On Context in Film & Television
09 Jan, 2013
There has been a lot of talk, and not just in entertainment news, about certain aspects of Django Unchained, the movie I reviewed last week, and found a behind the scenes featurette of the week before. As such, it isn’t a secret that I absolutely adore this movie and everything involved in it. But some people have spoken out against the movie, not just for the brutal portrayal of some of the most horrific ways white slave owner’s treated their human property, but the language they use as well. Now, since it’s already been widely discussed about in terms of this movie, I feel it would be better to talk about it in a broader sense to give greater understanding to other movies or books or any work that lands itself in the same pitfall.
Context is the name of the game here. And with context comes two very important key ideas: intention and result. What was the writer trying to do, and what does it end up looking like? To some that may seem obvious, but it’s only by looking at things simplistically that we can find true complexity in what we choose to observe. So with that in mind, let’s look at a movie with very clear intention, the 1915 silent film The Birth of a Nation. It portrays black people as dull witted brutes and the Ku Klux Klan as a group with noble and heroic causes. Its intention is to misconstrue and rewrite history more favorably for racist viewpoints. That means the result is a movie that you can objectively say is super racist.
Now what happens when intention and result begin to get more murky? In the average episode of South Park you can likely find stereotypes and racist portrayal of no less than three demographics in very blatant ways. But in interviews with the makers of the series, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, it always seems like they are very nice, well intentioned people. But what they make is what some people could call morally reprehensible. But that’s not their intent. Their intent is to completely subvert the very claims being leveled against them and point out just how ridiculous it all seems when laid out in front of ignorant eyes. Taken on surface observation alone, an episode where the owner of a Chinese restaurant nefariously schemes against the owner of a new Japanese restaurant, in an over the top accent of course, could be seen as something of poor taste. But when you look at the plot of the episode and the meaning behind it, it becomes a greater farce to explain something deeper.
With that in mind, Quentin Tarantino‘s Django Unchained doesn’t seem to be doing anything other than accurately portray the era in which the story is set. And to do that, even the most unpleasant things have to be brought up and put on display. If you know what you are doing, it will come off in good taste no matter how graphic it all gets. If you don’t, then you may miss the mark and people will come pounding at the gates with pitchforks and torches. If it happens to be the case that you missed the mark, it will take more explanation to get your point across, even some apologies, but the anger will eventually subside. If it was intentional like say, when Innocence of Muslims shocked and offended everyone because it was clearly something made with ill intention towards Muslims, then the ire is more deserved. Moral of the story is to know what you are doing and make sure everything happens for a good reason.