The spirited antebellum western Django Unchained is nominated for five Oscars including Best Picture, and it could win for Quentin Tarantino’s screenplay and for Christoph Waltz’s supporting performance as bounty-hunter Dr. King Schultz. (It has won in these categories at the Golden Globes and at the BAFTAs.) Indeed, the script is clever and compelling, with moments that induce giddy delight – like the fact that a notorious, lethal plantation is ironically named “Candieland”, and like the way Django makes known that “the ‘d’ is silent” in his name. These are interwoven with scenes of gripping, slowly-mounting tension. Also, it is true that Waltz is endlessly enjoyable as a wryly articulate, understated assassin. Though not nominated, Jamie Foxx also adds a great deal to the film’s strengths, being undeniably charismatic as the proud, sharp-shooting titular slave who turns the tables on his oppressors, while Leonardo DiCaprio steps outside his normal range of positive role models and portrays cruel, wrathful plantation owner Calvin Candie with surprising gusto. And in a classic, inspired bit of Tarantino casting, Don Johnson puts in a cameo as a genteel, paternalistic slave-owner (whose minions carry out the brutal side of slave-owning while he dresses in white).
There is much that the movie does very well. Most importantly, the fact that Django single-handedly takes on the apparatus of slavery feels thrillingly subversive. Django’s resourcefulness, strength, and sense of dignity are immensely appealing. Though there has been much controversy over Tarantino’s prolific use of the n-word (110 times during the movie, it is reported) the iconography of a heroic, brooding Django who simmers with moral outrage until the time is right to boil over is ultimately much stronger than the word is. We are all encouraged to identify with the iconic, brave Django, to want to be like him, to leave the theater thinking “I am Django” -- to paraphrase the famous “I am Spartacus” line in Dalton Trumbo’s 1960 slave revolt epic.
But as political philosophy, Django Unchained is the opposite of Spartacus. Tarantino is fully committed to the Western movie trope of the stoic lone gunfighter. His hero, like the Western archetype, faces down a horde of villains, dispenses justice, and then, ever self-sufficient, rides off into the picturesque sunset. In this case, he takes his beloved (Kerry Washington), but it is still likely that they are going to live on the edge of society. For one thing, Django’s going to have to go into hiding after all he has done.
Though Tarantino shows plenty of horrors in the system of slavery, making it clear that power over other human beings was maintained by savage violence, he celebrates the rugged individualist principles of the Western genre above all; when Django and his lady ride off together, it doesn’t seem to matter to them that, in the larger world, that system is still in place and slaves all over the South are still suffering.
Tarantino really has no interest in the collective action that forms the backbone of the slave revolt in the sword-and-sandal epic Spartacus. None of the slaves in Django are inspired by the titular character to throw off their own chains. (An astonished chain-gang at the beginning of Django does decide to gain freedom by killing the slave-trader transporting them, but it is white Dr. Schultz who gives them that option.) Instead, pampered house slaves continue business as usual even after their master is gone; when they do eventually flee, it is because Django forces them to – and they look just as foolish running in their layers of petticoats as the landed gentry would. The slave women of Candieland are almost all depicted as courtesans – they dislike seeing male slaves murdered in front of them, but like gangsters’ molls, they accept it with an averted glance. Even the talented Washington is in the movie just to motivate Django with her beauty and fragility; her dialogue consists almost entirely of shrieking and crying over her abuses by whites. Though she is described as willful, we never get to see her will in action. She just waits passively and admiringly while Django wages his “unconventional and asymmetrical warfare” alone.
Understandably, Django cares more about his wife than he does about other slaves. His romantic quest to rescue her provides an urgent throughline to the movie, and is overtly likened to the German legend of Siegfried and Brunhild. But this mission also brings out a kind of selfishness in Django. His first use of his new freedom is to strike back against wicked plantation overseers who are whipping a young female slave, but Schultz warns him that his wrath isn’t strategic. If he’s going to save his Brunhild, he has to play it cool and make sure he doesn’t cause trouble, no matter what he sees done to his brethren in front of him. In essence: to get what he wants for himself and his wife, Django has to betray his race. (It is worth noting that Schultz the reserved diplomat isn’t constrained by the same caution. When he explodes in moral indignation, Django and Broomhilda are on the threshold of freedom, and he recklessly destroys their chances.)
Spike Lee took issue with Django Unchained sight unseen because he didn’t think Tarantino could present slavery with sufficient gravitas. In my opinion, the fact that Tarantino tackled such a serious subject actually ought to be applauded, since it shows some personal growth, but it’s true that all that Tarantino panache and effervescence really ends up just in the service of entertainment, of mere diversion. And this is not too much of a surprise considering who made the film.
