[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.
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.