Django Unchained

Norma Neufner, Lady OfficerMovies12 Comments

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[Contains spoilers for Django Unchained and Inglourious Basterds]

“…and all I could think was – you’re so cool.” This is exactly how I felt when I watched Pulp Fiction for the second time (the second time because my first viewing happened at 12 years old and I was a bit young to quite get it). Spoken by Patricia Arquette as Alabama in Tarantino’s 1993 screenplay for True Romance, these words echo my thoughts upon every viewing of every Tarantino film since that second introduction.

From that second screening I’ve loved Tarantino’s films. The excessive violence, the gore, and the extreme callousness have always played to my dark sense of humour. The dialogue – often imitated, rarely reproduced – glides through the movies; witty and relevant only in context to a Tarantino narrative. However, Tarantino isn’t impervious to criticism. While he may be responsible for nurturing and impacting pop culture, he’s also responsible for some problematic decisions, most of which stem from his own feelings about his movies; “…and all I could think was – you’re so cool.” It’s clear that these words, ultimately spoken by Tarantino through Alabama have produced great movies, they’ve also been an excuse for treading in territory that is somewhat unavailable to him as a white man.

However fortunate for his writing and cool filmmaking, unfortunately, Tarantino has always exoticised black Americans. For better and sometimes worse he’s also appropriated what he imagines to be the “cool” underbelly or hidden “reality” that is a fixture of blaxploitation – pimps, hos, dope, blow, heat and bad-ass motherfuckers. While this may have worked in Jackie Brown and Pulp Fiction (especially), it becomes more problematic in his most recent Django Unchained.

Revenge, and in Tarantino’s case, retribution are powerful aspects of narrative. In fact, it drives most narrative arcs of many films especially Westerns, Blaxploitation, Kung-Fu, Action: the genres from which Tarantino draws most of his inspiration and pastiche.

Poster for Django Unchained, with the tag line "Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Vengeance."Like his 2009 film Inglourious Basterds, Django is a revenge tale wrapped in a larger play of violence, historical context and altered reality. While Tarantino often writes and directs to undermine context, these two films beg the audience to consider at least some historical context. After all, how could we truly feel the emotion and tension that Shosanna, the Jewish woman hiding in Nazi occupied France, feels if we didn’t know the history of the horrors done under Hitler’s rule during WWII? Historical context in these two films demonstrates to the audience just how important this revenge will be. We are asked (and oblige) to live vicariously through the eventual satisfying and violent vengeance.

In Inglourious Basterds the audience is treated to a climactic shit-show in Shosanna’s theatre after having convinced the Nazi leadership (including Hitler himself) to premiere Goebbel’s newest propaganda film there. Her plan of torching the theatre while full of Nazi “swine” is strengthened formidably by the presence of Aldo Raine and his gang of Jewish Basterds who are also intent on killing the man on top. Goebbel’s propaganda film is spliced with an epilogue performed by Shosanna for the hundreds of confused Nazi audience members – while we too sit on the edge of our seats. The denouncing ends just as a pile of 1930s films (which were then made of highly flammable nitrocellulose) are set aflame behind the screen of the theatre. At the same time, Omar and Donny enter Hitler’s balcony and shoot him with automatic rifles until his face resembles ground beef. Locked in, the audience has no recourse but to burn to death as Shosanna’s ominous and victorious recorded laugh continues to play over the theater speakers. We are treated to sweet, destructive justice.

I had hopes of feeling that same justice through Django but it never came to pass. Furthermore, I’m left feeling as though that story is unfinished, not only because as a Tarantino fan I have no option of seeing a Django Vol. 2 but also because in part, this is still our daily, nasty reality.

Django “Freeman” (made so by Dr. King Shulz, a dentist turned bounty hunter) is brought on as a partner to Shulz in his bounty hunting throughout the winter months. Partly out of kindness and brotherhood, and partly out of German superstition, Shulz decides to help Django free his wife Broomhilda from Candieland – the biggest, most prolific plantation owned by Monsieur Candie, perhaps the biggest, most twisted slave-owner/mandingo exploiter. In classic Tarantino fashion we eventually see Django at the helm of a bloodbath during the film’s climax.