It was during Pulp Fiction that I began to suspect that Tarantino was not going to be the kind of director he seemed to be in Reservoir Dogs. When hit men John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson were talking and a loose gesture with a pistol accidentally killed their back-seat passenger – and the audience guffawed – it occurred to me that Tarantino might not be interested in using his gifts, which are obviously prodigious, for a very serious purpose. And I realized that I couldn’t relate to the way he found movie violence so supremely amusing. Little did I know how high the body count would climb as his career went on.
The complexity and intensity of the bond between the Harvey Keitel and Tim Roth characters in Reservoir Dogs had been deeply moving – at the time, it seemed like Tarantino was going to make movies about human beings. It’s true that Pulp Fiction also had some of those strong relationships between characters – its assets weren’t only its boldness, wit, sense of fun, and structural ingenuity. By Kill Bill, however, he seemed to lose interest in genuine characters and in the human condition. He seemed more intrigued by aerodynamics (of bullets, swords, etc.) than by psychodynamics.
And so he ends up with Django Unchained, a film about an enduring American shame – and a film that frequently lacks insight. The bounty-hunter subplot aligns the picture early on with the Western genre; conveniently hooks Dr. Schultz up with Django; and provides a slave, who would otherwise have no marksmanship opportunities, with the training he needs to become an avenger. It also lets Tarantino have scenes of violence in the pre-plantation half of the movie without alienating audience sympathy from Schultz. This erudite German calmly announces himself as “an officer of the court” and assures us and whoever on-screen will listen that the people he kills deserve to die because it has been so decreed. Schultz comes across as a good guy, an enlightened free-thinker – he abhors slavery, he is willing to share Django’s quest to liberate Broomhilda from bondage, and he knows that novelist Alexandre Dumas’ grandmother was an Afro-Caribbean slave. But he also seems to have absolute trust in law and order, far beyond his appreciation of the money he collects from bounties. The movie doesn’t contradict this faith, either; while being trained as a sniper, Django dispatches, from a great distance, a farmer peacefully sowing his fields -- because he is a ‘wanted man’. It looks not unlike a drone strike, but neither Django nor Schultz have any misgivings about whether the ‘intelligence’ on him is accurate.
This is odd, since Tarantino otherwise shows the society to be fundamentally corrupt and unjust. Not only did the society consider some human beings property, it was also rife with many other examples of oppression -- unmentioned in the film -- such as a centuries-long genocide against Native Americans; the disenfranchisement of women, slaves, and wage laborers; and a system that abused the workforce while it bucked up the railroad and mining companies. It is unlikely that those laws which Schultz prosecutes with such reasonableness and deadly aim were only used to target legitimate criminals like stagecoach robbers. Considering how much of the process was conducted behind closed doors – and how unequal the criminal justice system is even now, when it operates in relative sunlight – one can assume those ‘dead or alive’ warrants were issued, at least occasionally, in order to entrench the existing power structure. But credulity in the bounty-hunter’s legitimacy helps mark the film as a Western. The fact that the genre may have really been propaganda for the U.S.’ westward expansion, for the overpowering of those people who stood in the way (such as Native Americans and Mexicans) and the subjugation of the wilderness, doesn’t seem to bother Tarantino. He loves movies so much, he is tickled by them in such a pure, fan-like way, that it would actually be hard to imagine him coming from a more critical theoretical perspective.
But this issue is nothing compared to Candie’s right-hand man Stephen, a shuffling, obsequious ‘Uncle Tom’ played by Samuel L. Jackson, and a character criticized by many in the blogosphere as an offensive stereotype. I’m not sure that ‘stereotype’ is the right word, however, since Stephen is far from servile underneath his bent-over posture; he in fact turns out to be a power-hungry manipulator who relishes sitting in Candie’s armchair, calmly warming brandy in a glass for himself while he reveals to Candie what he has discovered about Django. He’s not one-dimensional, he’s actually deceptive; he’s a collaborator or colluder who loves to be on the winning side. Moreover, as the story proceeds, he becomes more and more eager to inflict pain on the powerless. His obsession seems to be to beat down anyone who dares raise their head.
Tarantino never asks why Stephen is like this. Is he so molded by his enmeshed relationship with his owner that he has developed a kind of Stockholm Syndrome emotional dependency? It’s hard to believe that, no matter how emotional he seems over Candie, since we’ve already seen him swiftly and slyly change tones. Is he so circumscribed in his own life that he has become an unthinking rule-enforcer? Again, there’s a sadistic gleam in his eye which belies this; he doesn’t seem panicked by Django’s liberated attitude, but merely full of hate. Is Stephen so proud and committed to doing his job well that he’ll vigilantly protect Candie from all blows, even threats which emanate from his own people? (A precedent for a character like that exists in Alec Guinness’ British colonel, a prisoner-of-war who loses perspective in The Bridge on the River Kwai.) But if he were delusional that way, you’d think that he’d whole-heartedly embrace the decisions of his Mr. and Mrs., not be disappointed when they interfere with his agenda of black-on-black violence.
