known for subtlety.
          Perhaps that argues that he should not have made the film if he was not going to do the subject justice, but I think you can make a similar argument against Blazing Saddles.

          1. Then again, Mel Brooks didn’t make any pretentious claims about Blazing Saddles bringing much-needed discussion to an important historical subject.

          2. Just curious, I don’t really know, did he make that claim before all the brouhaha or after?

            If he did it as he was making the film, then sure I would agree that is pretentious. But I can see him getting defensive after the fact when all people want to talk to him about is race when he was just trying to make something entertaining.

        2. So because Hollywood was too busy making Transformers part 12 instead of early American period pieces, Tarantino is exempt from filmmaking? 

          1. No. But fairly or unfairly, the first film (or the first in at least a generation or so) to cover a weighty subject like slavery is going to be saddled with more of an expectation to get it right. Especially when the filmmaker himself claims that he’s fostering important discussion on that subject.

        3.  In the case of World War 2 though, which movies came first? I suspect it was the historically inaccurate exploitation movies.

    2. It’s not insightful at all. There’s a few scenes that get close to it, but they end up being filler that serve only to remind the audience that slaves exist in the time period the movie portrays and have no real bearing on how the story plays out.

      It’s really just a revenge movie with some typical Tarantino trimmings. If you want to spend a couple hours watching a buildup to an enormous shootout, you might like it. But don’t expect more than that.

      1. Who is going to a Tarantino movie billed as a revenge movie with blaxploitation trimmings expecting anything else?

  4. I was completely agreeing with his “read” of events, until he failed to grasp why the wrong French words were used.  I also think he misses the (rather large) point that in this Tarantio World the house slaves which collaborated with the white enemy are the worst villans.  I think it’s the failure to see that this was a large point of Movie Truth (be it Real World truth or not) which leads to some of his confusion regarding who was at the dinner table, who talked back to who, and why Django wasn’t the one who killed Candie.

    Not to mention if you’re going to say “not to nitpick, but…” get Candy / Candie consistent.

    EDIT: oh and the above is in reference to the tumblr piece.

    EDIT 2: Not that I think his broad conclusions are wrong, but I’m finding it rather hard to grasp how so many people with multi-page essays on the details seem to miss what, to me, are major plot points.

    1.  I found it telling that Tarantino had the Dr kill Candie, and Django kill the old slave who helped Candie run the place and oppress his fellow slaves. The Dr said something like “I can’t resist it” just before he fired, and the Dr is the character (I believe) the white audience members are asked to identify with. The scene urges those people who wish to be cultured, honorable, upright, and worthy, to go to great sacrifice, even to that of their life, to rid the world of people who committed such horrible acts of cruelty. And yet the Dr, early in the movie, explicitly names himself the helper, the friend, not the person who is the hero.

      I disagree with one of Williams’ key points, that Django has no innate worth. At first he has a small bit of specific knowledge, who the brothers are, but as time passes and we come to know him as a person, we find out that he has an innate talent, he is a crack shot with a gun, a tool of the white man. This is a signal that given the chance, a black man can quickly become the equal of a white man, even if his past has been one of deprivation and lack.

      I believe the film urges white Americans to help their black brothers and sisters escape the chains of oppression and truly take control of their own lives, to become the heroes of the story, freeing their families and loved ones, and riding off into the sunset.

      The Dr died, nobly, but he died, he was not heroic enough to take out Candie and live. But Django was smart enough, cunning enough and brave enough to surive to the end and triumph.

      The west is the white man’s world still, this movie urges whites to let other peoples rise to the same level as we have enjoyed for many a decade, telling us that they will accomplish triumphs as great or greater than we have.

  5. The scene-by-scene description in the blog was spot on. And I admit that when I saw it (went with a friend who didn’t tell me what it was about, and hadn’t read anything about) I missed much of this.

  6. I like violent films, I like the Italian Western genre (more of the humorous stuff with Terrence Hill than the gritty stuff with Clint Eastwood). I liked Django.

    I feel like the problem with much of the criticism is that it’s misplaced. When I hear a negative comment about it where the word “accurate”  (or some analog) comes up I’m going to dismiss pretty much the entire argument.

