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Philosophy and pop culture

Tarantino, Django Unchained and Gun Violence

The philosophical debate about watching violent movies

Django Unchanined is classic Tarantino. The dialogue is brilliant, the story compelling, and it has all the tell-tale Tarantino signatures. The upward looking “trunk shot” that appears in all his films? Yep, as Django is looking down at one of the Brittle Brothers, about to kill him. The 360 rotating camera scene, reminiscent of the Reservoir Dogs opening scene? Sure enough, when Django is trying to convince the Australians that is he a bounty hunter. Tarantino also has a sliver Zippo in the hands of a major character in every one of his films. How could he work that into a film set before the civil war—before Zippo was founded (in 1932)? The Candyland Plantation owner “Monsieur Candie” keeps the matches for his cigarette in a sliver metal case that looks just like a Zippo (which you can barely see here, behind the glass bowl).  There is even a character cross over. “Crazy Craig Koons,” the last mentioned member of the Smitty Becall Gang, is no doubt a forbearer of Captain Koons (played by Christopher Walken) from Pulp Fiction.

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But Django has landed itself into the middle of a couple of controversies. For example, Spike Lee won’t see Django because, he said, it would “disrespect [his] ancestors.” Similar complaints about the Django action figures got production stopped, and now (last time I looked) the complete set of six is going for $800! All Tarantino has said in response, is that he is not going to waste his time responding.

But another Django controversy confronted Tarantino head on during his appearance on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. In the wake of the Sandy Hook tragedy, support has mounted for regulating assault weapons and oversized clips. In response, NRA president Wayne LaPierre, blamed everything from our mental health system to violent movies like Django for the shooting—he even mentioned Natural Born Killers by name (which would have been Tarantino’s first ‘written and directed’ credit, had the studio not handed the reins to Oliver Stone). Jay Leno merely broached the topic, but one is left to wonder: Does watching violent movies, like Django, promote violence? Does it make one more violent? Does it make one more likely to go on a shooting spree?

Plato and Aristotle weighed in on this question, disagreeing with each other fundamentally. Plato argued that stories like the Greek myths—where the gods behaved badly—were exceptionally dangerous because they could encourage people to think such behavior was acceptable. And he disliked fictional depictions in general because he thought they distracted people from reality, even making them think it different than it was.

What would Plato have said about Django? Our heroes, Django and Schultz, don’t act as badly as the Greek gods did—for example, they didn’t disguise themselves as bulls and impregnate young maidens. In fact, they act as heroes should: they deliver justice to wanted criminals as bounty hunters, Schultz remains loyal to Django and helps him find and free his wife, and they both oppose and stand up against slavery. So perhaps Plato would have approved. But then again, should a hero use such extreme violence? Most modern readers would think not; after all, everyone thinks they are in the right. Django could be used to justify violence in the name of about anything. Worse yet, Tarantino does glorify violence—making it seem much more appealing and adventurous than it actually is. And Plato certainly would have opposed such a distortion of reality.

Aristotle, on the other hand, would have thought watching Django would have made one less likely to perform violent acts. Once you have seen Django give Candie his just deserts, there is no need to go out and do so yourself. By identifying with the characters in a story, we can live vicariously through them—they do what we want to do, thus eliminating our desire to do it ourselves. It’s cathartic. Someone who is upset about slavery, or the continued racial inequality in America, can purge those emotions by watching Django blow up Candyland. After all, portraying an action is not the same thing as endorsing it. Homer Simpson is not a role model; neither is Django.

So when Tarantino was confronted by Jay Leno, on The Tonight Show, about the effects of his movies after the Sandy Hook shooting, he didn’t have to dodge the question by suggesting it was “disrespectful” and that the real issue is mental health. He could have simply quoted Aristotle and then pointed out that the movie does not endorse violence by simply portraying it. After all, it also depicted horrendous acts of slavery—and in doing so reminded me, in vivid detail, that the abuses white people inflicted upon slaves went far beyond making them work in the cotton fields. But no one would think that watching the movie would make someone go to Greenville Mississippi to try to buy slaves.

David Kyle Johnson, Ph.D., is an associate professor of philosophy at King's College in Pennsylvania.

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