Wrestling with Django Unchained

An in depth look at Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained and Inglourious Basterds.

Quentin Tarantino is not Jewish and he is not of immediate African descent – he is a cinephile; a “filmist” whose perspective and imagination is best informed by movies of the past. In his previous work, Tarantino’s influence from other film genres and cinematic eras has been glaringly evident, either with direct movie references or with aggressive retro style (such as his Death Proof in the Grindhouse collection). 

In his last two movies, Inglourious Basterds and now Django Unchained, which are a part of an unofficial “revisionist trilogy,” Tarantino has found a way to not just toy with films he loves (like 1978’s The Inglorious Bastards and now 1966’s Django), but eras of history that command an audience’s attention. Tarantino, a clever storyteller who is able to move beyond the unimaginative risk of paying homage to previous art, offers audiences unique storylines that cannot be denied by anyone angry about the horrific truths in history – the revenge of genocide, the catharsis of fulfilling the “What If?” that viewers wish for when history reminds them of horrific injustices. And he does this with a perspective that could be considered “detached” in terms of his personal responsibility to these events. This enables Tarantino and his viewers, to look at his work more subjectively, as he takes these real atrocities and heightens their value as revenge tales. 

Quentin Tarantino’s newest film, now his most profitable and most controversial, is the Oscar-nominated Django Unchained, a “southern” (his words during pre-production) about a slave named Django (Jamie Foxx), freed by a German bounty hunter named Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), who work together in hopes of rescuing Django’s wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) from psychotic slave owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).

Although Django Unchained is much, much, much more difficult to take in than the cinema-loving, self-proclaimed potential masterpiece of entertainment that is Inglourious Basterds, Django is lighter in its tone of revenge and its story is on a smaller scale, which is a very curious choice; given that Django Unchained unflinchingly depicts images of an atrociously horrific, and extremely long, period of American history; one that is only rarely seen in theaters (we don’t have room here to also discuss the watered and dumbed down history available to American school children in their text books . . . ). With all the anger and cultural subtext that comes with any representation of an era, Tarantino seeks to balance this frustration with history through the use of a more thoroughly fantastical touch; while also utilizing the mythos of an action hero within the elaboration of the western genre.

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Why does Tarantino choose to take history head-on like this? Is it because the landscape of mid 1800’s slave vengeance is so fresh and that Tarantino has to tread carefully? Careful not to fully humanize white slave villains to avoid (dumb) accusations of racism, while having to “lightly” carry mainstream viewers to the idea of a Black slave killing American ancestors? Or, is the bizarreness of Django Unchained more related to the safety net provided by the excuse of genre, so the intellectually lazy (or scared) can simply reason, “It’s only a Tarantino movie”?

In order to more thoroughly understand Django, I am going to look at how the film deals with its crucial presentations of heroism, villainy, its inspiring holocaust and the depiction of vengeful history, while considering how the movie traverses the previous territory of “revisionist history” that Tarantino established with Inglourious Basterds.

Inglourious Django

The stories of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained celebrate the same type of avenging heroes. Django, a former slave with an action hero’s aim, has the firepower and stylization of a one-man Inglourious Basterds, with Shoshanna’s personal vendetta. Like the Basterds and their dynamite, and Shoshanna and her nitrate film, Django destroys the oppressors and blows up their institutions. With a little help from Schultz, Django provides the heroic over-the-top violence, like the Basterds; who are shown as invincible at times, (unless they become full sacrifices in botched moments). Both Django and the Basterds have pivotal moments, in their respective films, of glorified revenge captured in slow motion; with Django’s shootout (granted, not carefully planned out like the Basterds’ big moment) accompanied by flashy moments and double-pistol firepower. 

Shoshanna is different from the Basterds, who are made up of American Jews (except for Til Schweiger’s Hugo Stiglitz) because she has experienced the horror firsthand. The Basterds are going into “Nazi killing” with pride (both racial and national) and generalized anger (both racial and national). Shoshanna has the same idea as Django, in that she punishes those who tortured her and exterminated her family, which leads to the destruction of the institution in the final showdown. (In another indication of Django’s bizarre lightness, Django gets away with his wife in the end, whereas Shoshanna is murdered by bossy Nazi Frederick Zoller and bids her true love a tearful farewell beforehand). Django and Shoshanna are the Black and Jewish, respectively, heroes whose oppression, subjugation, annihilation inspire Tarantino.  Quentin Tarantino is neither Black nor Jewish but, through these movies, he is telling the stories of what has been done to Black and Jewish people.  

