Django Unchained Signifier

Curator's Note

“With the breakdown of the signifying chain, therefore, the schizophrenic is reduced to an experience of pure material signifiers, or in other words, a series of pure unrelated presents in time.”

“Offensive ideas have now been transformed into so many material signifiers at which you gaze for a moment and then pass on.”

-Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, pg. 34; 158.

Quentin Tarantino’s schizophrenic style and promiscuous film references clearly support Jameson’s theories of the postmodern. My video essay, which intercuts similar scenes in The Legend of Nigger Charley and two Django Unchained trailers, highlights film imagery co-opted from a rather vicious 1970s portrait of racial antipathy to the familiar contemporary context of the interracial buddy film (see Melvin Donalson’s work). Despite Tarantino’s edgy auteur persona and the film’s sure-to-be controversial portrayal of slavery, this contemporary exploitation film appears rather tame and glossy beside its source material. I won’t adumbrate Django’s contextual omissions or dubious historical and racial representations (especially while writing before the film’s release). Instead, I’ll ask two thorny questions: As scholars and teachers, can we successfully re-chain Django to its lost referents? And should we?

 In 1972, a major studio released Nigger Charley for a major profit, spawning two sequels. The title was controversial at the time; it is now un-releasable (the sub-VHS quality footage posted comes from the only available video). The film exploited the rage, the attention to historical injustice, and the separatist streak of early 1970s African-American discourse, components of the clumsy umbrella term “Black Power.” The white producer estimated a 90% black audience (Variety, 7/26/172, pg 23). The white antagonists speak largely in epithets, all but calling for boos and hisses like the black-hatted villains of B-Westerns past. Fred Williamson answers these slurs with his fists and guns. This ambivalent film critiques the racial history underlying the Western genre as much as it revels in the legend of a black gunslinger. Thus Django bears traces of a memory of a lost film set in a cinematic South/West and re-imagined during the Blaxploitation boom. It reproduces near-images of a racially targeted film to a diverse global audience. 

If we follow the broken chain to an original signified, do we merely retrace a game of telephone?Do we criticize contemporary exploitation films for divorcing style from context? Or do we forgive their flight from an alien past?


One criticism often leveled at Tarantino is that his films rarely move beyond postmodern pastiche. His films reference any number of prior marginalized, exploitation, and cult films, but rarely do so for reasons beyond aesthetic appeal and titillating cinematic trainspotters. I'm not someone who subscribes to this criticism, but I can see where those who do are coming from. So I guess to answer one of your questions, I'm willing to forgive modern exploitation fare for lacking the social gravitas ascribed to many 'classic' exploitation films because many of those classic films weren't trying to do much more than turn a buck. A counter-argument to this might be that intention doesn't matter, that these films spoke to the zeitgeist of minority and marginalized cultures. This is a fair point, but I don't think it means we should criticize modern films (like Django) for borrowing an aesthetic. For all we know, such a film might speak to disenfranchised communities looking for cultural artifacts that give voice to their grievances.

I agree, there's no reason to assume Django won't speak to contemporary African-American viewers. However I find it daunting to reconnect the film to its historical referent, when the production, distribution, and exhibition structure has changed so drastically, not to mention racial politics. Social gravitas and exploitation film rarely go together. Nonetheless, blaxploitation films reveal the social gravity of race in the 1970s. Contemporary exploitation films appear to offer a fleeting connection to this past, which is exciting for film historians attempting to connect their histories to the present, as well as film professors attempting to connect contemporary students to this past. Yet if all contemporary exploitation can offer is retro styling and trivia, maybe forcing these connections is unjustified. Exploitation blockbusters are particularly puzzling. By definition, exploitation films exploit a specific audience, while contemporary blockbusters appeal to a global mass audience. By smoothing away the rough edges of their film precedents, they make the formerly taboo palatable to a large audience without forcing them to confront an ugly past. This is perhaps the strongest reason not to sever the ties between contemporary and historical exploitation films. As teachers and scholars, we may be best positioned to expose the social history underlying the stylistic gesture.

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