Django Unchained: A Film Analysis
"Django Unchained" puts the horrible past of slavery up front and center.
Posted Jan 18, 2013
Django Unchained both entertains and emotionally unnerves you in a way that only a Quentin Tarantino film can achieve. But, unlike Inglorious Basterds, which softens racial subject matter by placing it in a World War II context, Django puts America's horrible past with slavery up front and center stage in the pre-Civil War West.
Like all of Tarantino's films, Django Unchained is an ironic mix of humor and violence that steadies you between the horrific and the comical, so that your senses are neither overwhelmed by the film’s violence nor lulled into denial of the seriousness of the subject matter, by its humor. Nonetheless, this fantasy, spaghetti-style western that some have called a “slave revenge fantasy” will have you pondering its odd uniting of serious social issues with the absurd, long after having seen it. And, this is exactly Tarantino’s aim.
The film has triggered much controversy over what some regard as an insensitive, humorous treatment of slavery in America’s past, like Spike Lee who is sure that the film is racist and surely will be "disrespectful to his ancestors” (CNN, Gene Seymour). Also, the novelist-satirist-poet Ishmael Reed believes that Tarantino's latest film is an “insult to the spaghetti western genre." Further, some people worry that the film makes you “root for Django’s overcoming of oppression, rather than a collective victory for the black race.”
I appreciate their concerns but have to disagree, respectfully, with their points of view. The film’s use of humor isn’t designed to cover the horrifying abuse of black slaves. In fact, the film’s silliness provides a sharp contrast to its depiction of the dehumanizing treatment of slaves, and in this, actually highlights the horrors of slavery more than the film’s humor.
If you have an ounce of moral, psychological, and spiritual awareness and sensitivity, you will leave the film “morally queasy,” like CNN blogger Gene Seymour did. This is exactly what Tarantino wants you to feel, despite his film's entertaining format. He gives us characters who pursue their desires ruthlessly. And, although their passions and conflicts seem unique to the time, they express features of human beings that still persist.
For example, most of you will find it difficult to relate to the film's sadistic Mississippi plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), who enjoys watching black men kill each other for sport (Mandingo fighting). But, you may tune in regularly to Monday night football or watch boxing matches. Or, perhaps you watch Bravo's housewives who are known for their violent outbursts and brawls. Or, you are one of the 70 million readers of the sadomasochistic best-seller Fifty Shades of Grey. You enjoy aggression in sports, literature, or television if it is presented in a socially-acceptable context, right? Yes, these forms of entertainment are a far cry from watching black slaves kill each other for sport. But, it's still aggression, no matter its context.
Sadism seems to be an ongoing feature of human nature. Thus, no matter how far away from us in their era and character Tarantino's characters may seem, their drives exist in us, if only on an unconscious, repressed level.
Tarantino shows society as stuck in a Darwinian survival of the fittest theory of human nature that shows human beings as only as capable of competing effectively in the world as their genetic makeup permits. In fact, there’s a very disturbing scene in which the cruel plantation owner Calvin Candie proclaims that blacks are inherently submissive, because of three depressed marks that characterize the structure of their brainstem.
The great personality theorist Sigmund Freud is also relevant here, as his theory of personality stems from Darwin’s theory. Freud saw human beings as inherently selfish and willing to do whatever it takes to compete effectively and to keep fit enough to stay in power.
According to Freud, your innate desire is to reap the greatest pleasure from living, by gaining an upper hand on people and circumstance. But, to avoid punishment, social rules and laws force you to consider other people’s needs and welfare, so that you have to turn your natural, pleasure-seeking desires into forms that are socially and morally acceptable, if you are to survive in a civilized world.
Hence, you have to negotiate desire with other people’s needs and social norms, to avoid punishment, social rejection, and disgrace. The compromise between the two is the best of what you can expect of life. Moreover, genetic makeup determines the ability to achieve a compromise to your advantage. This is what makes you fit to survive.
Take, for example, Dr. King Schultz, and black slave Django, whom Schultz recently freed: Schultz wants the financial reward of killing outlaws and Django wants to rescue his wife Brunhilde (Kerry Washington) from slavery. But, the two are better fit together, than either is alone. Schultz needs Django’s passion and brawn, as much as Django needs Schultz’s intellect and wit, to meet their goals. So, they strike a compromise to satisfy their desires. Django bounty hunts with Schultz for six months, in return for which Schultz will help Django to free his wife from slavery.
There are many examples of Darwin's and Freud's theories of human nature in this movie. Tarantino gets us to consider the features of human beings that make them the most fit to survive. Is it brawn as depicted in Mandingo fighting? Or, is it ingenuity and intellect, like Dr. Schultz, that helps us to survive? Or, perhaps, love and passion are the best expressions of human nature that help us to thrive (Django and Brunhilde)? Dr. Schultz's evolution of character informs us as to where Tarantino falls on this matter.
Dr. Deborah’s Wisdom on the Matter
Is there nothing more to us than a survival of the fittest mentality? I don't agree completely that our sole motivation is to stay fit enough to compete effectively. It’s true that you will do what you have to, which includes subscribing to social rules and laws, to satisfy some desires.
Imagine, for example, you are hungry and want to eat. You will get a job and buy food, rather than steal it, to avoid punishment. This is the aspect of social and moral development that shows that you have learned how to negotiate desire with norms. But, it's not the most advanced expression of human development.
Darwin and Freud understood the most basic drives of human beings but didn't theorize well as to humankind's drive for deeper psychological and spiritual meaning and purpose. Freud would have us think that even these loftier pursuits can be linked back to a selfish desire to feel good about yourself.
For example, in Freud's theory of human motivation, Mother Teresa's desire to help needy and suffering people is more selfish than selfless. She does so to feel good about herself because her real desire is to ignore rather than help needy people. Freud suggests here that selfless action is more masochistic than it is emotionally developed or spiritual because the manifest behavior is the complete opposite of the true desire. To me, it's a convoluted attempt to justify every action through his theory's main idea that we are hedonists at our core. But, I will let you decide what you think about this.
You cannot live healthily or happily by living solely to satisfy your own needs. This is what Schultz discovered by freeing Django. He discovered in himself desires that were greater than material reward. Django's burning desire to rescue his wife Brunhilde from slavery, at all costs, gave Schultz hope in something greater than himself. This is what unchained Schultz from a survival of the fittest mentality and allowed him to start living by his deeper principles.
Thus, not all behavior is motivated by a desire to avoid punishment and social disgrace. You are not narrated into structures and theories of personality. You are the narrator of experience; you are able to rise above competitive expressions of human behavior, because you, rather than your impulses, can decide.
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