    It’s a Tarantino film. Visually it’s the best work he’s ever done. Musically it’s possibly the best work associated with one of his films. Script wise it’s in his top three. The performances from top-down were pretty damn great compared to what I’ve come to expect from him, right up to some of the most subtle facial expressions from below-the-line performers, Waltz deserved his nod (I didn’t see much of his fellow nominees so I can’t say I know he deserved the trophy). Foxx was great, DiCaprio was pretty good (he felt kind of tepid to me in a lot of the film, but maybe that was intentional) and Jackson was so damn good in this. He was outright malevolent, and his physical direction from obsequious in the presence of whites (leaning on a cane, hunched over) to his commanding physical presence at the end of the third act.

    Anyone watch a Russ Meyers movie and comment about how shocked they are by “all the big tits”? Again, it’s a Tarantino film. As a Tarantino film it may be his best. 

    1. While you may dismiss arguments that have to do with the “accuracy” of a film, I dismiss arguments based on the naive belief that subjective opinion is inherently benign, and that a film’s stylistic consistency makes it somehow immune from historical criticism. Popular culture does not recognize those neat divisions between fact and fiction you so easily make. Just as history is often fictionalized as it is told, so fiction often shapes the way we think about history. To pretend otherwise is to live in a fantasy land.

      1. Is the criticism of the quality of the film in relation to the historical accuracy of its content a two-way street, or are there two separate critical fields we can look at here?

        As a film, a piece of entertainment and a showcase of the various talents of the people who worked on it it’s subjectively good. This is the best thing that can be said about anything in a creative context. Not everyone likes everything.

        As a piece of historic commentary, it’s not good. It’s probably better than quite a few less controversial films that don’t get history right (one of which took home a statue), but being Canadian isn’t as bad as being a slave or being black in a nation with a dominant culture that has a history of owning people you’re descended from or who look like you.

        The criticisms about its historic accuracy are not wrong, but they are hyped because, like the Shoa, it’s a combination of a) being a lot more recent than 180AD (even more recent than the 13th amendment because the legacy of slavery is ongoing, unlike the legacy of gladiatorial combat) and b) Quentin Tarantino is a pompous jackass who shouldn’t utter a public word, ever.

        As for “b)”: I don’t read or listen to interviews with the man. what he’s good at it making movies, not giving interviews. Fortunately giving interviews isn’t really his job. He’s almost the opposite of current-day Kevin Smith who is usually a really great talker, but who is pretty hit-or-miss with movies. My girlfriend makes really great pasta, but she tends to fuck up her sautes. So I do the vegetables and leave the pasta to her. I don’t judge the entirety of her meals based on her side-dish.

        As for “a)”: Invert the criticism and apply it elsewhere. I grew up watching “The World At War”. Probably damn good history, not terribly entertaining. Despite “b” nobody with two good braincells and a little life experience should be paying attention to anything Tarantino is saying when he’s giving press. Do you pitch a fit when you go to McDonald’s and the food does not look like the picture on the menu? Of course you don’t, because you know better.

    2. I feel like the problem with much of the criticism is that it’s misplaced. When I hear a negative comment about it where the word “accurate”  (or some analog) comes up I’m going to dismiss pretty much the entire argument.

      But you’re missing the self-aggrandizing way that Tarantino himself has talked about the file:

      “I’ve always wanted to explore slavery … I am responsible for people talking about slavery in America in a way they have not in 30 years. … Violence on slaves hasn’t been dealt with to the extent that I’ve dealt with it.”

      Your comment may be valid if this were nothing but a fun movie, but this has been pushed and lauded as a film that “explores” slavery and makes us “deal” with it.

      It’s also been pushed, less self-aggrandizingly, as a film where a hero black man gets his revenge on white slavers, yet the blog post shows quite convincingly why the only real hero portrayed by Tarantino is the white guy.

      1.  As I say above in another reply: Quentin Tarantino is his own worst enemy when it comes to giving press. They guy is an asshole with some wort of speech impediment that makes his chain utterances of “alright” a blessed relief from the inane shit he spews with intent.

        That said I like the job he does, the one he is paid to do.

        Yes, King does shoot Candy. I had no problem with that as it felt like a reaction to all the shock he’d experienced up to that point as well as Candy’s attempt to humiliate him. He even tipped his had and apologized because he knew he was fucking up but couldn’t help himself.

