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Django Unchained and Tarantino Off the Chain….

Django Unchained is one of the most quietly influential movies of the twenty-first century.

It feels strange to acknowledge that fact, to say it out loud. On paper, it sounds absurd. Django Unchained is an R-rated western that deals with slavery in the manner of an exploitation film, released at Christmas. It is a movie that is downright abrasive, in terms of both tone and content. On the one hand, it is cheeky and provocative, playful and flippant; it is hyperstylised, from the Ennio Morricone score to the camera zooms to the bright flourishes of colour. It is also so violent and brutal that it is difficult to watch, even having seen the film before and knowing when the horrors are coming.

However, the film was a box office success. It earned over one hundred and sixty million dollars at the domestic box office, and more than two hundred and sixty million dollars at the foreign box office. More than that, it became a cultural touchstone. Jamie Foxx would reprise the role of Django in A Million Ways to Die in the West. The character would appear in a number of licensed comic book adaptations, including a crossover with Zorro published by Dynamite and Vertigo publishing.

The influence of Django Unchained is subtler than that. It is a film that shifted the conversation on the popular history of the United States. It did not do this alone, and it is hard to argue whether it was part of a broader cultural shift or simply a reaction to it. Nevertheless, Django Unchained coincided with a massive shift in how popular culture engaged with American history. Its impact is felt in the strangest of places, from the blending of horror movie conventions with a western aesthetic in films like The Revenant or Bone Tomahawk to the sounds of Kanye West playing over the opening scenes of Underground.

There had been movies about slavery before; indeed, Django Unchained was released roughly contemporaneously with both Lincoln and 12 Years a Slave. However, there had never been a movie about slavery like this. The western genre had been greatly diminished before Django Unchained was released, but it was profoundly changed in its wake. After Django Unchained, it seemed to become impossible to construct a western without reference to the atrocities upon which the west had been won.

Django Unchained argued that these horrors weren’t just one version of the story, but instead an essential part of the overall story of the frontier and the nation. Sofia Coppola’s refusal to confront slavery in The Beguiled became a minor controversy. Even Hostiles confronted the genocide of the Native Americans. There were westerns that avoided these controversies in the intervening years, but they became fewer and further between. Indeed, The Ballad of Lefty Brown is perhaps most notable for the ill-judged scene in which its only major African American character attempts to lynch the white lead.

Still, even approaching Django Unchained more than half a decade removed from its release, it remains a fascinating and compelling piece of cinema. It is a genuinely provocative piece of cinema, one designed to challenge and upset the audience. However, the true beauty of the film lies as much in its contours and finer details as it does in the broad strokes, in the little touches that enrich and enlighten the finished product. In particular, the sense that Tarantino understands the precarious nature of what he is attempting, despite the somewhat flippant attitude towards violence and bloodshed.

This sense of consideration and reflection is perhaps best explored in the character of King Schultz, who is positioned quite cannily as a deconstruction of the familiar white saviour trope.

Quentin Tarantino is a deeply flawed public advocate, as the past few years have revealed. There was (justified) outrage over revelations that he had pressured Uma Thurman on the set of Kill Bill to preform a stunt for which she was no properly trained, which left her with a permanent back injury. Thurman has forgiven Tarantino, and Tarantino has advocated for the release of footage of the incident, but there was still considerable public anger at this betrayal of trust between actor and director. (The conversation naturally expanded to include Tarantino’s various other highly questionable directorial choices.)

Even beyond his career as a film director, Tarantino has cultivated a public persona that has never seemed particularly tactful or tasteful. Not only has Tarantino participated in campaigns supporting Roman Polanski, he famously (and crassly) defended Roman Polanski’s rape of Samantha Geimer. Tarantino subsequently publicly apologised for those comments. Similarly, Tarantino has himself accepted a degree of personal responsibility in the abuses perpetuated by producer Harvey Weinstein, who was largely responsible for Tarantino’s early successes. These are more than simply errors in judgment.

Similarly, Tarantino has been noticeably prickly in engaging with criticisms of his work. He has refused to answer questions about or engage with discussions about the use of violence in his work, which is probably fair given the sense of moral panic that tends to inform such debates. He has also been quite dismissive of criticism of his work from African Americans, which is quite troublesome given his tendency to reference and draw upon certain cultural elements associated with the African American community; his interest in exploitation as a genre, his repeated use of the “n”-word.

