You remember last year when I did all those pieces about the movies of Quentin Tarantino? Back when I had that regular series called Directed Viewing, where I covered the films of a given director in depth? Well, that series isn’t coming back yet, but I intend to keep up with prior candidates, and we’re weeks out from one of the most contentious—and one of my favorite—films to come out last year.
So let’s talk Django Unchained and check Tarantino off the list of ‘directors I need to cover’ for another few years. I have plenty to say beyond the short bit I wrote in my End of 2012 list, mostly concerning my reading of the film and where my opinion seems to differ with the critical consensus (or lack thereof). Which means I’m going to be covering a lot of the themes of Django Unchained in great detail. That means do not read this if you haven’t seen the movie. There’s spoilers aplenty, and lots of talk that would mean nothing to the uninitiated. Just go see it. It’s worth having an opinion, no matter what it might be.
Django Unchained (2012)
If you read my piece on Inlgorious Basterds from last year, I went on at length about how Tarantino was using the framework of exploitation to address a part of history that had been rendered immutable and almost sanctified by film. I also posited that I expected him to use the same tactic with Django Unchained to tackle the verboten task of actually trying to say something about slavery in a way that other films simply didn’t and don’t have the guts to try. People were going to be uncomfortable. I didn’t appreciate at the time just how true those words would be.
I shouldn’t be surprised that Django Unchained has incurred accusations of insensitivity, racism, poor taste, and bafflingly enough, of whitewashing. In the eyes of some critics, this movie is the last thing people need in this time of great sensitivity and cultural unease. From the double-punch combo of cartoon and disturbingly real violence; to the casual portrayal of oppression and racism; to the rampant staccato of maybe the only word our culture at large still invests with any sort of power, Django Unchained is, above all else, a very unsafe movie. Nobody likes their boats rocked, especially when it’s in a way that throws carefully considered notions of civility and politeness back into their faces.
The accusations of racism and racial insensitivity are staggering to me because I think race is one of the major aspects the movie gets most right. I’d go as far as to say that Django Unchained is the most profound mainstream statement on race in America since Do The Right Thing. I’m sure that’d make Spike Lee positively plotz, but it’s not as if anyone has gone as far in opening up this conversation since; and nobody has managed to approach slavery without sterilizing it past relevance. So that’s what this piece is going to focus on most, and everything else will follow along behind that.
Slavery is the Symptom, Not the Cause
The truth of the matter is, Django Unchained takes just about as unflinching a look as one could ever expect at the realities of slavery in the South and still get a mainstream release. It’s brutal, uncomfortable, messy, and grounded in the human suffering that defined slavery. But it also does something more important: slavery is secondary to the social truth that underlies all of the movie. Django Unchained is less a movie about slavery as it is a movie about racism itself. And I’m not just talking within the historical context of the 19th century, but the very real and pervasive racism that exists and thrives today, nearly unchanged a century and a half later. Slavery is, bravely, not the point of this story of a slave.
This becomes instantly obvious early on in the film with the reactions to Django riding on a horse, or drinking in a bar, and the sudden and incredible horror of every ‘normal’ person around them. The knee jerk reaction isn’t based on slavery, but on a fundamental belief in a system of racial inequality that runs deep: from the phrenology that Candie spouts to the multiple acts of trade of human beings like chattel. It’s not about slavery, because we all can agree that slavery is bad. That would be a pretty unimpressive movie. Instead, it’s about racism itself, and the dehumanization that comes along with it. More importantly, it makes these concepts immediate and impossible to ignore, bringing them out of the past and grounding them through constant connections drawn to modern life.
Let’s look specifically at the Mandingo fights, introduced to us in gruesome detail along with the introduction of our villain, Calvin Candie. This is something different than slavery, with all the obfuscating economic arguments removed, until it’s simply human beings turned into weapons, made to destroy each other in ways that are cinematically coded to be exciting. Fights = cool, in most fictional contexts, but Django Unchained doesn’t really frame the fight in a ‘cool’ way. It instead turns what could have been a disaster of tone through action into a moment of deep and abiding horror. We’re forced to watch this atrocity unfold and know that everyone involved is powerless to stop it, even if they wanted to. It rubs our noses in the uncensored version of oppression that forms our history. And it is the lens that reveals the relevance of this story in modern life.
