Django, and Genres, Unchained: Review of Tarantino's Latest

The western, action, and revenge genres violently coexist in Django Unchained.

Posted Dec 05, 2014

I have a confession: I love spaghetti westerns. Recently, my 12-year-old asked me, “Dad, what’s the best movie ever?” I quickly reviewed my mental list of the all time best films, and realized I could not pick one, or even a top 10. But somewhere on my hot 100 list, Sergio Leone’s spaghetti western The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1967) would occupy an honored position. Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, and Eli Wallach make it a classic (not to mention Ennio Morricone’s fantastic soundtrack). So, my affection for this film influences my review of Tarantino’s latest endeavor, which is simultaneously a love letter to spaghetti westerns and an outcry against the institution of slavery. I was in my element when the pre-1976 Columbia pictures logo (complete with distorted colors) materialized on the screen and the opening credits rolled in old-style font. I heard the theme music (by Morricone), borrowed from another movie titled Django, and I was home. Further, a movie that features cameos by Don “Miami Vice” Johnson as a plantation owner, Tom “Dukes of Hazzard” Wopat as a US Marshall, and Franco Nero (the original Django) deserves credit at least for sly casting.

The plot is this: A slave, Django, played by Jamie Foxx, is freed by Dr. Schultz (Christoph Waltz). Schultz is a former dentist turned bounty hunter, and together they set out to rescue Django’s wife Broomhilda (a variation of Brunhilde, played by Kerry Washington) from brutal Mississippi plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leo DiCaprio). Early on, Schultz explains his worldview, which is grounded in a survival of the fittest philosophy with an apologia for tolerating some of the world’s most corrupt and abhorrent institutions. He takes on Django “Freeman” as a protégé or sidekick, who turns out to be a “natural” shot with no problem being a deputy bounty hunter.

Dr. Schultz: How do you like the bounty hunting business?

Django: Kill white people and get paid for it? What's not to like?

Hardened by a lifetime as a slave and galvanized by a desire to free his wife and take revenge on those who have brutalized her, Django also has no problem with Schultz’ instruction that he “stay in role” as a businessman looking to purchase a black champion for the bloodsport of Mandingo fighting, where black slaves kill each other. He manages to stay in role even as fellow black men are murdered in the most horrible ways all around him. Schultz, it turns out, comes close to blowing it more than once, making it clear that Django is no mere sidekick, but a “master” at this game.

Schultz’s bargain with Django to bounty hunt together for six months, and then free Broomhilda, is a pragmatic one, at first. Schultz is a white man with considerable wit, who, through his intellect and the power and privilege that accompany his social location, can navigate the treacherous, explicitly racist currents of pre-civil war southern society. After all, the mere sight of Django on a horse elicits cries of outrage from whites and blacks alike. (Samuel Jackson plays an Uncle Tom from hell who takes great umbrage when Django arrives on horseback at the Candieland plantation.) So, “Freeman” or no, Django needs Schultz to achieve his goal. But in the process of freeing Django, Schultz becomes aware of desires that exceed material reward, and their relationship deepens when he bears witness to Django's fervent wish to save Broomhilda no matter the cost. Schultz moves from a utilitarian, Darwinian worldview to one where passion and social justice do not just matter, but mean everything. In a sense, we see an unchaining of both men’s characters over the course of the film.

Django Unchained walks a dialectical tightrope between humor and horror, and whereas another writer/director might end up cheapening the horror of slavery and forcing titters of nervous laughter from a confused, and utterly queasy, audience, Quentin Tarantino somehow succeeds in further accentuating these two elements. He effectively depicts the atrocity of slavery and makes the film watchable with liberal doses of the comical, which only serves as a counterpoint for stunningly racist and brutal ideologies and practices. It shouldn’t work—the two elements could easily nullify one another—but the fact that it does work is a testament to Tarantino’s maturity as an artist. The film could have emerged from the editing room as uneven in tone, a grotesque mishmash, alienating fans of the respective genres they came to see. Why does it work?

Tarantino offers an unflinching view of racism in action, and hits us when we least expect it, by presenting scenes of posh luxury and proper etiquette, and suddenly inserting into these “safe” and “refined” situations ugly, horrific acts of racist violence. It would not be accurate to apply the word juxtaposition to these montages, because it is not a question of contrasts, but instead the delivery of the film’s main message: that refinery, luxury and gentility were part and parcel of the economics and social relations organized around slavery as an institution, with explicit racial hierarchy, dehumanization, and brutality being the norms of the historical period depicted. I experienced emotional whiplash during these scenes, and then realized what Tarantino was doing: Scenes of luxury and refinery could be read as appealing and pleasant, and in an either/or, binary construction of the movie and real world universes, viewed as totally separate from ugliness and horror. Scenes from the lap of luxury were presented as a code for pleasure, social standing, and security. Contaminating that code with the harsh reality that the excess and refinery was made possible by the subjugation and murder of black bodies was a brilliant stroke.

This film has met with some controversy, and not just because of the ultra-violence so quintessential in Tarantino’s treatments (who really outdoes himself in this spaghetti western with splashes of extra “sauce”). Spike Lee and John Singleton have weighed in on Django Unchained, the former refusing to see it because “it’s disrespectful to my ancestors,” and the latter stating that he has seen it three times, and though it represents a “soft look” at slavery, he’s glad the movie was made. Singleton disclosed the following: “Privately, a lot of black filmmakers--some of them don't want to speak out--but I think they’re pissed off because nobody is going to give somebody black $100 million to do a movie like that” (Linda Bernard, The Star, February 14, 2013). I agree. Even in the 21stcentury, white Hollywood is much more comfortable with Tarantino at the helm of a slavery picture than Lee or Singleton. It is great that a movie about slavery was made, but still, the how (a comic western) and by whom (a white guy) that this movie came to be speaks volumes.  Clearly, social location and accompanying power and privilege remain at center stage, on and off the big screen. Another bit of evidence of emancipation from slavery and racial hierarchization would be seeing black directors supported in their art and being able to share their vision to the same extent as white directors; hopefully we’ll see that in a theater near you, by the next century.

Kyle D. Killian, PhD is author of Interracial Couples, Intimacy & Therapy: Crossing Racial Borders from Columbia University Press.