Friday, February 01, 2013

Django Unsettled

I am really looking forward to Django Unchained coming out on DVD so I can make my World History 2 students watch it. Although I'll be showing it to students in a history class, I wouldn't make them watch it because it is the most accurate film. There are several reasons why you might want to show films in a history class.

1. Gagu' hao: You are just lazy and want the films to help fill in the details for things that you yourself should be covering in your class.

2. Ya-mu documentaries: You love documentaries and you think that they are stuffed full of historical details and facts and present them to students in the most direct way possible.

3. Ayu i mas kannu'on: You don't necessarily show documentaries to students but instead popular films, because that is one of the ways they tend to inadvertently consume ideology about history and form their historical understanding.

For me the 3rd choice is why I show films in class. Not to show students perfectly historical aspects. Not to give them documentaries laden with dates and names. I show it to them in the way they tend to encounter it, through popular culture and in particular films and television shows.

The reason for this is because in my class the line between past and present is not readily accepted. We do not see distinct moments of time shut off from each other. We do not look at events of the past and then thank the lord that we don't live in those times or the violence and forms of oppression that existed then don't exist today. Sometimes that is the way that students escape the harsh and difficult truths we sometimes discuss in class, but that isn't my intention.

As I tell my students at the start of each semester, the line between i esta ma'pos yan i tiempon papa'go is all ti magahet, it is all fake. There is no past without the present and no present without the past. They don't simply influence each other, they make each other. There is a power in being able to control the lines of time and make something from the past feel present, just as there is power in being able to make something from the present feel like it is in the past. The ability to control that line is the ability to control naturalness or relevance.

For most on Guam the issue of war reparations is still timely. There are still several thousand elders left who experienced the war and should be compensated for their suffering. But if you speak to people in the United States they are much more mixed on the issue. Some might feel for the suffering of the Chamorros in World War II and then recognize their "patriotism" in the generations since. Others would see Chamorros receiving war reparations as silly and ridiculous. It happened so long ago, why now? The soldiers were the ones who really sacrificed, shouldn't they get extra instead of those who just suffered and really didn't do anything else? You'll hear plenty of comments from Mexicans about how they should get reparations from the Spanish. How the English should get reparations from the Vikings, and how everyone in the Asia and Eastern Europe should get reparations from the Mongols.

The same dynamic is true for things such as colonialism or slavery or genocide or displacement. For some these things continue to affect the present, for others they are the security blankets for the whining of people who can't pull themselves up by their boot straps.

When people make movies about the past, even periods of history long long ago, they are ultimately making movies about the present. A famous quote about history is that all history is contemporary history, and it is in popular films that this is the most apparent. Popular historical films use historical contexts in order to map out the debates of today. You will see all the issues that plague societies today shadow boxed by character from eras long gone. They will also use films to try and neutralize the potential problems or inconsistencies from both the past and the present. You will recreate the past in order to vanquish certain ghosts that people wish never existed. You will also try your best to justify the present and what is accepted as natural and just today, by making the past a straight, evolved line to create the present.

When you watch these films and critique them solely on the basis of the way they don't accurately reflect the past you are missing the point. They aren't meant to be windows into the past, they are meant to be windows to the present and the way we are negotiating our relationship to the universe of the past.

Django Unchained is a perfect example of this. Should you watch the film so that you can understand the complexities of slave societies and the nuances of slave resistance? Probably not. Should you watch this film in order to understand how slave economies worked, what lead to their genesis and their eventual demise? Nope.

What is the value in it then? For me you can best perceive the value of the film by comparing it to the way slavery is usually dealt with. The problem with most period films is that slavery has to be addressed in some way or else the film is not being realistic, but in the minds of most once you make slavery an issue, it becomes the only issue and the audience is easily distracted from anything else. So slavery is either dealt with in only cursory superficial ways, or it is handled in a progressive and humanistic way so the audience has someone to cheer for and latch onto in a time of terrible institutionalized violence and oppression.

A key example of this is the film The Patriot, starring Mel Gibson. Even if your movie only stars white people, you cannot make a movie about the birth of the United States that doesn't touch on slavery in some way. It has to be there. The US was born not just as an experiment of democracy and liberty, but also an experiment in genocide and slavery. So how do you portray it in such a way that it doesn't infest the story or the characters? How do you fit it in so that the entire movie doesn't end up being depressing or have characters that people today find reprehensible because of the way people at the time treated other human beings as property?

