I have to face it: Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained” is his most entertaining piece of moviemaking since “Pulp Fiction.” Some of it, particularly in the first half, is excruciatingly funny, and all of it has been brought off in a spirit of burlesque merriment—violent absurdity pushed to the level of flagrancy and beyond. That’s the place where Tarantino is happiest: out at the edge, playing with genre conventions, turning expectations inside out, ginning up the violence to exploitation-movie levels. The film is in two parts: the first half is a mock Western; the second is a mock-revenge melodrama about slavery, set in the deep South and ending in fountains of redemptive spurting blood. “Django” is a crap masterpiece, garrulous and repetitive, rich with jokes and cruelties, including some Old South cruelties that Tarantino invented for himself. It’s a very strange movie, luridly sadistic and morally ambitious at the same time, and the audience is definitely alive to it, revelling in its incongruities, enjoying what’s lusciously and profanely over the top.
What’s even stranger than the movie, however, is how seriously some of our high-minded critics have taken it as a portrait of slavery. Didn’t they notice that Tarantino throws in an “S.N.L.”-type skit about the Ku Klux Klan, who gather on their horses for a raid only to complain petulantly that they can’t see well out of their slitted white hoods? Or that Samuel L. Jackson does a roaring, bug-eyed parody of an Uncle Tom house slave in the second half? Or that the heroine of the movie, a female slave, is called Broomhilda von Shaft? Could Mel Brooks have done any better? (“Lili von Shtupp,” I suppose, is slightly better.) Yes, we are told that Broomhilda’s German mistress gave her the name and taught her German, but Tarantino is never more improbable than when he supplies explanations for his most bizarre fancies. Some of his characters spring from old genre movies, some spring full-blown from the master’s head. None have much basis in life, or in any social reality to speak of. (Remember the Jews who killed Nazis with baseball bats?) Yes, of course, there were killers in the Old West and cruel slave masters in the South—central characters in the movie—but Tarantino juices everything into gaudy pop fantasy. I enjoyed parts of “Django Unchained” very much, but I’m surprised that anyone can take it as anything more than an enormous put-on.
Much has already been written about the movie, but I would like to add a few notes of appreciation and complaint (don’t read past the middle of this post if you haven’t seen the movie).
1. Tarantino the Rhetorician
Tarantino loves elaborate rhetoric—the extremes of politeness, the exquisitely beautiful word, the lengthy, ridiculous argument that becomes funny precisely because it’s so entirely beside the point. Remember the stiff formalities among the criminals in “Reservoir Dogs”? Or the early conversation between John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson in “Pulp Fiction”? The two men are about to kill some punks who owe drug money to their boss. They stop to chat. The topic at hand: a man massaged the feet of the boss’s wife and, as punishment, was tossed out of a window. Is massaging a woman’s feet an offense worthy of death, like adultery? The thugs have quite a dispute about the matter; they could be bishops at the Council of Trent arguing the fine points of Church liturgy. Then they go ahead and blow the punks away. That’s the essential Tarantino joke—discourse and mayhem, punctilio and murder, linked together.
“Django” is set in 1858 and thereafter. A German bounty hunter, King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), poses as a dentist and spins around Texas, speaking perfect English. King Schultz is a mannerly scoundrel. When he encounters some white men transporting slaves through the dark woods, he says, “Among your company, I’m led to believe, there is a specimen I hope to acquire.” After shooting one of the white men, who howls in pain, he says, “If you could keep your caterwauling down to a minimum, I would like to speak to young Django.” Just as he did in “Inglourious Basterds,” in which Waltz was a polite S.S. killer, Tarantino writes fancy talk for this self-amused, highly elocutionary Austrian actor. The added comedy here is that the foreigner is so much more articulate than the tobacco-stained, scraggly-assed, lunkhead Americans he meets everywhere. He’s the Old World instructing the New in the fine points of etiquette and speech while enjoying the savage opportunities of the Wild West.
King Schultz teams up with Django, a slave he liberates, played by the growling Jamie Foxx (who doesn’t always seem to be in on the joke). The two travel around the West, killing wanted men for money. Schultz flimflams everybody, and in some cases shoots the person he’s teasing, popping him in the chest with a tiny pistol. Up until the middle of the movie, Tarantino comes close to moral realism: the cold-hearted Schultz is a complete cynic; he does what he does for money. We can accept that as some sort of truth. But then Schultz risks his life to help Django find his slave wife, who has been sold to a plantation owner in Mississippi, and the movie becomes nonsensical. The vicious comic cynicism of the first half gives way to vicious unbelievable sentiment in the second half. The murderous bounty hunter has a heart of gold.
In Mississippi, Schultz finds his rhetorical equal in Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), an elegant plantation grandee who wears his hair long and his beard finely clipped, and who speaks in even lengthier sentences than Schultz. DiCaprio plays this burlesque version of power-mad dominance with overwhelming relish, stroking his locks and beard like a Victorian stage villain; he even delivers a detailed lecture on phrenology (a pseudo-science beloved by racists in the nineteenth century) with thundering passion. Candie, like Schultz, is a verbally enabled sadist; the two duel at interminable length in scenes that go on so long you wonder if Tarantino hasn’t lost the feeling for pace that seemed so instinctive in “Pulp Fiction.” The timing of the plantation scenes is slack—Tarantino turns what should be sharp into an overexplicit wheeze. So here’s the downside of his boisterous skills as a writer: when a director is in love with his own words, his judgment goes south.