(Here are some other similarities in the movies, less obvious but possibly meaningful, listed for your pleasure: heavily lit tables used for key discussions; the focus of dessert with villains; the destruction of the primary institution of the film; the image of whipping [Hugo Stiglitz is shown being whipped in Inglourious Basterds, while Samuel L. Jackson narrates]; men shot specifically in the genitals [“Say auf weidersehen to your Nazi balls!”]; the usage of Fur Elise (to which Schultz shouts, [“Will you stop playing Beethoven!”]; the importance storytelling has on characters’ fates (Schultz saying that a German can’t resist a real Siegfried, and that it is kind of a big deal); the heroes are captured and attain their final revenge after being freed through false compromise with their captors.)

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A Product of Southern Caricature

However, the compelling difference between these movies is found in how Tarantino seems to handle his presentation of the aforementioned amorality. Though Inglourious Basterds is removed from stateside and can play for American audiences safely as vengeful fantasy; Django Unchained happens in our backyard, if not our part of the country,or even the town in which the film can be viewed. However, in comparison, Inglourious Basterds explores its villains through a more humanized perspective; though they may be Nazis, these bad guys are instilled with real pain in the movie or at least the enlisted men are; they beg for their lives while standing before the Basterds; they cry, they talk about their newborn children, etc. Despite the humor of the movie and the brutality of it, Tarantino does not prevent these villains from having their own lives and backstories.

Compare that to Django Unchained, in which the white racist villians are presented much more one-dimensionally. White characters are shown as disposable buffoons, whether they are having trouble cutting holes for their heads in their white sheets (a miserably unfunny sequence, from the same writer who gave us incredible Italian language basterd-ization), or are screaming in pain because they keep being shot by friendly fire. Even Walt Goggins’ character, with a few lines and dark clothes, is nothing more than a sneering product of genre. These Django Unchained bad guys are more easily compared with caricature than fully developed character. In Django, they hardly speak, (one of them specifically speaks gibberish) or they represent one specific “trait;” hating Blacks and wanting to bring about their destruction. Thus, when Django rains down his great vengeance and furious anger on these men, it is met with the same simplicity; such as when he shoots up the slaver’s shack in the course of five to ten seconds, turning already simple, evil soldiers of this movie’s genocide into more moments for blood packets.

 

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The one supporting villain who may achieve something approaching sympathy from the audience is Smitty Bacall, one of the bounty targets for Schultz and Django. In this scene, Django must look beyond the idea that Bacall has a son, a fact that he uses as an excuse for hesitating to snipe him. Django humanizes him and brings Bacall beyond just a sneering target that might shoot back. This is also the moment in which Schultz, just as Tarantino does with his movie audiences, indoctrinates Django into the idea that killing Bacall is only right; it is the only moral way of achieving justice.

Compare this then to the Nazis, who are given moments to express themselves in Inglourious Basterds; moments for people to speak beyond their uniform and simply seem human, but on the wrong team. Bacall is always shown from a distance. Even when there is a glimpse of humanization, of good to be seen in these guys, Tarantino plays it careful and doesn’t let us get too attached, keeping then at a distance.

Sure, Django is a genre film. Would this movie have the same effect if there were sequences of slavers begging for their lives, and talking about their children? Or, in some bizarre way, could such a concept of acknowledging humanity and sympathy towards these characters with a complex situation of evil put Tarantino even more uselessly under the accusation of racism?

To his credit, perhaps Tarantino tries to throw a curve ball (or an odd ball) with this characterization in the third act with the implementation of the three members of the LeQuint Dickey Mining Company riders. These people do not handle Django with the same racism or inflamed hatred (despite the horrific idea that Jackson puts in Django’s head in the previous scene about what people at LeQuint Dickey do with people like Django). Instead, they are more sarcastic, playing around with them (such as when Tarantino himself throws the dynamite in with the three other slaves in the wagon) or when the Aussies joke aboue Django’s use of the word “mate” right before he executes them. Perhaps this sequence is trying to say that Australians are a bit less serious about their slavery or, more likely, that other kinds of white people can be goofy too and they are destroyed by their own greed; or can be manipulated by that greed. Instead of being driven by racial superiority, these whites are just plain greedy.

