Django is not a movie with “villains.” Instead, the movie itself is villainous.
Trauma and Style
Films about recent historical traumas (the Holocaust) or deific figures are not supposed to be highly stylized, which many viewers associate with artificialness. History is documentary. Thus, in Spielberg’s Schindler’s List or Lincoln, or Spike Lee’s Malcolm X style operates in a largely “realist,” self-effacing, invisible mode, as if an excess of auteur style might come to signify flippancy.
Style is Never Invisible
And yet style is never invisible, but rather “natural” so that it appears invisible. For instance, “long takes” are called “long takes” not because they are really long (a two- or three-minute uncut shot in an Orson Welles or Stanley Kubrick film is considered a long take) but because the norm is shorter takes, faster editing. Thus, long takes are considered “stylistic.”
On their way to Candyland to rescue Django’s wife Broomhilda from Calvin Candie’s nine-circles-of-hell plantation Candyland, King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) explains his plan to Django: that Django must act the part of a free black interested in purchasing one of Candie’s slave fighters: “Because when a man has one of the four biggest cotton plantations in Dixie, but the only thing that seems to ring his chimes is beg sweaty black makes, if WE want to get his attention, we better be talking about big sweaty black males.”
Django must impersonate, he must act, he must do exactly what he did as a slave: play pretend for whites.
Black masculinity is a “stylization of the body over space and time.”
There is something wounding about Django. It drains just a bit of humanity from you. There are reasons for this, probably, that are rational, that can be explained. After all, it’s just a movie, you tell yourself. What is it that Django has taken away from you (other than your money)? It has shown you that you are hard enough to watch. You are that kind of person. You watch, wounded.
I wanted [in his book Darwin’s Athletes: How Sport has Damaged Black America and Preserved the Myth of Race] to produce a socially useful analysis of black subjugation to white institutions and the racial folklore that sustains it; this meant following the black athlete around the postcolonial world and connecting his status to that of his ancestors, who once dealt with colonial masters who whose interest in sport was both passionate and political in nature.
The Problem With Django
The problem with Django is that is fails to provide the familiar comfort of genre.
The Emergence of the Problem
In the decades of the 1950s and 60s, Django Unchained might have been categorized as a “social problem” film, a wilder and less restrained version of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. But even then, in 1967, there was an understanding between audience and film, and that understanding was this: that the film would police its own boundaries. It was a difficult, tenuous understanding, but an understanding nonetheless, a sort of love, really, this compact.
The Problem Blooms
At some point, history as agreed upon collapsed. Perhaps it happened on the evening of February 27, 1968, when Walter Cronkite on national television suggested that the United States might not be victorious in the war in Vietnam. It would take at least a decade for the Right to realize that, yes: history hitherto had been, by and large, written and narrated by the Left. In the collapse, there were noble recovery efforts: the 1977 miniseries Roots, for example, and Jesse Jackson’s 1984 presidential campaign. These were meaningful. They failed.
Django to Schultz
“Eskimo Joe’s a quality nigger, no doubt about it.” At this point in the film, there is a level of unbearable uncertainty, and it comes down to this: is Jamie Foxx pretending to be Django pretending to use the word “nigger” with no irony? Audiences, some in the audience at least, want to know the answer to that question, but the answer is hidden within the folds and blood-splattered cotton fields and dynamited plantations of the film itself.
If Django is unchained, why does it feel so terribly like something else has happened, something that cancels out his freedom? What will become of him? More tellingly, what sort of man has be become? He has massacred whites and blacks alike. He is a terrorist of the screen. A sniper of ideas. He has seized the narrative, but only partially. If only, at the end, he could turn from the dynamited Candyland Plantation to the screen itself, the camera and its attendants, and destroy it, as well.
A villainous movie spills blood in ways that seem incoherent. The blood is the same spurted, make-believe Hollywood red as in every other stupid film, coating the walls, the screen death of characters mixed together. And yet there is a difference. The blood splashes outside the frame, onto our faces, and this is not simply because there is too much blood, but because of some other, mysterious reason. It is why we discover traces of that blood in the creases of our clothes weeks after seeing the film. There is unease about Django Unchained not because of its content, but because, in its direction, it speaks to both vigilantism and compromise: the careful engine of its plot (Schultz) is killed off before the third act, leaving Django to make possible—through indescribable violence—Schultz’s unspoken will.
Who is Schultz, really? A German, for one thing. The character who sets the moral compass of the film spinning is German. He is, let us speculate, forty-something years old in the universe of the film, which is set in the 1850s. His potential German grandchildren, back in Düsseldorf, in Tarantino’s universe, might be the Nazis in Inglourious Basterds.
