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Brianne Johnson: Finding little satire in the racism of 'Django'

By Brianne Johnson, Daily Film Columnist
Published January 22, 2013

Have you ever told a joke – boy, you are funny! – only to realize that your audience doesn’t quite get it? Sure, they’re laughing. He’s slapping his knees, she’s tossing her head back with glee and shaking a finger in your direction (you are so hi-larious!). But the back row – heck, the whole theater – has missed the punchline, swinging fists into space, wild and blind and amused.

This was my experience watching Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained.”

But I’m no comedian, just an eager viewer camped out in the last aisle of my hometown theater on Christmas night.

“Dude, this movie’s going to be fucking awesome. Tarantino is the man.”

Five friends surround me: all male, all old high-school chums, all slurping the salt and butter off their thumbs. Oh, and we’re all white. Not that it matters, right? Love is blind to color, and so is the audience of this dim theater.

But let’s fast forward to over two hours later. Over two hours of aesthetic, comedic, dramatic, gory and DiCaprio-tastic brilliance later, I am in the backseat of a ’91 Honda Civic, wiping out brain cells with each thud of my forehead against the window. Shockingly detailed penises are scrawled across the foggy glass like cave paintings.

I sigh.

I am frustrated.

“Is it weird that all I want to do is say ‘ni**a’ now?” the driver asks with a laugh.

“Leo is so getting an Oscar for that. That shit was insane.”

“Brianne, what’s your problem? It’s a movie — it has no point! It’s just for entertainment, jeez.”

Now, weeks later, I address the above statements for (at least) two reasons: First, His Highness Leonardo DiCaprio has not received a nomination from the Academy. Can we please have a moment of silence?

Second, this heaping mess of my friends’ words parading as a post-film discussion is very, very wrong.

But who am I, perhaps no more justified than Calvin Candie’s clueless, white southern belle of a sister, to speak of racism? Who am I to spout my sympathies for a whole race of people represented by a couple of characters in a glamourized western flick? I don’t know. I was one of 50 people in that theater on Christmas night. One of many who heard members of the audience stifle their giggles like guilty children every time Samuel L. Jackson opened his mouth. Isn’t that enough?

Hey, I can appreciate comedy. I’m satire’s biggest fan, with a sign-my-infant-son’s-forehead love for irony and self-deprecation. Needless to say, I believe — in all my potential delusion — that I am familiar enough with satiric comedy to enjoy or, at least, recognize it. Jokes are not the problem. (C’mon, I promise!).

The issue is that my friends weren’t laughing at the tongue-in-cheek racism. They weren’t guffawing at the laughable ignorance and transparent hospitality of “Django” ’s racists.

My neighbors weren’t laughing at the racists. They were laughing with them.

What’s the difference, you ask. Maybe there isn’t one, I answer. After all, as my friend said, maybe a movie is mere entertainment, and we’re all wasting our time studying film for deeper meaning. Wouldn’t that be funny!

Is it a matter of selective perception? Do we, as viewers, let our critical guards down as we raise palms full of popcorn to our mouths?

Maybe you chuckled because you can’t resist a good ol’ stereotype. Maybe you laughed because Jonah Hill and his band of buffoons, hooded like the KKK in cowboy boots, was, y’know, funny. But why did you nudge your neighbor and smile when slaves were called crude names? Whipped? When the head house slave referred to a fellow black man as “boy” and refused to acknowledge his humanity?

Listen, I admit that, whether a person catches the implicit humor of some satirical joke is, in the big scheme of movie-related things, not a tragic issue. However, for those who haven’t been subject to racism (of all colors and ethnicities), it’s just another form of entertainment. It’s an anecdote in a comedian’s lineup, a lyric, a theme of next week’s episode and an internet meme.

I’ve heard that acknowledging racism, even in an ironic way, can take the power out of it. After all, slavery and segregation are behind us — the wound has healed! Hasn’t it?

So, what’s the big deal?

“Tarantino isn’t trying to make a point,” my friend said that night at the theater, “It’s just a movie. You’re supposed to laugh.”

Maybe I’ve missed something. Have I subscribed to the wrong brand of humor?

Wait, aren’t I watching “This is 40”? Oh. Well, that explains a lot.