The problem with Tarantino’s Django Unchained is that it’s a very good movie. Wildly entertaining, expertly made, and very fun to watch. I loved almost every second of the watching of it. The man-child can make a movie as seductive and entertaining as the next, is a whip-smart writer of dialogue, and creates some of the most memorable characters on screen. If you’re looking for your classic Tarantino fix, you won’t be disappointed with Django. However, after looking back at his oeuvre to date, it is starting to seem like he has a bunch of seductive, interesting ways to say a whole lot of nothing. So what is it that he’s doing that is captivating everyone, selling out box offices, and making him a name that your Grandma recognizes?
Sure I enjoyed the film, but I like Tarantino the way I like people who are bad for me. They’re seductive in their charms, but hollow when it comes down to the serious things. What about his irresistible aesthetic? Well you can wow me with style, but you can’t win me with it. Am I supposed to believe a person is beautiful because they wear nice clothes? And who is paying for those clothes anyway?
The brief summary of Django Unchained, which if you haven’t seen it you should, (particularly if you want to talk about it…)is this: Django (Jamie Foxx) is a slave who is found by a German bounty hunter posing as dentist, Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). Schultz needs Django’s help in identifying several slave owners and in exchange for his help, Schultz agrees to help Django find and free his wife Broomhilda von Shaft (Kerry Washington) who is living on a slave plantation called Candyland, owned and operated by Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). Sadly and surprisingly, the plot is watery and straightforward, and instead what comes to light is a host of interesting questions about what the role of an artist is.
The film has created quite the stir, and much of the debate surrounding Django is the question of whether it’s appropriate for a white director to make a film about slavery in the manner Tarantino does. This territory of discussion treads some slippery lines, because it borders on artistic censorship. I’m a firm believer in the fact that no subject matter is taboo when it comes to art. It’s also true that slavery in the antebellum South is not only a story relegated to black history. It is white history as well.
But the most important question one can ask about a film like Django Unchained is this: of all the stories that Tarantino could tell, why does he insist on casually co-opting the story of another? And why does he choose to tell it in this way?
I think the why is pretty clear: Tarantino chose to make Django because slavery in America is a topic that we haven’t thoroughly dealt with, explaining the disproportionate marginalization and discrimination based on race in American culture today. So, I understand his why, but not so much his how. The central problem with the film is the idea that Django is a hero: Django’s quest isn’t really about freedom. Dr. King Schultz, German bounty hunter, seems more intent on freeing the slaves than the slave himself. In fact Django doesn’t seem to empathize with many of the slaves in the film – his goal is to get his wife back, which like a slave, is technically seen (and portrayed in the film) as property. Making a movie about slavery in the American South, where the most captivating person and morally conscious character is a German bounty hunter, is just the tip of the racial dilemma of Django.
You might have seen the film and argue that it’s a role-reversal story of a slave freeing himself and his wife from the grips of slavery in a bloody free-for all. But you might forget that the film’s narrative is largely aided by the agency of a white man who gets Django almost all the way towards his goal, and then lets him have the last shot. Django isn’t responsible for his freedom: white people and money are. And we should note not much has changed. If you think slavery’s legacy is behind us, you might want to take a stroll around the American prison system.
In fact, while most of the conversation around Django has been wondering what black people’s reactions are to it, I’m as equally interested in how white people are responding to the film. I caught myself laughing at a scene where Django blows away so many white people as if to defy plausibility. As a white person, what was I laughing at? Ha ha, my ancestors were such evil people? Were we laughing as a way to absolve our lingering guilt? Are the ketchup-packet deaths of a bunch of white slave owners supposed to make me feel better about the past? For me it was beyond uncomfortable to watch the white characters in the film to be shot in a silly, implausible way, sidled up next to the gruesome drawn-out deaths of the slaves in the film. Why don’t the slave owners in the film get tortured? Why do they get to die so easily?
What Tarantino seems to be doing in many of his films is proving that he’s on the “right” side of history, but that effort seems dubious in Django. All white people would like to think that in the days of slavery they would have been against it, if not in practice, then at least in their hearts. But history proves that some of them, clearly, would not have. And so what of Tarantino? When watching his films it’s hard to tell where he stands, as he seems to be perennially toeing the Mason-Dixon line. Are not the black actors in his films permanently held, both literally and metaphorically, by his purse strings? Are they not essentially in blackface? What white director would consistently force his black actors to degrade the other with the n-word? What white director would name his German hero Dr. King? What white director would allow the only black woman in the film to be essentially a speechless object of beauty?
The most difficult thing about watching Django, is to see the cues lined up like bowling pins that we are supposed to, and do, knock down with laughs, followed by scenes where Django is hung upside down and about to have his balls cut off so he can bleed to death. What is this roller coaster ride supposed to do besides thrilling and nauseating?
As we all know, Tarantino’s hallmark is gratuitous violence. And it’s hard to argue that Django shouldn’t be violent. Any film about the antebellum South, should show violence, for what else was it but that? But the issue is that Tarantino’s version feels too enjoyable. While the audience cheered and laughed when white people were murdered and then dutifully sucked air through their teeth in pain when black men were beaten to death, the problem is that violence isn’t that simple. I could not help as I looked around the packed cinema, wonder – what if instead of two thirteen-year-old white kids next to me, it had been Emmett Till watching? Would he be cheering on Django, or would a look of contortion and confusion cross his face as Django left many slaves behind without a word or nod of comradery?