I’m specifically talking about the reality of watching this in a theater full of people. That is absolutely the way to see this movie, because it makes the true point of Django Unchained achingly clear. This is the scene: sitting through these sequences, people growing increasingly uncomfortable, and then someone starts laughing at it like they’re watching a comedy. I’m not even talking about the kind of tension-filled laugh of people made uneasy by what they’re made to experience, but the open guffaws of someone being entertained. That sort of tone-deafness is bad enough, but the agitation of everyone else simply underlines the point of these moments of crisis: art reveals human nature.
Django Unchained tells this story abstracted into a historical context to pack butts in the seats, but then holds up the mirror in moments of crisis. One of the best tricks Django Unchained plays is allowing its villains to be shitty. They aren’t masterminds, they aren’t all powerful or scheming: usually they’re just people, often not particularly bright or pleasant, who managed to find themselves in power because of this prejudiced social structure. In these moments, sitting in an increasingly divided theater, the truth bubbles up from behind the magic of cinema. Very little has changed with the human condition.
We’re a long way out from slavery, but racism will probably never go away. It’s easy to make it some huge bogeyman, but the reality is that it’s mostly ignorant people laughing at something awful that they don’t even see. Django Unchained throws that back at us, making us realize that we’re sitting in a theater with people who probably would be as bad as the racists on screen if they were given the power that those slave owners had back then. Which, I know, is something that any black person could tell you. But to see that lesson demonstrated in a movie as commercially successful as Django Unchained, and to have it play out so succinctly? To (mis-)quote from another Tarantino movie: “a lesson so simple even a child could understand it.”
About One Doctor King Schultz, DMD
Which brings us to King Schultz. Christoph Waltz’ gentleman murderer-imp is a revelation, charming and awful in equal measure. And he deserves special mention because he’s the first character we’re introduced to and early on telegraphed to be the ‘real hero’ of the movie. It’d be easy to dismiss that as a white savior move, if the movie wasn’t smarter than that. In fact, the movie is quick to establish the casually dismissive mistreatment of black people by everyone white, even ‘good guy’ King Schultz. Sure, he seems better than slavers outright, but he buys Django and doesn’t go out of his way to free him until it’s convenient for him to do so. It’s hardly the most altruistic motivation; it’s just that in juxtaposition to everyone else that he looks as enlightened as he styles himself to be.
This is the genius of Schultz. Waltz is dripping charisma, so it’s hard to dislike him, but it becomes increasingly apparent as the movie wears on that he’s as guilty as Calvin Candie and anyone else of the pervasive racism, just expressed in a more insidious, pitying sort of way. He originally helps Django out of a dim sense of amusement and pride; a condescending paternalistic ‘look at the slave I rescued, how determined he is’ sort of thing that speaks to a long tradition of white savior complexes. It’s not even that he realizes he’s doing it, it’s just so much a part of the culture that it seeps into his actions and words without him noticing.
This is especially apparent during the scene where he calls Django out for playing up his role of black slaver too much, accusing him of going too far to rescue Hilde. Django outright calls him out on his hypocrisy: it’s okay for Django to murder parents in front of their children with Schultz’ sanction, but the minute he starts acting ‘white’ and, more importantly, does things of his own agency Schultz is made uncomfortable. Django’s sense of freedom grows to the point where he pushes back against his would-be mentor, and Schultz is left choking on his own words as Django rebuffs his attempts to scold him.
In fact, the narrative explicitly goes out of its way to paint Schultz’ arc as one of ultimate impotence. Of course, he rescues Django, and trains him in gun-fighting and reading and whatnot, but that is, in many ways, simply undoing the most superficial hindrances of Django’s slave past. He still casts Django as his sidekick, a manservant role that Django bristles against as he overtakes the second half of the film. Schultz is the one who thinks up the convoluted plan of tricking Candie into selling Hilde through a series of assumptions that is insane in its complexity over Django’s protests that they just go and buy her like sensible people.
