Monday, May 14, 2012

Django Unchained and the Art of Kara Walker

Synopses of Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained, and Kerry Washington's scenes in particular, make it sound like a Kara Walker piece come to life. Which could mean a visually compelling film that reminds modern audiences of the true horror of slavery while taking on the exploitation genre, or a sexist, racist wank-fest hiding under the old "but it's critique" guise. The story: former slave Django (Jamie Foxx) teams up with a bounty hunter (Christoph Waltz) to rescue his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) from a plantation owner (Leonardo DiCaprio). And this isn't just any plantation owner (or is he?) - this plantation owner revels in baroque opulence and violence for the sake of violence, using rape and a hammer as his weapons and forcing his slaves to fight to the death.

Kara Walker, Cut

News broke this weekend of multiple actors dropping out of the project (and late in the game - the film is being released this December), and there's speculation that the film's controversy - and not "schedule conflicts" - are to blame. This includes Sacha Baron Cohen, and if a movie's too controversial for him...

Foreboding or cheesy? Both?

And there is a lot of controversy, especially regarding the portrayal of Broomhilda, who is the subject of sexual violence throughout the movie (at least based on early versions of the script). In showing the exploitation of this woman, will the film become exploitative as well? Will it make sure the viewers get as many shots of the distressed, humiliated Broomhilda's breasts as possible? These concerns are well analyzed here.

What's interesting is that these concerns also apply to Kara Walker's art. Walker is (in)famous for her black paper silhouettes of scenes from the antebellum South. The figures undergo and perform all means of torture and sexual degradation. In "Endless Conundrum: An African Anonymous Adventuress," Walker's naked subject is hammered with nails. Whether Walker's work is crass and titillating or shattering and courageous is a matter of debate. Toni Morrison's Beloved and Gayl Jones's Corregidora show similar scenes of extreme perversion and brutality within the master/slave relationship, but in words. By taking the outdated racial caricatures used to support the idea that blacks weren't quite human and putting them in scenes representing the most dehumanizing aspects of slavery, Walker creates a powerful visceral response. They're the same awful scenes Morrison and Jones rendered, but from a different angle.

Kara Walker, The Means to an End

But how will Tarantino go about this? And how will audiences react? Anticipated movies are always analyzed before they come out, and movies/TV shows showcasing a group that's not white males tend to be unfairly burdened with being the standard bearer for that group (see: Girls), but it's understandable why many are nervous about this one.

Image info:
Kara Walker, Cut
Movie Still: Entertainment Weekly
Kara Walker, The Means to an End, Honolulu Museum of Art


  1. Hi,

    Thanks for this, you were ahead of the curve. Now that Django is out, what are your thoughts on it and Walker's work? I found both informative and complementary.


    1. Hi Cacy,
      Thanks! I finally got my thoughts together as best I could ( I did enjoy the movie, although there were some aspects that disappointed me. It's been interesting to read all the different responses to it.