By Gabriel Rom
Warning: this article contains spoilers
Quentin Tarantino has become a spinner of historical catharsis. Django Unchained, in which a renegade slave kills (and kills and kills) white slaver owners, allows an impossible narrative to exist with panache, cinematic grandeur and deep moral ambiguity. Tarantino plays fast and loose with genre, audience expectation, and what is deemed as acceptable taste. His cheekiness is one of his most laudable qualities. Yet when Tarantino self-consciously applies his cinematic style to history, he demeans and infantilizes the experience of black slavery by turning it into a winking pulp-infused shoot-em-up. It’s a payoff that is too cynical to let this clever movie stand on its own. The eminent literary critic Lionel Trilling once said that “in irony there is a kind of malice”. By looking at both slavery and justice in never-too-serious terms, what is meant to be entertaining and fantastical becomes malicious.
Django Unchained is split into two parts. The first hour is set in the American West where Django (Jamie Foxx) is rescued by an erudite German, Dr. Schultz (Christoph Waltz) who also happens to be a bounty hunter. The two quickly become friends and then the killing begins in earnest. One after another, Southern whites go down by the barrel of Schultz and Django’s guns. The cinematography of the old west and deep south is astounding, the Southern accents are charming and the dress is perfect. The movie has the trappings of history but none of its substance.
While Django Unchained is an homage to the Spaghetti Westerns of the 1960s and 70s (the movie is a remake of Sergio Corbucci’s 1967 original Django), it also strongly alludes to the blaxploitation genre popular during the same era. Tarantino fuses together the two influences seamlessly, creating a movie that seems not to want to be taken seriously but nevertheless tries to say something profound about slavery, race and racism.
Django’s retribution against the institution of slavery not only has few historical precedents (Nat Turner comparisons are iffy at best) it also inverts cinematic precedent by allowing the role of reckoning to be placed in black, rather than white, hands. Dr. Schutlz must die before Django can fully destroy his wife’s captors. In one sense this seems unremarkable. Southern blacks were the victims of slave-owners, just as European Jews were the victims of the Nazis. Given the plot of Tarantino’s previous movie, Inglorious Basterds, it is just narrative convention in Tarantino’s cathartic universe to give history’s victims the role of judge, jury and executioner. Yet in another sense, the role of a black man as distributor of justice harkens back to the long out-of-vogue style of blaxploitation movies.
Critical appraisal on blaxploitation is divided between those who see the genre as an amalgamation of thinly-veiled racist tropes, and those who see it as a problematic yet important integration of black empowerment into a historically white business. Either way, by engaging with a hunted-as-hunter narrative, Tarantino forces himself into the middle of cinematic race relations.
The arch-villain of the movie, Calvin Candie (Leonardo Decaprio), is introduced to us as a connoisseur of Mandingo fighting. Django pretends to be a knowledgeable scout of the sport in order infiltrate Candie’s plantation and get close to his wife, who is Candie’s slave. The sport is a figment of Hollywood’s imagination, a dramatized stand-in for other, real, abominations of slavery. Indeed, the role Mandingos play in Django Unchained is a reference to the 1975 Dino De Laurentiis movie and blaxploitation classic of the same name.
Some of the scenes of violence, like a slave being mauled alive by dogs, serve as visceral reminders of the sadistic terror that existed during the era of slavery — terror that arguably did not truly abate until the 1960s. Can we then, in some perverted sense, call this movie an educational experience — a reminder, however stylized, of our racial past? When I left the movie theater I couldn’t believe that I had never learned about Mandingo fighting — a sport in which two slaves fight each other to the death for the entertainment of the slave owner. I soon discovered that Mandingo fighting was a fiction which Tarantino used as a shocking vehicle to drive the plot forward.
In an admittedly hilarious scene, a bumbling Jonah Hill, of Superbad fame, dons a Ku Klux Klan hood and exclaims in a shticky hick accent, “I can’t see fucking shit outta these damn eyeholes!” It is a good thing that American pop culture has gotten to the point where the Ku Klux Klan has become so emasculated and passé that chubby dude-comedy actors can impersonate them. Tarantino helps strip the KKK of their power and terror in a way that an honest or “serious” narrative could never achieve. And yet the movie fluctuates from whimsical detachment to very real (and occasionally historical) depictions of slave-brutality. Can Django Unchained both break ground in America’s conversation of its racial past and also be absurdly silly?
The ubiquitous use of the word “nigger” in Django has shrouded the movie in controversy that Tarantino surely does not mind. The word has an important power when used in its vile original context, but when it’s featured against a score of Rick Ross and Norah Jones (and dialogue exchanges like “I count six bullets nigga…I count two guns nigga”) the word morphs from naively racist to self-consciously edgy. When asked about his usage of the word, Tarantino responded, “that’s just part and parcel of dealing truthfully with this story, with this environment, with this land.” Tarantino uses history to justify his usage of the word “nigger” yet he neglects history when he thinks it gets in the way of entertainment. The fact that his justification has no consistency points more to a sniveling Tarantino ego-stroke than “period-piece dialogue.”
As the movie descends into its second act in which Django must retrieve his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), from the villainous Candie (the name of his plantation is Candyland), Django’s retribution takes center stage. With steely eyes and pointed barbs Django soon becomes a swift dispenser of justice, simmering in righteous rage until he shoots himself out of Candyland. Any moral nuance loses out to retributive pornography.
When Ms. Laura, Calvin Candie’s sister, was literally blown off the screen, the audience at my showing erupted with cheers. The laughter had an undertone of social righteousness — that by laughing at the absurd death of a caricatured white supremacist, we boost our progressive racial credentials ever-so-slightly. But that’s no fault of the audience. Capitalizing on white guilt and the itch for popcorn revenge is exactly what Tarantino was after.
Tarantino’s muses are our own bloody desires for historical justice that many of us might feel in our private moments. Sometimes we want to neglect due process and high-minded justice, and just watch bad men burn. Seeing uncomplicated justice in its righteous glory allows us act out what history’s villains really deserved, and there is no better place to live out this fantasy than at the movies. But, by indulging in historical spectacle and fantasy, the audience loses a connection to racial reality. First the Holocaust and now slavery. Like Schultz himself, Tarantino is a bounty-hunter who, with style and precision, obliterates what is sacred, in order to make a buck and give the people what they want.
Tarantino wants to combine moral seriousness with spectacle and style — a dance between shtick and solemnity, dying slaves and the horns of Ennio Morricone. The tension seems characteristic of modern pop culture that wants to get close, but not too close, to the heart of contentious issues, Tarantino takes joy in making seriousness toxic (in one scene of bloodshed Django actually winks at the camera). But we pay a price when outrageous entertainment uses historical tragedy as its fodder. Our apathy is massaged and our connection to reality slowly hacked away at. The great African-American author Ralph Ellison voiced his dissent to “hollywood movie ectoplasms” when he affirmed that “I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids — and I might even be said to possess a mind.” Can Django say the same?