Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Race and Villainy

I forgot this week was Obama inauguration fever week, so last night instead of stressing about what Michelle wore (why bother, she always looks magnificent) I watched Django Unchained. Oh, did I love it! How many directors are still making live-action cartoons for adults? It's no hardship at all to watch Jamie Foxx stride around as Django, long of leg and goddamn fine no matter how crazy the outfit. But the movie is MADE by Samuel L. Jackson's character Stephen. He absolutely killed it. Blah blah, whatever. A movie needs a hero, but to truly work a movie needs a villain who is deliciously villainous.

When Denzel Washington became the first African American to win an Oscar for Best Actor, it was for his role in Training Day. He played a villain. This upset many people and to this day it is commonly held by some film afficionados that it was an act of racism to recognize him for playing such a bad man. Reinforcing stereotypes about African Americans as drug-dealers and violent men, that sort of thing. 

I beg to take a different view. Up until then, Washington was known for playing good guys and the truth is that he shines in any role. This man does not do bad performances. But there's something about playing a villain that really uncorks actors, lets them go places where the weak fear to tread. If an actor is given a villain role and they flub it, well. They're basically limited. Don't expect too much much from them, they have clearly not plumbed any of the depths of human character and are swimming safely on the surface with their floaters on.

Being able to play ugly, to unhinge- that's committing. That's craft. Denzel deserved his Training Day Oscar because he was so messing with his own created stereotype. He duped us. He was calm, he was kind, he was authoritative and trustworthy... until he revealed himself to be an evil bastard. How could one not love such an upset? Similarly, Jackson has been enjoying his eccentric self by playing flamboyant villains for a while now. I suspect a large part of the motivation is to escape the Magical Black Man Trope. If you don't know what I mean, think of Morgan Freeman. 


This is one of those things that might be seen differently depending on one's shade of Africanist or Diaspora politics. I spent a little college time writing a senior project investigating the depiction of Africans by Hollywood between 1930 and 2000. I watched Gone with the Wind and Roots and the Cosby Show and all that other ish growing up. This is not unfamiliar territory. It is why I prefer South African work- in SA, African characters are allowed complexity. My first fascination with a seriously bad guy performance was Henry Cele's Shaka Zulu. It's an incredible epic, one of the jewels of African cinema, on par with Ousmane's work. And Cele put such intensity in that role, it can never be remade. Ever.

Anyways, so: Samuel L. Jackson plays Stephen in Django Unchained and as the title character says- and I paraphrase somewhat- "...Head House Nigger... that's pretty fucking low." The only way this could have been any more interesting an encounter between two excellent performers is if Stephen had been played by squeeqy-lovable Will Smith. No beef with Will, he's done a great job with the science fiction genre and other breakouts. But I want to see his crazy gleam, if you know what I mean. Can he bring it?

Django Unchained is grand fun as a movie, if a little long and a lot wordy. But, you know, Quentin Tarantino. I committed nonetheless. Even managed not to get too exasperated by Christoph Waltz' measured tones and smug didactic attitude. If I had been Django, I might have slapped Dr. Shultz a time or two for being so far up his own righteous backside. But the movie only really begins when Stephen takes sight of Django, and offers up an Uncle Tom like you have never seen before. I hope Hollywood doesn't mess things up and give him an award for this, it'll make all kinds of people crazy. If you need to forgive Jackson for his Stephen, watch that Sunset Limited* he did with Tommy Lee Jones.

Rest of y'all- and you know who you are, who found Mo'Nique's performance in Precious dreadfully awe inspiring- if you can stomach roles for African men, or men of that descent, that just don't give a shit about your delicate nature? Watch on.  Django, Unchained. Alternate title: Stephen, Unhinged.

*excuse me, I got the movie the movie title wrong the first time around. 


  1. I see you've gone full movie critic, I could get used to this!

    Also you'll be happy to learn that so far Samuel L. Jackson has not received any major awards or nominations for Django Unchained ... I really think his performance was so good and disturbing that people would rather not think about it.

  2. Apparently Quentin Tarintino approached Will Smith to play Djanjo but Will said no because of the risk it would have in hurting is good/clean cut image...

    My man Bill Simmons explains: http://www.grantland.com/story/_/id/6716942/page/2/bill-simmons-ryan-reynolds-smith-perception-success-hollywood

  3. Fortunately/unfortunately, I'd read your review before watching the movie. Ordinarily I would have stayed away from a Tarantino flick- I am not one for suspense or violence, but your review piqued my interest.

    The ensemble/dialogue of all the characters was first class. Dr Schultz, DiCaprio, S Jackson, and even Don Johnson. Foxx did nothing for me to be honest. His expressions, tone and delivery were lukewarm. That KKK scene was off the chain! I found the dialogue very entertaining and clever. It was raunchy in parts but fitting. There was no way to window dress it. The ease with which Stephen blurted the word b***h was perfectly raw!
    Thank you for your review- I closed my eyes through the violence and my husband's hand comforted me through the suspense;-)

  4. @Rweba: OH MY GOD I LOVE MOVIES SO FREAKING MUCH EVEN IF THEY ARE MAINSTREAM HOLLYWOOD! Shhh. Don't tell anyone about that, hey? I like to keep things private.

    @A.Nonny Mouse: Thanks.

    @Ahmed: Yeah, I can see how Little Willy would be concerned about how this kind of role might mess up his designer haircut. Thanks for the link.

    @Sunshine: High Five!... but seriously, Jamie Foxx in tight tan pants didn't move you? not even a little bit? #eyecandy


No biting, spitting, trolling or ugly insults- only pretty ones allowed.

A little birdie told me...

Follow MikocheniReport on Twitter