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Film Review: Django Unchained

Django Unchained (2012; Directed by Quentin Tarantino)

Quentin Tarantino’s latest opus is a companion pieces to dozens of other movies, simultaneously. It is most proximally a companion piece to the stylish, stark, and violent spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone, and directly references Sergio Corbucci’s notable genre entry Django. It is next a companion piece to Tarantino’s previous film, the densely cinematic, sneakily brilliant Nazi revenge fantasy Inglourious Basterds, which reduced almost unintelligible historical traumas to a series of action-movie paybacks and prominently featured a then-unknown Austrian-German actor named Christoph Waltz as a voluble but dangerous hunter of fugitives. And it is finally a companion piece to 2012’s two other prominent films about the Civil War era, Lincoln and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, sharing the former’s steely spine of moral repugnance at the thought of slavery and the latter’s vividly gory vision of the institution as one whose sustaining brutality requires usurping brutality in response.

But Django Unchained renders the contradictions and horrors of the slave system of the antebellum South as an inflated cartoon, and not in a beneficial way. I wrote a Master’s thesis once, in the shady depths of an abortive academic past, which argued in part that employing the emphasized surreality of the cartoon could serve as a form of amplification through simplification, pushing certain key elements of history to the fore in a way that conventional representation does not.

This seems to be Tarantino’s intended effect in Django, as it was (much more successfully) in Inglourious Basterds. But this time, his treatment of a much thornier and less acknowledged instance of large-scale social darkness comes out of the tail end of his complex cinematic machine of referential intertextuality, theatrical verbiage, comic tableaus, and excessive ultra-violence as a mistimed joke. What saved Inglourious Basterds from a similar self-parodic misfire was the intensive program of mass-culture denazification that has thoroughly repudiated nearly every dangerous implication of the National Socialist ideology. This was a historicizing process largely accomplished post-war through film, as Tarantino proved to be well aware, and his film reflected this fact with the imaginary mass extermination of Party grandees in a cinema-turned-incinerator at its climax. Essentially, the destruction of Nazism was a fait accompli, and Tarantino was just piling on, cinematically speaking.

But even if slavery is long abolished in America and widely acknowledged as a Very Bad Thing Indeed, it is hardly a revelation that the ideological basis and tribal-regional identification that animated it is far from buried. This has proven especially true in a contemporary United States in which the first African-American President has been vilified in terms both deeply ideological and troublingly racially-coded. Django Unchained, alongside the more serious-of-purpose Lincoln, was greeted critically as a prestigious strike against the persistent zombie beliefs of Lost Cause revisionism. In one fell cinematic swoop (or perhaps two), we were told, these films were correcting the historic imbalance of Hollywood classics like The Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind that evinced an unfortunate bias towards Neo-Confederate sentiment. Lengthy silence from the movies on the subject of the Lost Cause was to be swept away by a newly-robust burst of liberal sabre-rattling, emboldened by Barack Obama’s progressive ascendency.

I have touched on the ways that Lincoln does and does not fit this characterization. But for all of its demonstratively rebellious black-on-white aggression (“Reparation this, bitch!”), Django Unchained is in some ways more a reflection of benevolent but paternalistic white uplift of the African-American oppressed than even Spielberg produces. The titular slave badass of few words (a commanding, swaggering Jamie Foxx) is bought, freed, and trained for vengeance, after all, by a relatively-enlightened white European, Dr. King Schultz (Waltz, copping his own charming Basterds turn and being rewarded richly for it once again).

I appear to have become soiled with the plasmatic excretions of some unfortunate wretch. I would be much obliged by the loan of your kerchief, sir.

Although masquerading as a dentist, the verbose Schultz is a bounty hunter (going after nothing but nasty white men, where most who practiced his occupation in the antebellum period would have been capturing escaped slaves, most likely), and requires Django to identify a gang of targets that were his overseers at a previous plantation. Impressed by Django’s acumen with a firearm and boundless taste for retribution against slavers, Schultz takes him on as an apprentice in his craft. As they collect wanted corpses and the resulting cash rewards over a winter in the West, Schultz learns of Django’s still-enslaved wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) and promises to help to extract her from the clutches of her owner in Mississippi.

This owner, Calvin J. Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), comes across as a Southern dandy at first, but reveals a vicious streak (and a white-supremacist interest in phrenology) when Schultz’s dissembling scheme to buy Broomhilda arouses his suspicions, or rather those of his devoted but whip-tongued senior house slave Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson). Perhaps I ought to preface the revelation that their conflict results in a bloodbath of Peckinpah-esque proportions with a spoiler warning, but come now. This is Tarantino, people. Surely by now you know full well that the bloodbath is coming.

So, yes, there are gallons of goopily-spurting human bean-juice (seriously, these slave-owners and their minions are chocked full of the stuff, like engorged mosquitoes), “cool” homage shots, and precisely-chosen soundtrack cuts (plenty of Leone’s master composer Ennio Morricone, as well as some hip-hop and Johnny Cash). Tarantino, as always, lays out his core points in lecturing dialogue scenes, and two in particular encapsulate his basic point on slavery and his chosen response to its moral repugnance.

Candie’s aforementioned phrenological white supremacy is expressed in a nuanced, threatening soliloquy, accompanied by the skull of Stephen’s domestic predecessor, a hacksaw, and a hammer. The brutal arrogance at the heart of the slave system is imparted memorably by DiCaprio, at least until the implicit threat in his words becomes disappointingly explicit. This scene makes it clear that the issue isn’t that Tarantino doesn’t grasp what makes slavery such an important offence in American (and human) history; he grasps it, all right, but then tightens and squeezes his grip on it until it’s ready to burst.

An earlier scene between Schultz and Django truly summarizes the core values of Django Unchained, however. Pointing his rifle at a bounty target pushing a plow, Django hesitates when he notices that the man’s son is nearby. Schultz tramples over the human objections of his pupil; this is a bad man, a stagecoach robber and murderer, and we can gain by shooting him. “This is what I do”, Schultz tells him. “I kill people and sell their corpses for cash.”

King Schultz, in this way, is not much more righteous than Calvin J. Candie: both profit from a trade in human flesh, and the ethical distinction between the two men is only razor-thin. But like Schultz, Tarantino blusters his way towards the painless ethical trump card of bloody revenge in Django Unchained. There are deeper and more difficult problems inherent to the trauma of slavery than can be simply killed away, and this is not a film that is able to face up to them with regularity. An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind, as they say, and this outing sees Tarantino’s formidable filmmaker’s eye blinded by the easy promise of righteous anger.

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Categories: Film, History, Politics
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  1. June 13, 2013 at 5:08 am

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