The answer in the film The Patriot is to have Mel Gibson be someone who sees the good in all people. He has black workers, but they are freemen who are paid employees. He has the loyalty of his black maid. When a slave is signed over to the South Carolina militia by his white master, Gibson's character insists that the slave make his own mark. A lovely token of his enlightened sensibilities.

That slave himself plays an even more significant role in shaping how the audience understands the presence of slavery in the film. A white character acts in mildly racist ways, mocking the slave and expressing how he doesn't feel comfortable giving guns to slaves. At one point when it is revealed that those who are slaves and fight a certain period of time in the Continental Army will be given their freedom, the same white man derides him again. He taunts him by saying that he wouldn't even know what to do with freedom!

At the end of the film, the slave has stayed long past his time to earn his freedom. By the last battle of the film he is now fighting because he believes in the nation that is being born of this revolution. The white racist has a change of heart and tells the former slave how he feels honored to have fought beside him. Slavery thus becomes something that can be overcome through individual recognition of the humanity of blacks and also their loyalty and patriotism. This makes the story more palatable and less depressing but it says alot more about today and how people want to view slavery in media, rather than the history in question. Through the characters you are meant to view the way it has been overcome and not get stuck on how it took so long to happen or didn't actually happen anywhere close to the birth of the nation.

Django Unchained is very different. It is a film that does not want to minimize the violence of the time, but rather channel it into a story that will satisfy the other side of our psyche as we look back at history. I would argue there are two basic ways that you look back at histories, especially if they are traumatic. The first as I have described above is to be afraid of history and the ruptures of the present that it might represent. History can not only show you how things have come to be a certain way, it can also reveal to you the other ways it could have been and how what has evolved in life may not be natural but may have simply been random. When you look at history in this way, you are craving a way to seal up and fix these breaks and gaps. You want to create a seamless, sort of settling and soothing view that will help everything make sense and not cause you to question too much. When you look at history in this way, you often times end up reauthorizing terrible things, justifying historically awful things in order to create a continuity to the present. You have trouble dealing with things that are violent or terrifying, because for you history is about achieving a comfortable order. The Patriot is a perfect example of history in this sense. You are supposed to leave the movie feeling patriotic, and the portrayal of slavery is meant to help support that ultimate goal.

Django Unchained with its emphasis on violence and revenge, as well as its violence, cruel and sadistic portrayal of slavery and people in slave societies has a different motivation. It is operating within one of those ruptures you are not supposed to look at too long or spend too much time thinking about. Slavery was a sin and we can all agree on that. So what should the wages for that sin be? Who should decide what they are? I often ask my students what a just and proper form of compensation would be for those who were enslaved and their descendants? If you belonged to a race of people who were kidnapped and enslaved for hundreds of years, what would be the best way to repair that damage? How long should those people be allowed to hold onto the anguish of that terrible violence? These are questions that people would rather ignore than think about. They would rather create an ordered history that supports everything being fantastic today and so why should anyone, including black people complain?

When you look at the aftermath of slavery what justice were black people given? After hundreds of years of enslavement and the worst atrocities arising because of it, most all of which were never punished in anyway, what sort of satisfaction did African Americans get? Did they get to go and whip their former masters? Did the US Congress pass the kick white men in the balls reparations act? Do black people get to enslave white people during Black History month in order to show them what it was like? Did a million white people get shipped to Africa to become slaves?

None of those things happened. That is one of the biggest, nasty open historical wounds. The lack of justice over slavery. The fact that there were no wages of sin involved. What everyone now agrees was disgusting and inhuman was completely unpunished. This is the raw and traumatizing view of history. It exists within those parts that are not ready for public consumption and which frustrate, irritate and make people uncomfortable. Django Unchained deals with the realities of slavery through that historical lens, the feeling of needing some sort of justice. Obviously killing a bunch of slave owners doesn't equate justice in any objective sense, but it is an exploration of how things might have been if former slaves did get the chance to exact some revenge for the way they were treated. What would it be like if the violence that slaves were pinned down with everyday, was for once turned upon the masters?

As for the argument that the film is messed up and made by a white guy I don't give it much credence. Any film that is really about slavery will be messed up, whether it is made by a white, black, yellow or red person. There is no other way to portray it.

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