At the same time, there is a sense that Tarantino is aware of some of the challenges that he faces. Tarantino has spent a lot of time recently apologising for past mistakes, suggesting a period of reflection and introspection. He has also used his platform to champion worth causes, including public support for Black Lives Matter and vocal opposition to violence against African Americans. Tarantino’s position was so outspoken that it prompted a boycott from various national police unions against his film. It should be noted that such racially-charged protests tend not be overwhelmingly popular with the American public.

As such, it seems fair to say that Tarantino is a socially conscious filmmaker. Indeed, it could reasonably be observed that the second wave of Tarantino’s filmography is bristling with righteous anger. Kill Bill, Vol. 1 and Kill Bill, Vol. 2 feature a woman exacting revenge from the people who have victimised her in the past; including a man who repeatedly sexually assaulted her and a jealous possessive lover. Inglourious Basterds focused on an elite platoon of Jewish commandos paying violence unto the Third Reich. The Hateful Eight ruminated upon the unhealed wounds of the Civil War.

In each case, Tarantino focuses on an oppressed individual (or a member of an oppressed group) who lashes back against their oppressors through violence. Tarantino’s attitude towards this violence is not uncomplicated. As many observers have pointed out, there is something deliberately unsettling in the way that Shosanna Dreyfus transforms herself into “the face of Jewish vengeance” while burning a room full of senior Nazi officials alive. Similarly, The Hateful Eight finds Major Marquis Warren exploiting the sexual anxieties underpinning racist ideology to entrap an opponent in a very loaded scene.

So, Tarantino is a provocateur, poking and prodding at concepts that make the audience uncomfortable and embracing the idea of weaponising the tools of violence and oppression against violent oppressors. It is telling, for example, that his characterisation of the hypothetical “Good German” in Inglourious Basterds is Hugo Stiglitz. Stiglitz does not passively resist the horrors of the Nazi regime, he actively resists. He is introduced in a montage that depicts him brutally murdering senior Nazi officers. This is Tarantino’s perspective, the idea that atrocity must by met with violence in the most certain terms.

At the same time, there is something a little uncomfortable in all of this. The director of Inglourious Basterds is not Jewish. The director of Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight is not black. There is a clear sense in which Tarantino is an outside, a tourist in trauma, presenting a hypothetical catharsis. Tarantino is insulated from these atrocities both by time and by his own ethnicity. There is something unsettling in this. His exploitation throwbacks might be seen to be especially exploitative in that context.

However, Django Unchained suggests a writer at least grappling with this challenge in a number of ways, Tarantino acknowledging that violent catharsis is not always a viable option to those in these situations and that it is often the luxury/fantasy of those who exist outside the struggle. Django Unchained often seems to take aim at Tarantino himself. This is perhaps most obvious in Tarantino’s bizarre cameo as a trapper with a highly questionable Australian accent, who gets blown up mere minutes after he is introduced. Tarantino’s cameo places the author outside the narrative; first as a non-national, then by killing him off.

This is just the most literal example of Tarantino stepping outside of himself. Django Unchained in many ways feels like a response to the fanciful restorative violence of Inglourious Basterds. The film repeatedly acknowledges that slavery is a complicated system perpetuated by more than mere force of arms. Candie articulates one of the core questions of the narrative in conversation with Django and Schultz over dinner. “I spent my whole life here right here in Candyland surrounded by black faces. And seein’ them ev’ry day, day in day out, I I only had one question. Why don’t they kill us?”

Django Unchained grapples with the distance that exists between violent cathartic fantasy and brutal reality. After all, in certain parts of the country, the slaves numerically outnumbered the white population. Many commentators have wondered why were there so few revolts? This is a tasteless question, to be clear. It runs the risk of shifting blame for slavery on the victims who lived in bondage rather than the perpetrators who enforced it. It also leads to nonsense like the revisionist suggestion that “slavery was a choice.” However, on a purely factual and cultural level, without any blame or judgment, it is an intriguing question.