DiCaprio’s character Calvin Candie does not provide a complicated villain; more a villain who is directly revelatory and a fine embodiment of the true horror that Django Unchained is trying to unearth. Candie is a boy raised in this mindset of racial superiority and he believes, even with scientific diatribe, in the biological/cultural/spiritual/intellectual insignificance of Africans. As we see in his monologue with a deceased slave’s skull and in DiCaprio’s eyes, we know that Candie believes this with all of his heart. However, Candie is not much of a mind game player. He delivers a speech when he has the upper hand, after finding out he has been played, and then he bursts out to control the situation. He doesn’t strike the audience with the same smartness as Basterds’ villain Hans Landa; who provided a deep, multi-dimensional presentation of evil in Inglourious Basterds, along with immediately compelling scenes. Candie does not seem like a person with much of an agenda.  He just wants to have/keep his money and protect his pride; the pride of wealth/means and of racial dominance/superiority (given the slave plantation economy of the American South during Slavery, these things are inextricably linked to each other). Even as a guy who does seem to humor Django and lets him sit at his table, etc., Calvin Candie is just an extreme product, and perpetrator, of his environment. In this regard, though DiCaprio embodies this character with great flare and his baby face successfully depicts a young man raised on hatred becoming a man of hatred, Candie is still a simple character, only more sophisticated in his construction than his side men because of his amount of screen-time. Candie is no match for our hero Django, who is sharper than him, likely a better shot and a man whose fantastical revenge is guaranteed; given this is the Tarantino revisionist history genre.

The closest that Django gets to having a character as complicated as Landa, one who seems like a fleshed out character stepping from the pages of history with Tarantino’s revisionist narrative, who has complications to his evil more than the rest, is Samuel L. Jackson’s character Stephen. However, it is curious that Stephen also receives his largest complication or the most dimensional twist to his character, just as Landa does, through becoming a traitor to his own people, to occupy a position of power. The inclusion of the character Stephen raises the question of people being pushed to do awful things just to survive and the being punished for their actions.

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The Difference of A Holocaust

To use one of the words that director Spike Lee mentioned in his Twitter non-review on his impressions of the Django Unchained trailers; a key difference between Django Unchained and Inglourious Basterds is that Django actually shows its holocaust. Inglourious Basterds shows the vengeful actions by Jews, either those from Europe or North America, as they seek to avenge millions of exterminated Jews, but there is no concentration camp scene and the only moment we see of Jews being massacred by Nazis is through the floorboards during a home inspection. The home inspection massacre of Shoshanna’s family is certainly filled with horror created through built up narrative tension (provided by a legendary scene between Christoph Waltz and Denis Menochet), and the visual innuendo that is peppered by an effective piece of music and the loud rattling of machine guns.

Contrast that to Django Unchained, which presents horrific events within the institution of Slavery; from the disturbing collars worn by marching slaves or the idea of the “hot box;” along with a scene in which a Mandingo fighter is eaten alive by dogs. Despite the discomfort experienced by theatre audiences viewing these scenes, keep in mind Quentin Tarantino’s own words regarding the depiction of slavery in Django Unchained:

“We all intellectually ‘know’ the brutality and inhumanity of slavery,” Tarantino said after a screening on Dec. 7, 2012, “but after you do the research it’s no longer intellectual any more, no longer just historical record – you feel it in your bones. It makes you angry, and want to do something. I’m here to tell you, that however bad things get in the movie, a lot worse shit actually happened.”

Because he’s right. A LOT worse happened to tens of millions of people of African descent held in Slavery in this country. A LOT worse, for generation upon generation. Modern movie going audiences (not to mention movie critic and “the media”) are clearly not ready to see actual, historical reality, because it is far more violent, far more brutal, than anything committed to film in Django Unchained. One must wonder then, how much more difficult Inglourious Basterds might have been to process if it had provided more disturbing imagery of its genocide in action, prior to Omar Doom’s Scarface-like execution of Hitler in the third act of the film.

 

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Perhaps Tarantino thought viewers had already seen enough imagery of the Holocaust, and that his audience would “get it.” Did he trust that hatred of Nazis was already evident and that Shoshanna only had to be used as a brief reminder of the violence, depravity, torture and extermination perpetrated by Nazis upon Jews? Or, was he afraid of potentially losing viewers because they had already seen the images of gas chambers and their effects, etc.?