Fundamentally, Tarantino doesn’t care what makes the head house slave tick. Stephen shows up because a villain is needed in Act 3 and he needs to be worse than the villains who came before; Django needs to go from the frying pain into the fire. Maybe there’s racism behind the portrait of Stephen (it’s worrying that the character’s name has some similarities to a famous black buffoon of early 1930’s films, the persona of ‘Stepin Fetchit’) or maybe Stephen is just a plot contrivance. It’s hard to know, because Django isn’t really about slavery or racism, it’s about Tarantino’s one abiding subject: movies.
He has certainly made no secret of his adoration of the blaxploitation genre. Since he’s such an expert on it, however, one would think he might be more concerned about the arguments that were made at the time against the blaxploitation tidal wave. 50 movies in the genre came out between 1971, when the success of the legitimately revolutionary Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song inspired Hollywood to cash in with a slew of imitations, and the fad’s end in 1975 – and this glut of cheap and quickly made flicks aimed at black audiences led the NAACP, National Urban League, and Southern Christian Leadership Conference to join forces in protest. When Junius Griffin, the head of the Hollywood NAACP, coined the term ‘black exploitation’ in a 1973 article, he called it a “form of cultural genocide.” He lamented the black community’s children being “exposed to a steady diet of so-called black movies that glorify black males as pimps, dope pushers, gangsters and super males with vast physical powers but no cognitive skills.” Perhaps in part because these movies operated outside the mainstream, however, Tarantino the former video store clerk has long been fascinated with them, as if he has discovered a secret. He differs from some other directors – like Peter Bogdonavich and the French New Wave filmmakers who started out by writing for Cahiers du Cinéma – artists who embraced what they regarded as old cinematic treasures too, because he is really not a theorist. He doesn’t seem particularly adept at evaluating what the flicks he loves actually mean, or how they fit into a social context; he just gets excited about them. If he were not a director, perhaps he would be a film programmer. In fact, when Django Unchained screened at the repertory cinema he owns in L.A., the New Beverly, it was preceded by an assemblage of trailers for 1970s exploitation movies which he had hand-selected to show the audience some of his influences for the film.
If Tarantino actually was more of a theorist, perhaps he would pay more attention to the fact that for much of the film, Django has to squelch his impulses and allow other slaves to be horrifically murdered in front of him. Though these and similar moments do highlight the barbarism of slavery, at the end of Tarantino’s Grand Guignol opus, the code seems to be: successful revenge cancels out suffering experienced by victims. One can’t help wondering if the violent atrocities against slaves that are included in the film do really exist to condemn the brutality of the culture, or if they serve mainly as strong motivators for the climactic, massively bloody revenge sequence that may be Tarantino’s real aim.
As a paradigm of how to overcome oppression, Django happens to give the worst possible advice, and in an age where our real world is beset by a great many senseless shootings, some of it clearly influenced by on-screen mayhem, one wishes Tarantino had more awareness of what he’s doing. Django runs the danger of encouraging people like Chris Dorner – who, incidentally, saw the film -- to believe that a) murder is justified as a response to injustice; b) it is not self-destructive to try to fight on its own terms a historically violent and richly well-equipped power structure; and c) it is nobler to go out in an attention-getting blaze of glory than to actually do painstaking and largely invisible work on the grassroots level.
Django only speaks to whites; he is never seen forming relationships with other slaves (he barely even has one with Broomhilda, despite all the self-conscious romanticism). He may be a rebel, but he’s no revolutionary -- he doesn’t bond with others who are oppressed. Though a film about a slave rising up would seem on its face like a left-wing enterprise, Django could just as easily be seen to perpetuate the right-wing mantra that has spread so widely in America: that we are each on our own, that it’s only individual action that is a source of pride, that none of us should identify with any particular caste but should see ourselves as having gotten to where we are purely on our own merits.
Tarantino is in an unusual position because even if all he really wants to do is make movies celebrating B-movies, he is too creative a director and too captivating a writer to operate in counter-culture obscurity. He is instead very much a part of the mainstream – everyone knows his name, more so than they know the names of filmmakers of blandly formulaic fare – and what he puts out there is going to get analyzed. Whether he likes it or not, his films become part of the national conversation. Even if he is constantly signaling that it’s ‘just a movie’, he’s going to fall under fire, sometimes, precisely because he has made ‘just a movie.’