        Half of the criticisms in the linked article struck me as characterization, believable characterization at that. Schultz wasn’t nicer than Django when he reacted to the killing of a man. He was shocked because, unlike Django, he wasn’t inured to this kind of thing. As much was even said in the film at various times. Yes, freed slaves didn’t immediately jump up and take to the hills. They stared. The author took this as them staring like “stupid apes”, I took it to be shock at a change in a situation and an utter inability to figure out if this white man (in the first scene) was fucking with them and going to have a laugh and then go on to treat them like every other white man they were used to or later (opening of the third act) because they were realizing that this “black slaver” not only just exploded a guy and shot two more and that they were free and had to figure out what to do about it, but that he wasn’t actually a “black slaver” and was in fact going to go kill the fuck out of the rest of the Candy people (hence the smile growing on the one guy during the closeup).

        The author even had shit to say about fucked up teeth, and waxed eyebrows. Some of that is just nitpicky bullshit. I’ve got fucked up teeth now and I’m not a slave three hundred years ago. Eyebrows? Shockingly people in the acting field, even those in minor roles very often are better looking or more groomed than reality would suggest, and someone who may have been playing a servant used for showing off to guests and/or for sex might intentionally be shown to be attractive in a recognizable way.

        Some of the criticisms in the linked article were valid and on things I noticed and things I didn’t notice and now do. Some shit in the film was weird, the Jonah Hill/hood sequence was weird. I’m not saying it wasn’t funny, it was just weird. There were other laughs in the film, but they felt more organic.

  7. Im white and I watched django, still not quite sure how I felt about it,,, thats really all I have to say.

  8. I =am= going to nitpick a bit here. I tried to read the scene by scene blog entry, but after the fourth variant spelling on “Brunhilde”, I gave up. The woman’s name is important to the plotline. If Mr. Williams couldn’t be arsed to get a detail like that right, what could I expect of the rest of his review? Or was the inability to get her name correct some kind of subtext that I missed? For the record, Mr. Williams, Broom-Hilda is a cartoon witch. Brunhilde is the object of Siegfried’s quest. Sadly, you never, in the part I read, commented on the woman only being present as a quest object for the men, both in the primary storyline and in the Germanic legend referenced thereby. I’d like to ask you if such overt sexism bothers you as much as overt racism.

    1. That had me confused ever since I heard about this film, but it seems that the name is indeed bastardized as ‘Broomhilda’ in the movie on purpose.

    2. Well, as long as we’re nitpicking, it’s poor form to criticize a writer whose post you admittedly stopped reading part way through for failing to address a point he actually did.

  9. I haven’t seen the film, but I think that this review resonates very interestingly with another I just read:

    The point, I guess, of both articles is that this is a white-on-white revenge fantasy film more than anything else, even though Tarantino is trying to package it more as a black-on-white revenge film.

  10. Christolph Waltz was definitely the lead actor in Django (and that’s fine with me, because I loved him in this and Inglourious Basterds, and I don’t particularly care for Foxx in anything).

    I think the tumblr is generally right on the mark and you can see this in the way those two roles are written or under-written. That said, he definitely missed the point (deliberately?) in a few places (such as the speaking French part).

    Jamie Foxx was no more the lead than Antonio Banderas was the lead in Once Upon A Time in Mexico.

  11. OK, I read the whole thing and it was pretty interesting. The only thing I can take an issue with besides what’s already been mentioned above, is that I think the review missed a lot of the subtlety of certain behaviors and motivations.

    He mentions that many of the slaves are treated as slack-jawed idiots, that Django is the only exception, and that King is the only true hero, but I assumed the character’s motivations completely differently.

    King, in the end, was an idiot moved purely by emotion. Django was not only used to the violence, but also to the idea that he couldn’t do anything about it. He got carried away a few times, like when he shot the brothers (from three feet away, involving no skill at all), but most of the time, I interpreted his behavior to mean that he knew he couldn’t do anything. And I thought that’s why he seemed so selfish throughout: He couldn’t take on the institution of slavery himself, and any distraction would just serve to lead him farther away from his goal.

    As for the other slaves, of course they would appear to just sit around. It would be terrifying to be put in that “open-door” scenario. Any action would result in getting away cleanly, or horrific death, no exceptions. It’s no wonder they didn’t jump into action. Except for the first scene when they killed the slave-trader. They weren’t acting entirely out of revenge, they were killing a witness who would almost certainly have had them punished, or worse.

    OK… this comment is way too long…

  12. I quite like the film. I have no authority for declaring this, yet I do have a degree in (dbl major), comp. religious studies, and art history. Just pointing out that I like the topics so much, I spent my own money so I could study them… I’m definitely not completely ignorant when it comes to the subject at hand. Given this, I would say that, reasonably, the film seems to be a somewhat constructive, and interesting, addition to american film.