There is also the question of historical “breadth” of the “underlying events.”  The Holocaust/ Shoah, can be said to have been perpetrated upon the Jews starting on Kristallnacht (November 9-10, 1938) through to the end of WWII and the Liberation of the Camps (1945). The American institution of Slavery spanned over 300 years; the Colonies were replete with slave run plantations in 1776 at the time of our nation’s independence. Slavery was ended by The Emancipation Proclamation, but of course Slaves living in secessionist states were not actually freed until The Union’s defeat of The Confederacy at the end of the Civil War (1865). Tarantino’s depiction of these institutions/tragedies/holocausts is a compelling distinction between the two films, as he tries to work with two very different genocides through two distinct handlings. 

Results of Revenge 

Despite the actual depcition of Django Unchained’s central, motivating holocaust, a very interesting dissimilarity between these two movies is exactly what type of history they change. Inglourious Basterds gets an excellent thrill from changing the course of the world, executed in an exciting manner. The Third Reich is wiped out in one night, thanks also to the lure and power of movies (literally, they are used as an actual weapon in Basterds) and an innumerable number of lives are saved because as a result.

Django Unchained, on the other hand, is a secluded event and does not change the course of slavery. Then again there was no “Hitler” or “Third Reich” that started Slavery and so the destruction of which would lead to its end. Slavery was far larger than that and with much more far reaching social/cultural/political/historical effects. As the film’s text states in the beginning, the story of Django happens before the Civil War; a spoiler, or a hint to first-time viewers that this movie isn’t going to have a moment like Hitler’s execution in Inglourious Basterds. An interesting distinction between The Shoah and Slavery is this: no person alive at the “start” of Slavery in America was alive at its end (no humans live that long); many people witnessed both the beginning and end of The Shoah and lived to tell of it.

Django destroys one entire plantation and clearly defines what the two freed slaves are going to do next. The fates of the other slaves on the plantation is unknown and their liberation certainly not guaranteed. For the sake of historical “accuracy” it must be stated that, even were all these slaves set “free,” by the destruction of their plantation, they would have been “free” within a country where Slavery was legal and so their “legal status” would have remained as chattel. Even if they had escaped to The North, there was still the Fugitive Slave Act to contend with and The Supreme Court’s Dredd Scott Decision, which held that NO person of African descent was a US citizen and therefore none were protected by the Constitution.

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The events of Django Unchained are more concentrated (perhaps because “actual history” left Tarantino no other choice) but it does not change anything.He simply rides off, with the anticlimactic last line, “Let’s get out of here.” In this regard, the film does hint that Tarantino is attempting to avenge an unimaginable genocide in the only way cinematically possible: through the “micro story” of the actions of one, freed slave who is also, inherently, an action hero. But who better? In Inglourious Basterds, the score has been settled and the end is clearer, cleaner even. The dragon has been slain once its head has been cut off. Here, Tarantino doesn’t provide the idea that much more is going to happen. He doesn’t even offer the thought that perhaps Django will be doing more slave liberation. He only shows that two are free, with Broomhilda possessing free papers. There is no head that can be removed to stop this underlying genocide. It is the proverbially many headed Hydra and no, one man could put an end to it (unless of course that man’s name is Abraham Lincoln, but he died for his sins – or ours, fine line).

Gratuitous Catharsis

In Django Unchained, real moments of violence perpetrated upon Slaves (the aforementioned brutal Mandingo fighting, a slave being torn apart by dogs, whippings) are mixed together with and answered by cathartic good guy guns-a’blazin’ action that comes off like comic relief; these are the scenes in which some moviegoers will get the gratuitous super violence they’re paying for; they’ve waited through pages and pages of people talking to finally witness Jamie Foxx graphically blast away a bunch of bad guys to the tune of a Tupac and James Brown remix.