The answer would seem to be suggested by the character of Stephen, the house slave portrayed by Samuel L. Jackson. Stephen is perhaps the most unsettling character in the film, and Jackson offers one of the best performances in a movie packed to the gills with memorable performances. Stephen suggests the way in which the system of slavery was perpetuated and institutionalised, where the system was reinforced from within. Stephen is a character who has internalised racism, and who in turn accepts the system as something necessary and worth observing. It is Stephen who outwits and exposes Django, not Candie.

Django Unchained suggests that social ills like slavery are entrenched and reinforced. Indeed, the film even makes a none-too-subtle connection between the work conducted by the nominal heroes of the film (Schultz and Django) and the institution of slavery. Explaining how bounty hunting works, Schultz tells Django, “Like slavery, it’s a flesh-for-cash business.” It is a process that breaks up families; slavery divided Django and Broomhilda, while bountyhunting separates Smitty Bacall from his own son. It is the outsourcing of state violence – execution, captivity, restriction of autonomy – to private parties.

However, more than that, Django Unchained seems to critique the same comforting moral absolutism in which Inglourious Basterds traded freely. This is perhaps most obvious in the character of King Schultz. Schultz is perhaps as much an authorial insert as the actual character played by Quentin Tarantino. The character certainly seems to embody a lot of the more flattering aspects of Tarantino, a character who seems very specifically tailored to the strengths of this particular writer.

Schultz is largely defined by his ability to talk, through his ability to use words to manipulate situations and people to suit his own ends. Within the confines of a Quentin Tarantino movie, this is effectively a superpower. Tarantino is a writer who writes sharp and well-observed dialogue, and Schultz is perhaps the Tarantino character most perfectly suited to deliver sharp and well-observed dialogue. Schultz is intelligent, canny, and charming. He speaks incredibly quickly, as if struggling to articulate the multitude of thoughts running through his head.

Despite being German by birth, and being played by a German actor, Schultz speaks better English than most of the people he meets. Schultz often has to explain the meanings of words to people who speak English as a first language, and not just those who are defined as illiterate. Perhaps in a nod to this oral fixation, Schultz is introduced driving a dentist’s carriage, a giant tooth atop it. In short, there is no character who seems better designed to exist within a Quentin Taratino movie than King Schultz, although Major Marquis Warren also manipulates narratives in The Hateful Eight.

Similarly, Schultz is a character possessed of the sort of moral outrage and certitude suggested by Tarantino’s scripts for Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight. Schultz has no moral doubts about his actions. He considers himself cultured and sophisticated. He believes very clearly in the nature of right and wrong. He seems genuinely remorseful at exploiting slavery to enlist Django’s aid, and awards him his freedom. He feels no guilt in murdering Smitty Bacall in front of his son.

Django hesitates at the idea of such cold and calculated violence, but Schultz will not tolerate such moral compromise. Forcing Django to read the warrant for Bacall, with its accounts of murder and robbery, he explains, “That is who Smitty Bacall is. If Smitty Bacall wanted to start a farm at twenty-two, they would never have printed that. But Smitty Bacall wanted to rob stagecoaches, and he didn’t mind killing people to do it.” This is Schultz’s moral calculus, and it seems very close to that articulated by Stiglitz in Inglourious Basterds. Evil is evil, and it cannot be abided.

Django Unchained also sets up the idea that Schultz might be a “white saviour”, the white protagonist of a movie about slavery who uses his conscience and his position of privilege to elevate a black man from bondage and thus downplay that character’s journey and assuage white guilt at the same time. This is an unfortunate trope at the best of times, but is downright toxic in the context of narratives about slavery. There are criticisms of movies like Lincoln and 12 Years a Slave for choosing to tell stories of black oppression with heroic white characters presented as liberators.

What is most interesting about Django Unchained‘s engagement with this trope is the manner in which Tarantino pointedly and brutally subverts it. Although it is Schultz who comes up with the plan to free Broomhilda, and it is Schultz who teaches Django the art of bounty hunting, it is very clear that Schultz has a lot to learn about America from Django. Django Unchained makes it very clear that Django has both a deeper understanding of the mechanics of slavery than Schultz, and much greater control of his own emotions.

