Laughter Unchained

“How do you like the bounty hunting business?”

“Kill white people and get paid for it? What’s not to like?”

I burst out laughing, and I could hear others around me giggling too. As a film fanatic, I had dragged my friend to a screening of the new Tarantino film “Django Unchained” on the day it opened in my city. An hour in, I was laughing inconsolably at the barrage of cleverly written dry witticisms of Christoph Waltz and deadpan one-liners of Jamie Foxx. At a certain point, members of the audience cheered and clapped when Django, a newly freed slave, mercilessly whipped a cruel slave overseer to an inch of his life before planting a bullet in his head. It seemed that yet another one of Tarantino’s violently comical motion pictures had succeeded in satisfying an audience.

But the energy quickly vanished from the cinema as the film took a much darker turn. A runaway slave getting ripped apart alive by hunting dogs, a “Mandingo fighter” punching the teeth out of another before pummeling him to death, a woman’s face being branded. I could not bring myself to watch, and I could tell that everyone else was horrified yet mesmerized by the brutality on screen. But soon the audience’s attention was turned away from the film and toward a pair of young men behind me, who were laughing sadistically, maniacally, and uncontrollably during these horrific scenes.

I was in a complete state of shock. My friend and I looked at each other in confusion. Who could find such a vivid account of the very real, appalling treatment of human beings during a dark chapter in America’s history so funny? An uncomfortable tension filled the cinema. The laughing went on for the next hour in the otherwise dead silence.

Finally, someone spoke.

“You’re laughing a little too loud.”

The laughing stopped.

As I left the theatre, I could not help but feel overwhelming feelings of guilt. Yes, those men sitting behind me had a perverse sense of humor, but how was I any different? I walked into the theatre fully aware of the horrors of slavery. I had just finished two chapters on slavery in “A People’s History of the United States” by Howard Zinn. The film even opened with five miserable slaves shackled together, forced to walk through the cold barefoot. Yet I still laughed at the film’s jokes using the “n” word and a hilarious scene involving white supremacists. Am I just as ignorant as those two men because I treated such a serious subject so lightly? Am I guilty of being a sheltered armchair historian who whitewashes the abominable truth? And, out of all people, did it really have to take Quentin Tarantino himself to make me realize how little I appreciate the realities behind words I had skimmed over in a book?

Regardless of whether you equate me with the men who sat behind me, one thing is certain. The lines between history and fiction often blur as time goes by. We must watch historical films, whether humorous or not, with the ability to appreciate the entertainment provided by expert filmmaking while simultaneously respecting the truth. That is the power of films like “Django Unchained.” These films remind us of the horrors that we, as 21st century upstarts who stand on the shoulders of the giants of history, often fail to appreciate. I was more emotionally affected by the depiction of slaves being whipped in “Django Unchained” than by the countless readings on the treatment of slaves for the British Empire class I took last semester.

That was my “Django Moment”: the point I realized that I should never have to rely on a film to alert me of my false way of studying history and observing current events. “Django” brilliantly politicizes Tarantino’s usual comic violence. It hits closer to the bone because, unlike in his other films, the recipients of violence are not comical villains or unsympathetic heroes. Rather, they are slaves. They are people who actually suffered in the way that is portrayed on screen. But it should not have to take a Tarantino film to serve as a wake-up call. Next time you skim a news item or a reading for class, take a moment to appreciate the knowledge you have gained rather than just quickly absorbing it so you can whip out some brilliant anecdote during section.

Next time I have a moment of self-realization, I hope I won’t be covering my eyes while listening to the sounds of hunting dogs and depraved laughter. And I hope your “Django Moment” will be a little less graphic too.

Heather L. Pickerell ’15, a Crimson editorial executive, is a social studies concentrator in Mather House.

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