In the end, after getting Django in trouble, Schultz lets his pride get in the way by shooting Calvin, putting something like ego before the lives of Django and Hilde. If he had acted with restraint for five more minutes, they would have been free and clear. The ultimate condemnation comes in Django’s reactions: there are a half dozen shots of him reaching for his gun and hesitating right at the moment of crisis. But he keeps his head in the game, and thus deprives himself of a justified catharsis. Schultz blows it in the most petty moment, leaving Django and Hilde open to certain death over a point of pride.
Django As Heroic Narrative
Which brings us to Django himself, who starts our story as a taciturn slave shivering in a line, unremarkable compared to the others. The transformation from that nondescript, long-suffering slave to the strutting, smiling figure of legend he becomes by the end of the film is worthy of examination, and I feel like by and large Django’s own evolution has been entirely dismissed out of hand. What matters most about isn’t that adventure, but how much it subverts the typical taciturn Western heroic trope for another: the knight errant, young page to experienced squire, on a quest for a near-mythic artifact.
The interesting thing is that it divests the journey from the expected slave narrative of struggling against all odds to achieve freedom. His freedom comes incredibly early in the film, and the rest of it then lands squarely on him as a person trying to confront the manifestation of evils done to him in order to rescue his beloved. That’s pretty unique not just because it’s a black hero in a film (rare enough, sadly, to bear special mention) but because his development isn’t inherently reliant upon some preconceived notion of blackness.
What this does is help construct Django’s adventure as one entrenched in the most familiar of mainstream narratives, turning this into something so straightforward that it’s easy to conceive the oft-convoluted Tarantino of playing it too straight. This simplicity of plot, though, is obviously deliberate and even coded explicitly into the text of the movie during Schultz’ retelling of the Siegfried legend that Django emulates. By making Django mythic, he becomes less inscrutable, and his specific story is turned into a universal one. This opens up the gulf underneath the main textual narrative—go save Hilde and kill everybody in the way—and allows the subtext to emerge more easily. By Django becoming mythic, we’re allowed to see past him, to analyze his role in the myth, and the parts of that role he himself lacks the cognizance to acknowledge.
Which brings us to the real expression of the focus on racism in Django Unchained, and in many ways the real point of the whole movie:
There’s little argument to the fact that the real standout character in Django Unchained is Samuel L Jackson’s head of household Stephen. Unlike the other characters, Stephen forms the subversive backbone of the type of movie Django purports to be. Everything else is fantasy, but Stephen is altogether more nuanced and complicated than a mere exploitation film would ever aspire to be.
He is introduced as a character of broad comedy, an Uncle Tom with all the jokey lines in a moment of high tension, the too-friendly head slave of Candie’s plantation; but it quickly becomes obvious that he is more in charge than anyone (including him) would be comfortable admitting. He signs Calvin’s checks, he puts ideas in the ears of his masters, and he is the one that figures out Django and Schultz’ plot. It’s the reality of the “contented slave” stereotype: Stephen plays up his senile, jovial persona because it puts him in a position of power, but the reality is that he’s as aware, if not moreso, of the realities of his position than anyone else.
That doesn’t make him the villain, though. His very real grief at seeing Candie gunned down, and his deep hatred of Django and what he represents make it easy to ridicule and deride him. In reality, there’s far more nuance to these moments of emotional melodrama that speak to the broader themes. He’s a figure that is meant to be pitied, even though our reaction is to be disgusted by how shamelessly he panders to his owners. How could we not? Compassion dictates that we try to understand, and the movie takes the time to explicitly tell us that Stephen is the result of lifelong slavery. He was born a slave, he served his masters well for decades, and now he’s so far entrenched into the system of oppression that he finds himself on the side of his oppressors.
