django, unchained unpacked

by isaac black

I saw Django, Unchained last night. I’m not sure what exactly I expected, but I only started feeling apprehensive about the historical, racial implications once I was in the film. To Tarantino’s credit, yes, it was a very entertaining movie, and in fact, the most troublesome part of the story that I noticed was something that a viewer might anticipate before even buying a ticket–Tarantino is co-opting a history that is not his own as a mechanism to slaughter a completely unsympathetic villain (no, I’m not talking about Inglorious Basterds, though a formal complaint from me would involve how little difference there is between the films aside from setting.)

(Spoiler alert.) He did avoid having Django’s white partner save him, which is a familiar, condescending trope in literature that deals with dispossessed groups. And no, there was no rebuttal to how “realistic” it would have been to have Dr. Schultz be the ultimate hero, since any attempt at realism would have had to address the reality of lynchings for a former slave with an “r” for runaway branded on his face who rides a horse and mouths off to white slave owners.

But then we get into the problematic area of how “realistic” the film was, or should have been. As I mentioned before, Tarantino uses history as a setting for theater, leaving out the parts of history that didn’t help propel the storyline. My biggest gripe with Slumdog Millionaire was that it did something similar: presented predominantly white audiences with only some of the “real” hardships that residents of Indian slums face–only so many of them as was convenient to overcome in a storyline where the hero wins somehow by virtue of character and a miracle. In other words, the gross, systemic injustices were only set dressing meant to play on the audience’s feelings.

There is a scene in Django where the heroes allow a runaway slave to be torn apart by dogs, since saving him would have meant blowing their cover. The scene, from my viewing, is meant to show how determined Django is to rescue his wife. Or, it’s a commentary on how, when people are property, they can be tortured at the whims of their “owner.” But the complexities of this scene are flattened in comparison to the way the film treats Steven, the head house slave (played by a show-stopping Samuel L. Jackson). He is an unforgivable villain for being a “race traitor.” I’m not sure why Django is a hero when he lets a runaway slave get tortured to death when he has a chance to stop it while Steven is a villain on par with Monsieur Candie (Leo DiCaprio’s role as a brutal slave owner), but that’s indicative of the narrative control that Tarantino exerts on his story.

Also, the n***** word came flying out of people’s mouths a little too much for me, almost as if Tarantino was trying to show off his honorary black man card that no one ever gave him. I worry that, for one, he’s trying to write his way out of his white guilt, and also that hearing it so many times, knowing that it was written by a white man, white audiences will think that the word is no longer offensive. Which, while ostensibly portraying some of the brutal treatment of the slavery era, does nothing for the racism that many people still harbor in our era.

The movie, in a vacuum, was very well put together and fun, but I can’t really endorse it. Sorry Quentin. Use another setting for your next bloodbath.