Django Unchained Signifier
by Joshua Gleich — University of Texas-Austin
December 18, 2012 – 00:00
“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?