I don’t believe that there would be any argument that this isn’t justifiable vengeance. Just like the Basterds in their namesake film, Django represents the whole of the oppressed. It would stand to reason then that we as an audience expect a similarly satisfying revenge climax.

But therein lies the problem for me. This isn’t the same grand justice we saw in Basterds. Sure, Django gets to kill a shack and a plantation big house full of white men and women oppressors but he doesn’t get to end slavery by killing the guy on top. He gets vengeance but only on two of many. In an early scene he kills Tennesee slave owner “Big Daddy” in a KKK-style raid but the audience can’t help but wonder “what about all of the others?” Once he frees himself and Broomhilda from Candieland and its white oppressors, he sets off into the metaphorical sunset. I found myself urging him to go open the gates, rouse the slaves still on the plantation and tell them what he had done – tell them they too were free. In another tease of justice, the beginning of the movie is set a mere two years before the civil war. After the passing of one winter within the film I found myself imagining that after the bloodshed a richly dressed white man would run in waving the emancipation proclamation, signaling justice to the audience. But it never happened. Only Django and ten other slaves are “set free” by Django’s vengeance.

As Americans (or North Americans, as the case may be), the Holocaust and Nazi atrocities are somewhat removed from our own lives and our own history (notwithstanding the very real and painful history of many people’s grandparents and great grandparents). While we’re closer tied to the pain in terms of time in history (60 years as opposed to more than a century), geographically we are farther and have the benefit of having fought for the good guys in WWII and not having the guilt attached to oppressing a group as a nation. Whereas with Django, while there may be much more time separating us from these atrocities the reality of today’s race relations with black Americans still bears a heavy stain from American history. It could be argued that Americans are not far enough removed from this reality to sense justice and satisfying finality from this movie’s climax the way we did with Basterds.

Tarantino reportedly uses “the n-word” 110 times in Django Unchained. Considering the historical context this is probably somewhat accurate, however, that’s not to say it isn’t an obscenely gratuitous use of the word. I had a hard time not thinking back to the many times I’ve watched Pulp Fiction (the most recent of which being boxing day, in preparation for Django) and the infamous “Bonnie Situation” scene. Wherein Tarantino writes and delivers the line “When you drove up did you see a sign on my front lawn that said dead [n-word] storage?” and then repeats the n-word at least four more times. It’s gratuitous and it’s uncomfortable because for a second it almost feels like we are hearing Tarantino talk, rather than his character, Jimmy.

In my years of film theory and film consideration I’ve learned that I am a staunch supporter of the auteur. The choices made in filmmaking should be respected (regardless of if they are understood or agreed with) as it is the right of the artist to make certain decisions in their art. Having been questioned many times by the likes of Spike Lee, Denzel Washington, and countless critics, it stands to reason that Tarantino probably won’t change, but he should now (and especially now, with this film) at least be cognizant of his position as a white man in the narrative he writes. It’s been said many times before so I’ll echo it once again – pop culture (yes, even you Tarantino) can’t and shouldn’t exist in a vacuum. The artist should be free to make decisions but must realize that we understand narrative through the context of our reality.

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Norma Neufner, Lady OfficerDjango Unchained

12 Comments on “Django Unchained”

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  1. Profile photo of jen*
    jen*

    I also don’t see Django as a revolutionary. He doesn’t have the resources to be one. He is of one mind – get Hildy back. He does what he needs to do, and no more. He doesn’t harm any black person that isn’t actively working against him, and only allows harm when it serves his one purpose of retrieving his wife.

    I was really disappointed in the inability of Hildy and Django to hide their affection for each other. I don’t think it was realistic. They both knew what was at stake – they both had been slaves; they knew exactly what to expect of the treachery of Uncle Ruckus (I mean…Ben?). And I could’ve stood to see a whole lot more of Her Awesomeness: Kerry Washington.

