I saw Django Unchained today. I have some thoughts on it.
This is going to be short because I’m suffering from a wicked cold and am theoretically supposed to be studying for exams at the moment. Much like with Far Cry 3 it will going to consist of a positive review and a somewhat less positive take on the aspects of the movie that made me feel a bit uncomfortable (which will have spoilers by the way).
So, the review. I liked it! I liked it a lot. Quentin Tarantino is one of those film makers whose output I have consistently enjoyed even though I can’t stand to look at or listen to the actual director himself without wanting to reach into the screen and pull his eyelids off. All of those things that Tarantino does- deliberate anachronisms, adoption of low-budget 70s/80s film-making styles (spaghetti western and blaxploitation in this case), long taut conversations where one or more characters doesn’t know that another character knows something they aren’t supposed to know culminating in a brief orgy of ridiculous violence, really damn long running times that you don’t notice, an ending that gets a little too goofy for its own good- it’s all present and accounted for here and while I didn’t have quite as good a time as I did with Inglorious Basterds I still enjoyed the movie tremendously. I don’t know what sort of rapport Tarantino has with his actors but he’s consistently able to get excellent performances, even when featuring people I haven’t found particularly impressive in non-Tarantino roles (see: pretty much everyone in Kill Bill). Cristoph Waltz is once again getting the lion’s share of the attention, but it was Jamie Foxx’s portrayal of Django that really impressed me. He goes in for a wonderfully subtle performance that seems to have been lost on some reviewers, playing Django as a character so emotionally repressed that the bulk of the character’s internal rage and desperation is communicated solely through his eyes.
There were some aspects of the movie that alienated me slightly. The visual flair that Tarantino showed with Inglorious Basterds, and in particular an appreciation of the use of colour, is only partially present here as the movie takes place largely in plantation manor houses that have adopted a sort of antebellum gilded age aesthetic that I personally found a little hard on the eyes. The dialogue also isn’t quite as smart here, with none of the verbal show-downs matching any of the really good ones from Basterds. And like I said, Tarantino’s habit of getting a little carried away toward the end of his movies is in full effect here, with the last half hour of the movie dropping a lot of the character depth and nuance in favour of shoot all the guys, which is fun and wonderfully cathartic but ends up making the movie feel slightly less than the sum of its parts.
[spoilers begin here]
As for the more problematic elements…. well it’s a white director (and one with a track record of both not being as smart as he thinks he is and lacking in self-awareness) making an elaborate anti-slavery revenge fantasy. Of course something’s going to go wrong.
In the run-up to the movie’s release there was a bit of a controversy over Spike Lee declaring that the film’s irreverent spaghetti western tone was inappropriate for the subject material; I’ve also seen people asking (justifiably, in my opinion) if this is really the sort of story a white director and writer should be telling. I don’t think it’s really my place to weigh in on that argument since any opinion I might offer would almost certainly be made in ignorance; likewise, whether or not that movie is actually racist (the sheer volume with which the “n” word gets used has put some people off) isn’t my call to make. Instead I’ll just talk about parts of the film’s narrative that clashed with Tarantino’s stated goal of making a movie that unflinchingly confronts the hideous reality of slavery.
On a surface level the movie certainly does that- the scenes showing slaves being whipped, branded, forced to fight to the death, locked in steel boxes as punishment for running away and more are dead serious and played completely straight. You get a real sense of just how physically and psychologically trapped the slaves are, not only by the overseers and trackers of their owners but by a culture that would toss them right back into captivity in an instant if they did manage to escape. And the movie makes no qualms about showing just how disgusting slave owners really were, blinkered, moronic troglodytes clinging to outdated notions like phrenology to justify their own inhumanity. Which is exactly the problem.