There is an interesting sequence on the way to Candyland, in which Schultz takes Django aside to lecture him about the need to remain “in character” during their mission. “Don’t get so carried away with your retribution that we lose sight on why we’re here,” Schultz urges Django at one point, urging him not to rile the rest of the congregation. This is incredibly condescending and patronising, a white character presuming to lecture a freed black slave about losing sight of their objective. It would appear incredibly tone-deaf, if Tarantino didn’t brutally underscore the dramatic irony of that tone-deaf lecture.

It is very quickly made clear that Django is in much greater control of his emotions than Schultz. Shortly after that conversation, Schultz witnesses Candie tearing a slave apart using trained dogs. Schultz almost breaks character, unable to stand the casual brutality. In that instance, it is Django who maintains character, covering for his partner. Django is much more accustomed to the violence of slavery having lived through it. As an outsider, Schultz is unable to control his emotional response, unable to temper his righteous indignation, unable to play along with the systems of violence.

This might initially seem commendable. After all, all that it takes for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing. Inglourious Basterds framed Hugo Stiglitz’s inability to tolerate such violence and oppression as something to be lauded and celebrated; it leads the Basterds to seek him out. However, Django Unchained takes a decidedly more nuanced view, suggesting that Schultz’s self-righteous outsider rage is not necessarily conducive to the resolution of this crisis. Far from being a “white saviour”, Schultz almost sabotages the entire operation. Django Unchained is quite explicit in how Schultz almost ruins everything.

During their trip to Candyland, Stephen deduces Schultz and Django’s true intentions, explains those intentions to Candie, and escalates the situation to a horrific degree. Their true intentions exposed, Candie forces Schultz and Django to pay an exorbitant amount to free Broomhilda. They agree, accepting that their priority is the safe return of Django’s beloved wife. However, at the end of the arrangement, Candie insists that Schultz shake his hand. In fact, he goes so far as to threaten to annul the entire arrangement unless Schultz shakes his hand.

Schultz is evidently repulsed by Candie, as any right-thinking individual would be. So he takes a principled stand. “I’m afraid I must insist,” Candie states. Schultz responds, “Insist? On what? That I shake your hand? Oh, then I’m afraid I must insist in the opposite direction.” When Candie forces the issue, Schultz opts to shoot Candie rather than take his hand. Schultz does this having some idea of the consequences, knowing that his refusal to shake the hand of a profoundly evil man will likely end up with Django and Broomhilda dead or sold back into slavery, and himself murdered.

Before Schultz is shot, he turns to Django. “I’m sorry,” he admits. “I couldn’t resist.” Schultz’s refusal to compromise is in theory commendable, in the same way that Hugo Stiglitz murdering countless Nazi officers is commendable, reflecting moral absolutism in the face of monstrosity. It is hard not to have some sympathy for Schultz in that moment, whose righteous anger at the brutality that he has witnessed drives him to strike back in furious anger. Given all that Tarantino has said and written about violence against systems of oppression, one imagines that Tarantino sympathises with Schultz as well.

However, this is the most interesting aspect of Schultz’s arc, and the most brutal subversion of what initially appears to be a “white saviour” narrative. Schultz’s self-righteousness is suggested to be an indulgence, an impulse that he cannot “resist.” It is almost a reflex. It is also something that escalates the situation, sabotages the mission, and places Django in peril. This is because Schultz is unprepared to emotionally navigate the situation, and because he lacks the personal investment of Django and Broomhilda. Schultz does not have their lived-in experiences, and so this is an abstraction to him.

In contrast, both Django and Broomhilda have lived as slaves. They understand the brutality of the system, and the mechanics that keep it operating. They do not have the luxury of indulging their anger in the same way that Schultz does as an outside. As a white man and a German, Schultz is quite literally a tourist in their trauma. If the film invites the audience to read Schultz as a stand-in for Tarantino, the verbose and righteous provocateur, then Django Unchained seems to acknowledge that there are limits to his capacity to engage with the situation.