This is dangerous for the serious message of the film in many ways. Does a sequence in which Django shoots a bunch of slavers like its nothing soften the movie’s overall blow of the real violence that inflames such anger? Does it lump both the horrific images of slavery with that of a straight-up stylized action scenes? Does it make the visuals seem lighter, because viewers can easily associate the masks and torture techniques with something like Saw, which general viewers might be more aware of than the darker annals not shown in our text books? Is Tarantino allowing his audience to be comfortable with the real violence, because it is portrayed alongside his genre-satisfying, stylized, heroic vengeful violence? How much can the fact of Tarantino’s “genre” toying be used to excuse that the film lumps real horror with fantasy vengeance? 

Or maybe this is precisely the catharsis that Tarantino is looking for? That he is trying to give to his audiences as a gift almost: the historical reality of American Slavery was mindboggingly brutal and endless. To know the truth of it is to feel anger, to wish you could, retroactively do something/change history. Quentin Tarantino gives himself and all his moviegoers precisely that chance by having Django rain down that fantastically satisfying stylized, heroic, vengeful violence. You don’t leave the theatre weighed down with the knowledge that millions more will be brutally tortured and exploited as Slaves before it will finally be ended. You leave the theatre feeling that at least one Slave got in a few licks for all his people. Which was precisely what the Basterds did.

Conclusion

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Quentin Tarantino deserves accolades for even just making a movie like Django Unchained and getting into multiplexes and general American public consciousness. It is certainly admirable that Tarantino is presenting American mainstream audiences with at least a glimpse of the historical reality of Slavery, at least as much as he thinks we can handle (and we don’t seem to be able to “handle” much judging by the outcry surrounding Django Unchained). Kudos Mr. Tarantino for re-familiarizing the American public with the horrors of a genocide that happened on American turf not so long ago. Those who forget history are condemned to repeat it . . .  

Considering his presentation of the historical detail that can be found in the film, Django Unchained is a movie for which Tarantino has certainly done his research. After he viewed the film for a second time, I asked my colleague Nicholas D. Krebs for his opinion, as he is an instructor in/for the African American Studies & Research Center at Purdue University. After having a much better experience with the film in his second viewing, he told me in a statement: “The level of detail Tarantino went to produce a disturbingly authentic view of Chattel Slavery in the antebellum South is impressive. Once you move past understanding the movie as a text, the background images of slavery become completely justified, historically accurate, and lacking from the screen in any other movie, including Steven Spielberg’s Amistad, Edward Zwick’s Glory, and Anthony Hemingway’s Red Tails.” However, he seemed to agree with my uncertainty about guaranteed proper reading of the film by also pointing out: “For those oblivious to small dialogue and details, or those not familiar with slave history, the meaning in the majority of the movie may be lost.”

Django Unchained holds political thematic similarities to Steven Spielberg’s film Lincoln; the movies are similar in the ways in which they try to reach audiences. Both movies aim to adapt historical events for the form of entertainment, albeit through the different imaginations of their respective writers and directors. Like Lincoln, the fictional Django Unchained has elements of ingrained history, such as specific locations, a set time period and visual details in appearance and design that are true to the nonfiction events. And yes, these are certainly elements not often seen in other films; such as Mandingo fighting; or Stephen’s “House Slave,” etc. However, Django, at the same time, has a clear stylization through genre working within these truths, as if it not only aims to have its serious history expressed through Lincoln-like relevancy, but Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter nuttiness as well.

With his obedience to genre most of all, Tarantino may not be the best person for the job of leading the charge towards knowledge of this era for viewers. Instead, this history lesson is done on Tarantino’s own terms, his own style and with a narrative that possibly negatively effects the impact of the elements within the story that are brutally real. Due to his idea of fulfilling the presentation of a western and his way of expressing anger in history through a more direct revenge allegory, villains are presented without real humanity and a hero who rides in on a white horse, with precise aim and more smarts than his captors, is talked about in the film as “exceptional.” Yes, the historic detail in the film is there. But Django Unchained provides a lot of temptation to its audience to see this movie as western action fantasy most of all, a dangerous gamble against the history lesson Tarantino is intending most of all.

For this era of history, Django Unchained is a cheeky foot wedged hard in the door. Until another filmmaker steps up to express what Tarantino has begun to say here, mainstream movies will only know this disturbing image of slavery in America through the eyes of Tarantino, a storyteller who sees nonfiction as starting point/maybe even the reason, for fiction; a filmmaker who best comprehends history through film genres.

But, then again, Django Unchained is Quentin Tarantino’s movie and we’d like to thank him for sharing it with the rest of us.

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