    To me, this movie has shown one of the best approximations of the true horrific nature of slavers that I’ve seen. And it makes sense that Django is not imagined as a revolutionary. How could he be, unless he truly was superhuman? Slavery spanned across far more real estate than just Texas and Mississippi. There were more people than just slave-owners invested in keeping the practice going.

    Slaves were broken prior to reaching the plantations they worked. Those born there were raised just to survive. A revolt would only come when there was either a very high chance of success or absolutely nothing left to lose. I don’t see Django as any sort of Civil War precursor. I just see him as someone taking advantage of the opportunities he was given. You know, changing things in his corner of the world and not looking at some grand plan.

  2. Profile photo of [E] Slay Belle
    [E] Slay Belle

    Great analysis of the film.

    I’m not sure I agree with you on your view of the ending. Well, yes, I agree with you on the basics of it. Django gets his ride into the sunset and his vengeance is limited. But I don’t think that was supposed to be the end of the ‘revenge’ part of the revenge fantasy. I think we’re supposed to Django as the start of the revolution. What he does and who he is creates ripples around him. We see this in at least two scenes (loads of spoilers below!)

    [spoiler]

    — at the beginning, with the other slaves who chose to shoot the slaver with the broken leg. They take the advantage offer to them by Dr. King (Dr. King!) and follow the example of Django, who showed them that Dr. King wasn’t tricking them. The shot of them throwing off their rags and exposing their scarred backs, which was exactly the same shot of Django just moments before, is significant.

    — the expression on the face of the slaves in the opened cart at the end, as Django rides back to Candieland. I think you can read the smile that appears on one of the ‘Mandingo”s faces, the same one who hated on Django earlier in the film, as acceptance that Django wasn’t a black slaver like he thought. But I also think its supposed to be a smile of acceptance of the revolution.

    — and the destruction of Candieland, the biggest representation of plantation life and oppression in the South isn’t really just Django’s revenge. Its symbolic to the other slaves on the plantation and the ones who will hear about it.

    [/spoiler]

    I think you pointed out the date as important, but with the narrative of the film and the story its trying to tell, I don’t believe its unthinkable that the movie is implying that Django’s actions is connected to the coming of the Civil War.

    1. Profile photo of Norma Neufner, Lady Officer
      Norma Neufner, Lady Officer

      Ouu interesting – I like that reading of it. I’d argue that Django isn’t a revolutionary, evidenced in scenes that demonstrate an opportunity for him that he doesn’t take (for instance the travel to the mine scene when instead of leaving the other two prisoners guns, a plan, etc instead takes off on his journey). But I like the idea that we can get further revenge through the hope of him playing that role.

      1. Profile photo of [E] Slay Belle
        [E] Slay Belle

        I don’t think Django himself is revolutionary for the reasons you outline. Its pretty clear he’s only in this to get Hildey back. He’s not interested in taking down the slavery system. But I think his actions are revolutionary, and he represents a new possibility to the other slaves he encounters. [spoiler] When Candie asks why the slaves never rose up and killed their masters, I think the answer is because they didn’t think it was something they could do. And now Django has. Within that world, I’m going to guess that Django wasn’t the last slave to violently rebel. [/spoiler]

        I was also really struck/frustrated by the scene you’re talking about. I kept wondering why he wasn’t actively helping the other slaves out — but I also hadn’t realized the cage door was open. And then there’s that shot of the one slave Django had clashed with, and I got why he hadn’t been more proactive in ‘saving’ them.

        1. Profile photo of Tashi
          Tashi

          Slay; I’m wondering if you stayed for the short Easter egg at the end? That also sheds a bit more light on the “miners” bit.

            1. Profile photo of Tashi
              Tashi

              Not “changed” really, but to me it showed again the
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              [spoiler]
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              The cage is clearly left open, and the expressions seem to give a better understanding of who Django really *was* [instead of who he pretended to be riding into Candieland] and again, to me, I seemed to read a small facial gesture of approval from the [former?] slave who was giving talk to Django at the start of his arrival.