Candie to his sister Lara Lee, re: Broomhilda’s scarred-by-lashing back, whom he has just shown to Schultz: “But Lara Lee, Dr. Schultz is from Düsseldorf. They don’t got niggers there. I’m sure it would fascinate him, the niggers’ endurance for pain.” That last sentence seems directed at the audience.
In 1854, the pro-slavery writer George Fitzhugh published a book entitled Sociology of the South, or, the Failure of Free Society. (An excellent collection of related documents and critical commentary is available in The Ideology of Slavery: Proslavery Thought in the Antebellum South, 1830-1860, edited by Drew Gilpin Faust and published by The Louisiana State University Press.) Fitzhugh’s words helped sustain the evil of slavery and contributed to the myth of slavery as a “benign” and even “benevolent” institution.
Fitzhugh: Part of the Family
Slavery protects the infants, the aged and the sick; nay, takes far better care of them than of the healthy, the middle-aged and the strong. They are part of the family, and self-interest and domestic affection combine to shelter, shield and foster them.
Fitzhugh: A Humane Community
But it is domestic slavery alone that can establish a safe, efficient and humane community of property. It did so in ancient times, it did so in feudal times, and does so now, in Eastern Europe, Asia and America. Slaves never die of hunger; seldom suffer want.
Fitzhugh: Gradual but Certain Extermination
In the last place, the negro race is inferior to the white race, and living in their midst, they would be far outstripped or outwitted in the chase of free competition. Gradual but certain extermination would be their fate. We presume the maddest abolitionist does not think the negro’s providence of habits and money-making capacity at all to compare to those of the whites. This defect of character alone would justify in enslaving him.
When is a Movie Not Just a Movie?
According to the experts, movies are never innocent. They betray the anxieties and desires (often repressed) of the society from which they emerge.
But whose desires, whose wishes? Is historical slavery entertainment? A spectacle for the purposes of entertainment? When Candie watches the two slaves fight to the death right before his eyes and only inches a way from him in the well-appointed room of his plantation under the glow of chandelier lights, some might say that the pleasure he derives from the scene is the same as the viewer’s pleasure. The viewer is “sutured” into Candie’s angle of vision via carefully timed point-of-view shots. We come to identify with the spectacle as he sees it. There is nothing new in the depiction of the suffering of others. It is the prerogative of the artist to render these depictions compelling and saleable (in the case of Django, at the cost of around 87 million dollars, primarily from The Weinstein Company). The question is: having indulged with such excess, detail, and relish in the fight (which ends with the forced smashing-in of the losing slave’s head by hammer at the hands of the winning slave) can the film possibly recuperate its message of justice? Or does this terrible scene of “with Candy” (i.e., with and from the perspective of Candy) burn so strongly that no other moment in the film can possible re-shuffle it into its proper moral order?
What is it in the culture that makes possible a movie like Django Unchained? For one thing, nostalgia, not simply (and this is a terrible thought) for the vigilante, but for the very system of injustice which provides moral justification to his actions.
Jamie Foxx is not a slave. Samuel L. Jackson is not a slave. They are paid to perform the parts of slaves and free blacks for the director Quentin Tarantino. They are in blackface. Especially Samuel Jackson, whose exaggerated minstrel show blackness is the only reason for his character’s existence.
Regarding the Pain of Others
In her book Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag thought about why there is no national museum on slavery in America:
To have a museum chronicling the great crime that was African slavery in the United States of America would be to acknowledge the evil that was here. Americans prefer to picture the evil that was there, and from which the United States—a unique nation, one without any certifiably wicked leaders throughout its entire history—is exempt.
In the absence of an official memorial to slavery, there are films like Django.
In an Interview
In an interview with The Miami Herald, Quentin Tarantino said:
Most countries have been forced to deal with the atrocities of their past. And America has conveniently chosen to avoid dealing with it, this subject, because it’s uncomfortable and people would rather avert their eyes. I’m here to put you in that place and say, ‘This is America. This is us. This is how this country was founded.’ If you want to know why things are the way they are today, look at this.
Parts of Django Unchained are like a western. The western is, some say, a dead genre. Django, in Django, is a cowboy who rides to his own rescue.
The Authority to Depict
Who has the moral authority to depict the enormity of violence against a people or a race? Of the directors and producers of the 1977 miniseries Roots, only one—Gilbert Moses—was African-American.
Django Unchained verges on what the French avant-garde filmmaker René Clair called, in 1925, cinéma pur—pure cinema—the “elemental origins” of cinema in “vision and movement.” Which brings us back to style. How should a film be? Should a film depicting the excess of evil also be excessively evil? For it may be that the story that any work of art tells—whether a novel or a painting or a film—is really and secretly the story of its telling. And the less invisible the style, the more this becomes obvious. Which is to say: often, a supposedly righteous film tells a story of terrible things, such as Schindler’s List. But sometimes, and more rarely, a villainous story is told by a truly villainous film.