The truth is that Django Unchained plays an elaborate shell game with its audience. It wants you to think it’s an edgy, no-holds-barred expose on the horrors of America’s darkest hour, but it offers white audiences a series of easy escape hatches to avoid having to confront any uncomfortable realizations. The first element of the ruse is the two-dimensional cartoon villainy of the slave owners. It’s the same mistake often committed when portraying Hitler and the Nazis, reducing them to demonic avatars of darkness that emerged inexplicably from some inter-dimensional rift into hell, when in reality they were all too human products of the cultural attitudes of their time. It invites us to draw a line between ourselves and the characters we’re seeing, when in reality any one of us placed in similar circumstances could very likely have committed the same atrocities. The only white villain in the movie who seems real is the sister of Leonardo Di Caprio’s Calvin Candie, who happily indulges in all of the privileges the brutal plantation culture affords her but who angrily recoils when shown a slave’s disfiguring scars. That someone would recognize on some level that slavery is wrong but just couldn’t be arsed to do anything about it is both more realistic and more terrifying than the over the top I DID IT FOR THE LULZ attitude of the other slavers in the movie.
The second white audience escape hatch is Christoph Waltz’s bounty hunter, Schultz. He’s portrayed as The Good One, the sole sympathetic white character and probably the most traditionally heroic character in the movie. To Tarantino’s credit his anti-slavery attitude is attributed to his German origin rather than any moral insight on the character’s part, perhaps implying that if he had grown up in the South with the other slave owners he’d be breaking out the bullwhips right alongside them. But this also rests on the weird assumption that racism only forms in proximity to the targeted race, which is laughably simplistic.
Put simply, Schultz is the white viewer surrogate character. He’s so kind hearted and pure- he teaches Django to read! He goes out of his way to free slaves even when it doesn’t advance his own agenda! He’s so disgusted by slavery that he chooses to shoot Calvin Candie through the heart, sacrificing his own life, rather than shake his hand! Why of course we’d be just like him! His presence in the movie positively invites white viewers to side with him against those evil slave owners, rather than face the uncomfortable reality that we have far more in common with the plantation owners than the slaves. I understand the character’s presence in the movie- Django needed someone to free him and set him on the road to becoming a cowboy vigilante, given the nature of the society it would need to be a white dude- but couldn’t Tarantino have had Schultz be opposed to slavery while also being a racist dick, as many abolitionists were? There is a very broad continuity from sadistic slave owner to the often-claimed but rarely achieved “colour blind”, and most white people are not nearly as far toward the latter as we like to think we are. Django Unchained might have been a chance to drive that home to a society that fancies itself “post-racial” but it comes nowhere near doing so. I simply don’t think a black writer would have written Schlutz the way Tarantino did, and that’s why I’m sympathetic to the idea that this might not have been Tarantino’s story to tell.
The other somewhat questionable decision was to have the story’s main villain actually be Samuel L. Jackson’s Stephen, an elderly head house slave and long time adviser to the Candie family. Initially presented as a simplistic, servile Uncle Tom type who is elevated above the violence and cruelty of the plantation by way of his important position in the household, a mid-movie twist reveals him to be a cold, calculating villain who is far more intelligent than his master, who he stands with on more or less equal ground behind closed doors. Neo-nazis, racists, reddit posters and other assorted shitheads get massive history boners over collusion between people of colour and the slave trade so they can swoop into any conversation on racism with “well actually, if you look at it objectively I think you’ll find that *sound of a vacuum cleaner with a pair of socks jammed into the intake*”. I don’t think that’s what Tarantino was doing here and you could read the character as a portrayal of internalized racism, but it still rubbed me the wrong way that the final showdown wasn’t between Django and the white slave owners who had systematically abused him for his entire life but an old black man with Stockholm syndrome. Even though I don’t believe for a second that the movie intentionally pushes such a message, I have to wonder how many people are going to walk out of Django Unchained with an image of slavery as a pack of idiotic white rubes being manipulated by sinister African people.
By a fortuitous coincidence in release schedules, the next movie I see is probably going to be Lincoln. Let’s see if it manages to take the opportunity Django missed.
Bonus lulz: Watch the brain trust at The Escapist complain about reverse racism and other assorted bullshit. Also check out the video that comment thread is attached to so a white film geek can tell you about why the movie is totally not racist.