There’s all types of violence, but to me there’s a marked difference between Uma Thurman stabbing out Daryl Hannah’s eye than watching a slave being ripped apart by dogs. I can say that watching Hitler burn to death trapped in a cinema was a high point of Inglorious Basterds, because it wasn’t meant to be a salve for the Holocaust. Is watching Jamie Foxx blow away every last white person in sight supposed to make us wash our hands of slavery and clap them in cheer?
The major difference between Inglorious Basterds and Django is that the former film intentionally did not aim to be historically accurate. The other, searing difference, is that while the Holocaust seems to be fairly “in the past” (if anything can ever really be in the past), American slavery’s effects have lingered and are ever-present today.
It also did not escape my notice that the only form of revenge available to the “freed” slave Django was violence itself, a narrative that the media at large has been happy to perpetrate. When violence is the only payback for violence, what do we have but another system of endless slavery in place? There’s a line in the movie when Django finds out that Dr. Schultz is a bounty hunter and says, “Kill white folks and they pay you for it? What’s not to like?” It’s a funny line until you unpack its implications. Not only do black people consistently get longer jail sentences than whites for the same crime, and are proportionally more likely to be framed for such crimes. Many people have commented on reveling in watching a black slave shoot a bunch of slaveowners, but the idea that black people just want to kill white people as a form of revenge is a pretty white notion. I’m pretty sure all black people wanted was to have never been enslaved in the first place. I may be white, but I was born in raised in Hawaii, where we had “Kill Haole Day” (Haole is the term for white people) every year. Did I think, crossing the playground with trepidation on that day every school year, that Hawaiian children really wanted to kill me? Of course not – I always knew they just wanted their land and people back.
Yesterday at the coffee shop, an 80-year-old white guy was standing behind me in line and he was shifting around, like you do when you want a refill, and said, quietly behind my ear, “I’d shoot everyone in here if they let me.” The reason Tarantino’s films are so easily digestible for most is the same reason that man felt comfortable uttering such a hostile phrase at an uncaffeinated woman at 7 in the morning. Has violence become so casual that we can’t even consider it seriously anymore as a culture? Or are Tarantino’s films supposed to be a balm to the seriousness, a three-hour reprieve from the realness of it all?
The conflict, for me, comes with how enjoyable his films are – how damn entertaining they can be (Django’s 2.75 flew by). He knows he’s a great stylist with an ability to put his finger right on the pulse of culture, seducing us with story and soundtracks, then forcing us to walk through emotionally booby-trapped terrain. His films are always cool, which is why we keep watching them, but hasn’t anyone figured out that being cool is often the diametric opposite of being sincere?
Growing up I never really understood the saying, “Good intentions pave the road to hell”, but after seeing Django Unchained, I think I finally get it. I truly believe that Tarantino set out to make a film about the horrors of American slavery, and I applaud his efforts for taking this risk. In a scene in which Dr. Schultz is listening to a white woman play Fur Elise on the harp, intercut with flashbacks of a black slave being torn apart to death by dogs, we see, for the first and only time in the film, a white man coming to terms with slavery. This, I think, is what at his heart Tarantino wants to communicate in Django. But he can’t put aside his childish, selfish, unexamined antics and gun-loving, to dig at that heart. Which brings up the endlessly fascinating question – what responsibility does and should (that dreaded should) an artist have?
Tarantino casts himself in the film as a hapless Aussie who meets Django later in the film. But who is Tarantino really? Is he more like Monsieur Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), slave owner, or is he more like Dr. Schultz, a man who truly does not align himself with the nexus of evil that is slavery? I think Tarantino is a little of both. How can he be the filmmaker he is without fetishizing, loving, and inappropriately appropriating black culture all at the same time? In effect, he’s like our nation’s cultural dealings with our racial past and present boiled down into one filmmaker.
The best thing I can say about Django Unchained is that it’s brought an onslaught of conversation. I belong to a swimming and boating club, and eavesdropping on a group of 80-year-old men in speedos talking about Tarantino and debating Django in the sauna, reveals if not his significance, then at least his cultural hold. This film has people investigating who can make art about what, and how far we have not come in terms of dealing with our country’s past. The film has people talking about race. For that I give Tarantino credit – to tackle something very complicated and fraught in his own way.
But to me he seems to be an artist who doesn’t yet fully understand his motivations and their ensuing ramifications in the culture at large. Which begs the question, does an artist have to know their motivations, or understand them? In the end, the fact that the film is so good and so bad reveals that Tarantino did what most artists never do – he took a big risk.
But at the end of the day, there’s still something unsettling about a film that’s so slick about slavery. Perhaps what made Inglorious Basterds easier to swallow was the fact that the story of the Holocaust has been told in a variety of elegant and painstaking films and books. Maybe the truth is that we haven’t enough stories and examinations of America’s dark past (and present), and to have Tarantino’s stand out and rake it in at the box office feels like we’re being cheated at getting real. Earlier, in this very review, I said that Tarantino has a bunch of interesting ways to say a whole lot of nothing. But maybe I missed the point. Perhaps he is setting us up to do the talking.Maybe the fault of Django Unchained isn’t his, it’s ours. We clearly haven’t done the work. We haven’t said enough, or made enough art. Danny Glover has been trying for decades to fund a film about Haitian revolutionary and former slave Toussaint Louverture, but encountered trouble because there weren’t enough white heroes.
There’s a good reason Kerry Washington, who says almost nothing during the film, plugs her ears in the final scene: she’s heard enough about what white people have to say about her plight. She wants to hear a different story, or rather, she’d probably like to tell a story all her own.