              I also agree that, to me, it seemed Django and King-Shultz each had different motivations, though they were united in the idea of people being *people* not People/slaves.
              Django clearly was going for Hildy, regardless. King-Shultz had need of him to further his own life/job [bounty hunter] but did not seem to be a overt ‘revolutionary': to me KS showed (and for some gave) free agency to chose the next path; Django to come with him, the first group of Slaves given a chance to help or kill their ‘master’, even his dealings with Candie seemed to reflect a mindset of “I might want something, but you will think you came up with the idea.”

              I think Django’s statement of only allowing a few (house that we could see) slaves free before blowing up the big house on Candieland does show that his actions are not openly ‘revolutionary’ or larger than himself; it reads to me as a Deus Ex Machina to bring together Django and Hildy at the end; granted perhaps some of his inner strength and quick thinking came from his own personal crucible and spending time (as an equal?) with KS, but the last shots on the plantation; as well as knowing where they are and when in history, it just reads as a *love story* getting a “happy” ending and some (justified) revenge.
              [/spoiler]

              That being said, knowing know that QT perhaps intends to connect this film back with IB and a third, perhaps his vision of the films is just not fully illuminated yet.

              1. Profile photo of [E] Slay Belle
                [E] Slay Belle

                Btw, I added the spoiler code to your comment for other readers. That said:

                [spoiler]

                I’ll just address your points a little.

                “I think Django’s statement of only allowing a few (house that we could see) slaves free before blowing up the big house on Candieland does show that his actions are not openly ‘revolutionary’ or larger than himself; ”

                I disagree. I think we can infer from the time it would take for him to 1) wire the house to blow 2) get into Candie’s (master’s) clothes and 3) from whom he chooses to let go — the two black slaves who were not the head house n****r that Django had all the other slaves leave the house. Stephens is the exception, because he’s the black man who really sided with the white masters and who was more ‘in charge’ of the situation than it may have appeared to outside eyes (see: the scene in the library, the way he throws away the cane and stands up straight, indicating that the feeble old fool was just an act).

                We don’t see him purposefully inflicting pain on other slaves in the movie although we see him allowing it to happen when it suited his ends. I can’t see him slaughtering the rest of the household staff with that in mind. If he was that kind of person, he wouldn’t have let Cora and Coco leave.

                And while we can argue if he wanted those actions to be symbolic to other people — I don’t think he did, he was pretty much a one crusade guy — that doesn’t mean that other people see him like that. And there’s where the after-credits scene plays in. It doesn’t really matter who he is, not really, but it sure as hell matter what he does.

                Dr. King is an interesting case for a lot of reasons. He gives Django a chance, but isn’t white savioring him. He’s a catalyst. And the fact that he is German is interesting on a couple of levels, because he’s a homage to Klaus Kinski, AND because of his connection back to IB’s revenge narrative. The scene with the dogs, where Django says that King (as a German) has never seen other people treated like that when we know King was a Nazi in the last film, how the German people are going to treat the Jews in history and the movie IB. I think its an obvious connection between the two films, other than the thematic ones, and I do have to wonder if QT is saying that slavery in the south was worse than the Holocaust. (I don’t think he is, but I think the question is there intentionally or unintentionally.)

                I don’t have any problem with the happy ending of the movie. I think if you’re familiar with the genres being paid homage to, its expected. I did not think we were going to get a theater blow up equivalent for the end of the film, because the motivations and the kind of film it was were vastly different takes on the issue of ‘revenge’. [/spoiler]

                1. Profile photo of Tashi
                  Tashi

                  I can agree with you on most things; for me, not *seeing* Django *actively* free anyone from The Big House (aside the aforementioned above and perhaps kitchen staff who were seen?) sent a message. I can see what you are saying, and as we agree QT is very purposeful with his use of specific shots, NOT showing something sends a message.

                  And yes, like we talked about before, the arc that King-Schultz / [Lando?] IB takes I think QT was attempting to set up parallels. I am not certain if I agree with what he thinks of them, but I can see it.

                  /Thanks for helping with the spoiler-hider thingy

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