Django Unchained was not easy for me to watch. For the first hour, I cringed every time I heard the N-word, and I had to momentarily look away from scenes where a woman was being brutally whipped and two slaves were forced to fight until death. I enjoyed the movie otherwise. I thought it was well written and acted, but I couldn't get past these disturbing scenes enough to say I was a fan.
Saturday night, at a community discussion about Quentin Tarantino's film, I came to realize that the uncomfortable scenes should be touted more than anything else in the film.
I arrived at Poor Richard's Book Shoppe in Uptown unsure of what to expect. I didn't know what the prevailing community opinion of Django was. I'd heard Spike Lee called the film disrespectful to his ancestors, and I'd seen everyone from activist/comedian Dick Gregory to 2 Live Crew's Uncle Luke fire back at him in the movie's defense. Personally, I had no idea what to think.
The discussion's moderator, God City artist Wolly Vinyl, opened by explaining he hoped the event offered a fresh, real-life perspective on the Django debate, free of the vitriol often spewed online.
As the discussion ensued, most stated they liked the film and expressed disappointment with Lee. A commenter even went so far as calling him racist, saying he would've been first in line to see the movie had its director been black.
A filmmaker said she thought some scenes were gratuitous, such as one where a runaway slave is ripped apart by dogs and another in which Leonardo Dicaprio's character saws open the skull of a dead slave and explains why black people's brains are "different" than whites'.
Local artist Sophia Matthews countered that these scenes were important depictions of why slavery persisted. The dog scene showed the horrific consequences of attempting to escape, and the skull scene portrayed how whites rationalized slavery.
Another important scene mentioned was one in which the KKK was shown fumbling with their masks and having a petty argument. A teacher spoke about this and said he had been ready to leave the theater until this scene. He stayed because he liked seeing the KKK portrayed as real humans with vulnerabilities, instead of ominous, powerful boogeymen.
An older white man spoke next and echoed my thoughts, saying he hadn't been able to form a strong opinion on this movie and couldn't figure out why.
That's when I began to grasp it. This movie was the first time I'd confronted the graphic realities of slavery. The same was probably true for that man.
An African-American man said he felt desensitized to the violent slavery scenes because he's lived with knowledge of these things his entire life. Not me. I hadn't heard about mandingo fighting or scientists in the 1800s claiming blacks were a different species. For most white people, the era of slavery is summarized in a few neat paragraphs fit for high-school textbooks. We don't go back for more - its too painful, too shameful.
Tarantino doesn't discuss slavery in a way that's scholarly or educational. He uses slavery as a back drop - as just the cold, accepted reality of the time period - and does so graphically and unapologetically. Therein lies Django's genius: It ropes you in with a badass western love story, smacks you in the face with the atrocities of slavery - forces you to actually see them - and, hopefully, talk about them.
I've never sat down with anyone and had a long conversation about slavery, not even the African-American man I was in a relationship with for seven years. We've talked about the holocaust and Trail of Tears. Why not slavery?
"... Because we still live together. Jewish people don't still live with Nazis. Native Americans mostly live on reservations, but here we are sitting together. Bringing up how your ancestors enslaved mine makes for awkward conversation," Matthews, the artist, said.
With all due respect to Spike, I say it's more disrespectful to his ancestors for white people to ignore or downplay slavery. It was an ugly truth for Tarantino to put onscreen, but that ugliness could lead to a beautiful, long-awaited understanding between our races, if it continues to inspire community discussions like this one.