'Django Unchained': A Post-racial Epic?

1/9/2013, 2:01 p.m.

As all of the Django Unchained reviews hit the Internet, I'm sure plenty of African Americans will list why they hate Quentin Tarantino's new film about a slave's journey for revenge -- but not me. A friend and I recently attended a screening for the film, which opens on Christmas Day, followed by an awkward question-and-answer session with the director. We were two of perhaps 10 black people in the theater -- that's what makes what happened next so awkward.

In the film, Django (Jamie Foxx) is purchased by Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a German dentist-turned-bounty hunter, and the two pair up to collect the bodies and ransoms of outlaws across the South. Because Django is such a natural, Schultz asks him to work with him through the winter in exchange for his help finding the former slave's wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), who was sold to a different plantation. The search for Hildy leads the duo to the plantation of Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) -- which he shares with his head house slave, Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson) -- and bloody drama ensues.

After the film ended, Tarantino began the interview with Peter Bogdanovich, the elderly director best known for 1971's The Last Picture Show, when a black woman interrupted their conversation, saying, "A lot of black people are not going to like this movie. I'm about to have a heart attack." Then a few audience members began to heckle Tarantino from the balcony, shouting: "This is bulls--t." (The director invited his detractors to offer their comments during the open session after the interview while admitting that Django dealt with heavy subject matter.)

"That's the thing about this film -- we're dealing with virgin territory with this kind of story and this history," Tarantino said. "It's a rough movie. As bad as some of the s--t is in this film, a lot worse s--t was going on. This is the nice version."

Then Bogdanovich said, in what I imagine was an effort to calm the situation, "It's significant that we have a black president. It shows you how far we've come."

My friend, who is also black, and I immediately looked at each other, shook our heads and resisted the urge to scream, "What does that have to do with anything?"

Herein lies the crux of the problem that many have, and probably will have, with Django Unchained: While it deals with race, the film's mere existence is not necessarily a commentary on how far we've come in terms of race relations in America, which some viewers might expect from a film about slavery in 2012. At its heart, Django is a spaghetti western, and the film, written and directed by Tarantino, showcases his wild sensibilities as he imagines America's slaving days through the narrative of a black man.

Let's all agree up front that a film about a newly freed slave enacting revenge on those who abused him and his wife can seem problematic when the director is a white man. There is no way around this. As illustrated by the critics who disagreed with having Steven Spielberg produce and direct Alice Walker's The Color Purple, the white-black dynamic is an odd coupling, and not every filmmaker would be able to correctly capture the characters' speech patterns or have the appropriate racial sensitivity. (Perhaps that's partly why the Dino De Laurentiis-produced Mandingo is so hard to watch. The 1975 film's slavery story is shockingly atrocious.)