On a plotting level, the death of Schultz also side-steps the problem of the “white saviour” by affirming Django as the protagonist of his own movie. When the initial plan to rescue Broomhilda falls apart because of Schultz’s inability to control his outrage, Django is forced to improvise and to take control of the narrative. Will Smith famously turned down the role of Django because he felt like it was not the lead role, but the truth is that Django Unchained is structured to build towards the assertion of Django’s agency. (Django Unchained might be likened to an “origin” story, and Schultz to the dead mentor in such stories.)

Django Unchained remains a compelling and engaging film, half a decade after its original release. It is a provocative and influential piece of work, but also a surprisingly introspective and reflective one. It finds Tarantino wrestling with some of the criticisms of his work, and trying to balance his own status as a director informed by righteous anger on behalf of others with his position as a spectator to those stories. These are not questions that offer easy answers, and there is something very compelling in watching Tarantino wrestle with them.

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4 Responses

  1. The milestone I saw in “Django Unchained” was that it’s the movie that finally mainstreamed the notion of slave owners and Confederates (or proto-Confederates in this case) as the kind of villains that it’s okay to use in pulpy action thrillers, where nobody cares that they’re getting mowed down by the dozens because it’s understood that they’re bad guys and deserve it. In other words, the same role Nazis, communists, terrorists et al have had for decades in movies like this. There’s something to be said against that practice in general, but since it exists and is unlikely to go away any time soon, I’m pretty happy to see them no longer excluded from that “Acceptable Targets” list.

    It’s not the first movie I’ve seen do that, but none of the others landed the same way. When I was growing up, the Wild Wild West movie and the Zorro sequel did the same thing, but both of those flopped pretty hard. More recently there was “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,” but the title and premise were so weird and out-there that I don’t think it really registered. And there’ve been Civil War movies and slavery movies that’ve portrayed the old Southern gentry as being the wrong side, but those were usually “serious” movies – in 1940s terms, they were the equivalent of either “The Longest Day” or “Schindler’s List,” rather than “Indiana Jones,” “Hellboy,” “Inglorious Basterds” et al. (Which feels like the real milestone to me, the point where it’s no longer “let’s make a movie about history” but rather “you know what, fuck those people, wanna watch them die horribly for a couple of hours?”)

  2. “Similarly, Tarantino has been noticeably prickly in engaging with criticisms of his work. He has refused to answer questions about or engage with discussions about the use of violence in his work, which is probably fair given the sense of moral panic that tends to inform such debates. He has also been quite dismissive of criticism of his work from African Americans, which is quite troublesome given his tendency to reference and draw upon certain cultural elements associated with the African American community; his interest in exploitation as a genre, his repeated use of the “n”-word.”

    I finally saw “Pulp Fiction” a couple years ago. Fun movie, but I definitely couldn’t get over “did Tarantino seriously just write himself into the movie just so that he could shout ‘n*gg*r’ a dozen times and then sit back and go ‘but duuude, it’s not ME, it’s just a CHARACTER in a MOVIE lighten up bro!’ … of course he fucking did.”

    “Although it is Schultz who comes up with the plan to free Broomhilda, and it is Schultz who teaches Django the art of bounty hunting, it is very clear that Schultz has a lot to learn about America from Django. […] As a white man and a German, Schultz is quite literally a tourist in their trauma.”

    Point of interest about the choice of making the only good white man in the story a German. Out-of-universe, it makes for a nice mirror imaging of “Inglorious Basterds,” and of course allows you to use Christoph Waltz. In-universe, though: the time period the movie is set in saw a lot of German immigration to the (Northern) United States, many of it from people fleeing the crackdowns after the failed revolutions of 1848, who brought with them radical ideologies and turned out to be one of the big constituencies for abolitionism. It’s easy to imagine that Schultz would’ve been part of that wave.

    • Yep, there’s definitely no getting around the problematic aspects of Tarantino’s fixation on the n-word. It’s arguably more of an issue in Pulp Fiction than anywhere else, where he seems to write himself into the film specifically to use the word, and with a black wife to some how suggest that he has “n-word privileges.” (At least if he wrote Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight to justify the use of the word, something good arguably came of that. And I think Reservoir Dogs kind gets away with it by making it clear that everybody in the film is reprehensible and even playing with performative appropriation through Mister Orange’s superior coaching him in how to “act.”)

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