Django Revisited

I wrote earlier that I would not go and see Django Unchained in the movie theaters and I had very strong reasons for doing so.

As a result, I feel it is only responsible to report that a couple of weeks ago my brother came over to my apartment with a copy of Django Unchained that he got from Redbox. Naturally, I had to watch it. At least I can say I did not actively go out and seek the movie and have not paid any money to support it on principle.

However, this viewing did give me a chance to compare my views before I had seen it with how I feel after having seen the movie.

So I’ll start with the Django positive first. After watching this movie I can say that Quentin Tarantino has proven himself to be very adept at reproducing old pulp fiction. Whether it be Blaxploitation, Kung Fu movies, pseudo gangster movies, or Italian westerns, Tarantino has shown that he can put a very interesting new millennium spin on. In terms of the directing and cinematography of Django Unchained it was superb. It was every bit the type of western it was intended to be.

The acting was also superb. I felt that Jamie Foxx, Samuel L. Jackson, Leonardo Dicaprio, and Christopher Waltz did an excellent job with the material they were given.

However, the material itself is where the movie takes a turn for the worse for me. My first issue was that there were sections in the movie that were comical. Obviously at first glance that doesn’t seem like a bad thing, but I just have a real issue with any movie made about slavery that has comical elements. Slavery wasn’t comical and although slavery is outlawed in the United States, the effects of the system still remain. Does such a movie help to raise awareness of the horrible circumstances of slavery and thereby help to address some of the consequences, or does it simply help people to dismiss the whole matter as something that happened way back in the past and something that is now okay to laugh at? I suspect the answer is the latter.

My next issue is with the character of Dr. King Schultz played by Christopher Waltz. The fact that the character’s name is Dr. King is only one of a few ironic twists Tarantino puts on the character. In my humble opinion, the character was a caricature of current mainstream sentiment. In other words, it was to say what if the modern White mindset was personified and transported back into the South during the era of slavery? How would they act? Would they cower and conform to the system or would they use every opportunity they could to undermine it while somehow remaining exempt from any real consequences of their rebellious activity? What better way to convey this message than in the form of a foreign bounty hunter who looks at the system with bemused detachment?

I viewed Dr. King Schultz as an empty vessel for the sentiment that American mainstream society knows slavery was wrong and wishes they would have done something more about it.

spoiler alert

Therefore, even though this movie is kind of marketed as a Black revenge fantasy it’s really more of a White revenge fantasy. Observe the imagery. Django just wants to save his woman, and is willing to assume any role he has to in order to do it. He is freed by Dr. King, who then offers to assist him in getting his woman. He also generally teaches Django how to function in society as a free man. Finally, when confronted with the horrible reality of slavery he killed the plantation owner himself, essentially blowing Django’s chance to get his woman without spilling a lot more blood. Of course this was a vehicle to allow for the gratuitous amount of blood spilling we’ve become accustomed to in Tarantino productions, but the fact that Tarantino chose to do it this way is worthy of note.

I think this is partially the reason why Will Smith turned down the role of Django, it’s already well documented that Will Smith wanted Django to kill the plantation owner and I believe if this were a Black revenge fantasy that is exactly what would have happened. But being that this is a fantasy about how Whites wish they could take back slavery, the White bounty hunter got to kill the plantation owner.

This also brings me to the last section of the movie. Since the plantation owner was already dead, it left Django to finish the dirty business of killing off the Uncle Tom character of Stephen. While this was celebrated by many, I was actually dismayed. If this was truly a movie about Black liberation why does it end with one Black man killing another Black man as a consequence? The system of slavery was created by Whites to oppress all Blacks and although Stephen was a rather depraved character it stands more to reason that he was a product of the oppressive environment he inhabited. If Django is truly an agent of Black liberation, then why couldn’t he find a more productive way to resolve the system than to simply kill another Black man who was caught up in it?

Of course in Django is not that evolved as a character and perhaps one could argue that Quentin Tarantino’s movies aren’t that complex in the first place. But if that is the case then was Django really unchained at all?