However, that doesn’t make him evil, that makes him a figure of grand tragedy, even when he actively opposes and threatens our protagonists. One would never root for him, but rooting against him seems like petty, spiteful vengeance. He is but another victim of the bigger machine. When Django finally squares off against him at the end, it’s almost a moment of anti-climax, as explosive and fulfilling for Django that it is, because ultimately Stephen isn’t the actual problem. Django guns him down, and feels (maybe justifiably) good about it, but what does it actually solve?
The Exploitation Wish Fulfillment … or Lack Thereof
Which brings me to my final point: Django’s victory plays deeply into the cinematic catharsis of exploitation films. He overcomes truly insurmountable odds and wins back the damsel, bringing us along for the ride. But does it really represent that? When discussing Inglorious Basterds, I went on at length about how the alternate history of that movie allows genre film to create a catharsis out of a very dark historical time. I suspected this was the direction Django Unchained was going to go, but the film takes it a step further by commenting on the inherent fragility of cinema-as-revisionism.
There’s two ways to read Django Unchained. In one, a slave gains freedom, goes questing after his wife, and murders a lot of slave owners in a narrative of sheer heroic, exploitation dreamland. It’s fun, it’s violent, and it plays heavily into what someone would expect if they’ve ever watched an exploitation movie before. On the other hand, the themes of racism and oppression? Those Django never really confronts, outside of isolated incidents where he faces the opposition of slaveowners and their hired guns.
Which is the point, ultimately, and what the confrontation with Stephen actually represents. It’s very easy to boil the problems down to cartoonishly evil villains, heroic showdowns, and revenge plans that go off spectacularly. When Django guns down Stephen it’s a failure for his heroism. Django gets to sidestep the realities of this world by becoming something mythic, but that doesn’t change the reality. As the opening card of the film reminds us, the Civil War will still happen. Whites will still fight and die to defend the right to own people and to perpetuate this system of oppression. Besides, even if they didn’t, we know the truth: these problems still exist. Django saves the day, but he solves nothing of value outside of his own narrative.
This is the last twist of Django Unchained, and why I love it so much. It would be so easy to pull an Inglorious and give us quick victory over all the evils, but instead Django Unchained ultimately reminds us that these cinematic narratives are impotent cries against the harsh realities of history and actual humanity that we live and breathe. Django can shoot down dozens of white folk, but it’ll never be enough to stop them from condemning him simply because of his race. He can gun down Stephen, but the scars of slavery last far longer and deeper than that (as every snobby white critic sneering at the soundtrack of ‘gangster rap’ attests to in the here and now), and many more black people after Django will suffer similar fates. Stephen isn’t the lowest as Django claims, and maybe what Django does to him is actually wrong. But it is at least unnecessary, because it accomplishes nothing outside of the flash of gratification.
Django Unchained ends with a note of celebration that embraces the best escapist potential of film, without sacrificing the raw truths that hang on every edge of every bleak moment of that movie. Django can ride off into the night with Hilde, but that doesn’t invalidate the indignities we’ve witnessed. We can root for that escapist moment, where after a long battle the hero gets what he fought for while still recognizing just how little he actually accomplished. That dichotomy is so hard to build and maintain that it’s a wonder the film doesn’t collapse under the strain. Of course, depending on who you ask, the film does collapse under the weight of its ambition. But those people are crazy.
I feel comfortable saying that there are very few, if any, movies like Django Unchained. There are plenty of reasons for that, some fair and some not, but ultimately it takes the idea of meta-exploitation into a new direction. Something can be wrapped in a ridiculous layer of cinema and still land a nuanced message elegantly—not despite the juxtaposition but because of it. Those messages are profound and unsettling, but they are messages we need more of. They’re culturally important, yet almost totally missing from popular fiction, which makes the fact that they’re coming from a pop culture figure as infamous as Quentin Tarantino not only surprising, but for some actually unfathomable.
But it happened, and it doesn’t change that I hold Django Unchained as Tarantino’s best movie. And I’m going to leave it on that, far less angry than when I started, but with most of my points made as well as I can hope to make them. If you disagree, feel free to let me know in the comments. I’m ready to have this discussion at length, because I think the movie is worth having that or any talk about. All great art is.