  13. I rather like the film. There’s no accounting for taste, especially with a mouthful of lsd-25.
    Forget everything I typed in my first post — I just have a hard time figuring out how to approach/explain why I like the film. It’s hard!

  14. You know what else sucked a bag of dicks?  Kill Bill.  Uma Thurman wearing Bruce Lee’s iconic tracksuit, only to have her chop down a never ending horde of faceless Asian men with a samurai sword.  And then on top of it, he casts David Carradine in the film, the white guy who got Bruce Lee’s part in Kung Fu.  How is that supposed to be a celebration of Asian action cinema?  It’s more like an insult.

    1.  So… Uma Thurman, wearing Bruce Lee’s iconic track suit, makes it her sole purpose in life to kill David Carradine, and this slipped past you… how?

  15. “I was often invisible when topics of race arose, the racial adoptee that you spoke honestly in front of.”

    This is always good for a laugh. However, age has increased my swarthiness, and I never get to hear the really good stuff any more.

  16. As to whether or not it’s racist, It’s Quentin Tarrantino. Without having seen it, I’m also going to go out on a limb and say it’s probably also misogynistic, vulgar, pointless, and reads like it was written by an autistic 14 year old who learned everything he knows about life from a dumpster-salvaged copy of Hustler.

    I’d rather catheterize myself with a bamboo skewer than sit through another one of his bullshit hack attempts at whatever he thinks film making is. 

    The single most offensive thing I come out of this discussion with, is the fact that the man is still being paid to work in Hollywood instead of mopping the floors of the local homeless shelter in exchange for their leftover soup.

  17. @Mike The Bard (meant to make this a reply, my bad)

    Wow. That is some HEAVY vitriol.

    I mean, I can understand not liking a movie, or a genre, or even a director. But you’re ranting like a madman, here.

    It’s a movie. It exists to entertain. This particular movie is in a certain niche style. You don’t care for that style, and you’re not the intended audience. That’s all fine. Just relax, take a deep breath, and go watch a movie you DO enjoy. There’s no shortage of others to choose from.

    1. I was actually just thinking of rewatching Boondock Saints, which is everything that every Tarantino movie ever utterly failed at being.  The man promises Blade Runner, and delivers Highlander II: The Quickening.

    1. Thankfully film criticism, analysis, evaluation and discussion exists and is easily accessible via a very convenient delivery method.

      1. “I don’t read novels. I prefer good literary criticism. That way you get both the novelists’ ideas as well as the critics’ thinking.”

        1. I’ve read the entire collected works of Barbara Cartland so that I don’t accidentally mischaracterize her oeuvre.

          1. Personally I find her first novels [to be] sensational, [while her] later (and arguably most popular) titles were comparatively tame with virginal heroines and few, if any, suggestive situations. I’m something of a free thinker.

  18. Am I the only person left on the fucking Internet that saw this movie, and had a good time?

    Didn’t everyone get over this shit in the 90s with all the violence and N-bombs in Pulp Fiction?

    Really, who’s going to go to a Tarantino movie so they can drop their monicals into their martinis? 

    If you’re still squeamish about this shit in 2013, Ted is playing down the hall.

    1. Actual comment:

      Jesse is not wrong in his description of the film, per se, he’s just missing a huge point- that Quentin Tarantino is a very talented but immature, overgrown 14-year-old. Quentin has no political agenda, he just wants to make things that he thinks are cool. And he thinks the idea of taking one of his favorite genres and giving it the Tarantino-twist of using a different Hollywood Underdog (first girls, then Jews, now slaves) is cool. So he made a movie that appeals to that sensibility. If you don’t like it, don’t watch it. If you think it’s bad, criticize it for legitimate reasons, like the fact that he doesn’t actually have a story worth telling, that the good bits of his films are muddled by all the self-indulgent and uninteresting bits, and that he hasn’t made a great movie since Jackie Brown. But don’t criticize it for being something it isn’t; that’s just myopic. So there were no introspective, well-developed black characters in the film. Hello..! There were no introspective, well-developed characters PERIOD. QT doesn’t know how to do that on his own. 

      QT can do what he wants, and you can make your own goddamn movie if you want. Xeni, your posts often betray such a one-sided agenda that they cease to be useful to your readers. We get that you want the world to be a very specific way, and any article that really supports it or really contradicts it gets your attention, and little else. People that agree with you just get more fodder to be angry with, while everyone else just tunes you out. How is that productive? 

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