“Django Unchained” is a distinctly therapeutic experience. Obviously, as a movie, its primary function is to entertain, which it does quite well, but I wish to posit that it serves a more meaningful purpose.
Let’s define a therapeutic experience for a moment. Let’s imagine you go to visit a therapist because you’re stuck. You feel bad. Something bad has happened in your life, you’ve been sitting with the subsequent negative feelings for all too long, and the therapist employs himself in the service of helping you to better handle or rid yourself of all the inner negativity.
“Django Unchained” offers a similar experience by priming the audience to sit with some pretty negative emotions and then helping us to work through these emotions in a manner that seems safe and psychologically effective.
So, how does the movie go about doing this?
Well, as watching films are an intensely subjective experience I'll share my unique perspective as a white person watching a film about slavery. And, indeed my ‘white-ness’ is surely a factor at play in how I perceived and responded to the film. The narrative is set in the pre-Civil War Deep South, and it’s about a slave that becomes a bounty hunter, and the slave owners/others that stand between him and freedom....as well as his beloved and lovely wife, Broomhilda.
For as long as I can remember I’ve understood on an intellectual level that slavery was a shameful, horrific period in U.S. history. You can see how intellectual my wording is in the previous sentence, which speaks to the fact that slavery is such a disturbing notion (i.e. treating other people in such an unjust, dehumanizing and violent manner) that I suppose I naturally ‘defend’ myself from feeling the full, truthful extent of its horror when my mind turns to the topic.
The powerful thing about this film is that you don’t just think about the ills of slavery, you FEEL them in an unblinking, prolonged way. On a gut level, you get emotionally connected to the suffering of slaves, and the disturbed minds of slave owners. No amount of intellectualism can save you from this in my opinion.
That’s the first aim goal that Tarantino accomplishes in this unexpressed, possibly unintentional therapy process - he primes the audience to experience the gut-wrenching horror of slavery. He introduces us to the enslaved protagonist, Django (a very charming and capable Jamie Foxx), but more to the point of this slavery-saliency goal, he introduces us to Calvin Candie (played by an exuberantly evil Leonardo Di Caprio), a Mississippi plantation owner.
*(Calling Calvin “evil” is thornily complicated not just because it’s judgmental - what does evil even mean? - but because it views him through the moral and cultural lens of the 21st century…If the society at the time didn’t consider Candie’s behavior evil then…can it still be considered evil in the sense that I mean it? My head hurts. Fortunately this isn’t my point…)
Calvin’s viewpoint truly conjures up the horrific nature of slavery. It’s not just that he’s completely and utterly convinced that black people are inferior in every imaginable way, it’s that he mindlessly forces black people into life experiences that are as traumatic as anything imaginable. On his plantation, Candyland, male slaves are trained to fight to the death for sport. There’s a particularly disturbing scene in which Candie cheers (and implicitly threatens) two slaves to beat each other to death. One of the fighters gets some momentum and starts to win the fight. Calvin escalates in his competitive fanaticism and coerces the fighter to “finish” the opponent, which he does…with a hammer…to which he is rewarded with a cold beer and a “You done good, boy,” pat on the back. This sequence of events contains too many disturbing facets for discussion, but the general point lands hard - we as an audience are now fully primed to be feeling all the negative emotions there are to be felt about slavery.
I could recall at this juncture of the film feeling a particularly strong sense of guilt and disgust. It was not pleasant to sit with, and I began to look to the movie to do something about it. Fortunately, Tarantino was ready and waiting for my psychic distress. He created two characters that seemed very well-designed to address and alleviate my negative emotions.
The “cure” came in two layers:
The first layer of the “treatment” for what I was feeling as an audience member manifested as Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a German bounty hunter who used his former profession as a dentist as a cover to capture white people behaving badly. He set Django free, gave him resources, friendship and a sense of confidence, helped him pursue his wife (a slave traded to Calvin’s plantation), and eventually sacrificed his life when he decided to kill Calvin. Throughout the film Dr. Schultz “held” my sense of disgust and guilt and engaged in positive actions and values that allowed a sense of justice and relief to be restored. He basically engaged in the sorts of behaviors and thoughts that I would've performed as my "ideal" self if I had been in his shoes. Imagining and engaging in life from this "ideal" perspective is certainly a major function of therapy.
The other layer of “treatment” came in the evolution of Django from timidly freed slave to full-out action hero. Much of the film’s final act consisted of Django cleverly evading capture, and skillfully dolling out justice to all those who’d mistreated him personally, and the race of enslaved victims that he represented. It was quite cathartic. I have rarely enjoyed watching a villain die more than when Calvin fell to the floor with a shocked expression on his face and a bullet in his chest; and I’ve rarely enjoyed a character’s self-actualization more than when I watched Django ride through town guns blazing. Experiencing positive emotions that counteract negative ones by empathically connecting to an individual who is achieving what you believe he deserves to achieve is important. I treated Django with empathy, became increasingly aware of why I was doing this, experienced the world as a better place as I watched him succeed, and then used it to feel better - a common process and skillset in psychothearpy.
Watching this film was not just about entertainment; I believe it was also a communal experience in which universal negative emotions were recognized within - affect that was always there but rarely acknowledged - and Tarantino performed a therapist function by forcing/pushing us into noticing them, feeling them, expressing them, and healthfully responding to them.
In my case, the emotions were healthfully channeled into rooting for Django and Dr. Schultz with reckless abandon, and reveling in delight when the tables turned: wrongs were righted, helpless victims were empowered, and disgustingly immoral behavior was punished appropriately. Perhaps my emotions were also “addressed” in writing this blog, and forwarding a conversation that all too often gets dismissed before it’s ever really articulated. Perhaps Tarantino should not just get credit for entertaining us for 2.5 hours in a darkened theater, but for guiding us toward recognizing, experiencing and alleviating the negative emotions we all harbor from living in an unfair world with a particularly unjust history.