2. Tarantino the Racist Anti-Racist
Tarantino uses the n-word—a hundred and ten times, apparently—in a way that whites normally can’t use it. The word is all over hip-hop and street talk, of course, but the taboo against it is the most powerful of all taboos in journalism and public discourse. Tarantino must be amused by how those who like his work, and those who don’t, can’t operate with his freedom—the freedom, he claims, an artist must have. But freedom to do what? He tosses the word around again and again. Whites say it, blacks say it. They use it functionally, as a descriptive term, and contemptuously, in order to degrade. Samuel L. Jackson, as the unctuous and tyrannical Stephen, uses the word with especial vigor as a way of keeping down all the other blacks and ensuring his own predominance. When Tarantino was criticized for this n-wording by Spike Lee, he responded that that’s the way people spoke in 1858. Well, sure it is, but how much of that talk does Tarantino need to make his point? There’s something gleeful and opportunistic about his slinging around a word that now offends all but the congenital racists. How much of this n-wording is faithful reporting of the way people talked in 1858, or necessary dramatic emphasis, and how much of it is there to titillate and razz the audience? I’m with Spike Lee on this. By the end of the movie, the n-word loses its didactic value as a sign of racism. It seems like a word that Tarantino is very comfortable with—it was all over “Pulp Fiction,” too. In his own way, Tarantino has restored “nigger” to common usage in the movies.
3. Tarantino the Genre Filmmaker
Schooled in the lively swamps of a California video store, Tarantino has always delighted people with his encyclopedic knowledge of B-movies, his delving into disreputable genres and trolling through the bottom drawers of schlock. Just a few obvious things from “Django”: The red titles and florid opening song seem like something out of a clichéd American Western from the late fifties or early sixties. The long vistas alternating with super-tight closeups and snap zoom shots render homage to the visual tropes of the Spaghetti Westerns. The black slave—Django—who revolts and kills nasty white people is a throwback to the ex-football-player-turned-actor Fred Williamson, who appeared in such films as “The Legend of N----- Charley,” and its two sequels, in the blaxploitation heyday of the seventies.
But what is there to say about any of this referencing except that nodding to old movies is no particular virtue in itself? What matters is what you do with the movie past. In “Pulp Fiction,” Tarantino transformed trash into something scintillating. In the two “Kill Bill” movies, he seemed stuck in a lunatic overelaboration of figures from martial-arts films, repeating himself endlessly. In this movie, he’s as much imprisoned by junk stereotype as liberated by it. Django turns into a strutting modern dispenser of violence—a Fred Williamson who delivers frolicsome quips before dispensing each victim. Tarantino’s nature condemns him to always go over the top. Panache above all. The comic hyping of each speech, each emotion, each act becomes wearisome (for me at least). Look at the sombrely impressive violence in something like “Zero Dark Thirty” and you’ll realize how cheap the mayhem in “Django” is.
4. Tarantino the Lover of Revenge
The basic mechanism of exploitation is this: some bad person commits repeated atrocities against the innocent. This sets the grounds for retaliation, because the good persons and their allies have reasons to take revenge. Their violence is justified. They have been provoked and abused, haven’t they? The greater the initial assault, the more deserved the punishment. That way the audience can feel happy and morally assured in the display of violence—after all, the victims had it coming. Let the blood flow in all righteousness.
In “Django Unchained,” the following is done to black people: Slave women are horsewhipped, and one is branded on her face and thrown into a closed “hot box” in the Southern heat. A male slave is torn apart by dogs (there are repeated flashbacks to this). Django himself is hung upside down naked, his genitals menaced by a white plantation thug holding a red-hot knife. Two black slaves—”Mandingo fighters”—are shown fighting to the death in a gentleman’s club. The gentlemen, in beautiful frock coats, smoke cigars and drink rum cocktails and make bets. The inclusion of all the former atrocities can be justified, since slavery depended on constant coercion (no argument there), but the Mandingo fighting—central to the plot—is a fake. There was no such thing in the slave south. As Aisha Harris reports in Slate:
While slaves could be called upon to perform for their owners with other forms of entertainment, such as singing and dancing, no slavery historian we spoke with had ever come across anything that closely resembled this human version of cock fighting. As David Blight, the director of Yale’s center for the study of slavery, told me: One reason slave owners wouldn’t have pitted their slaves against each other in such a way is strictly economic. Slavery was built upon money, and the fortune to be made for owners was in buying, selling, and working them, not in sending them out to fight at the risk of death.
Slaves from different plantations were thrown by their masters into bare-knuckle fights, which were certainly brutal, but the men did not fight to the death. As for “Mandingo,” it’s probably derived (as Harris reminds us) from a popular junk novel of the same name, by Kyle Onsett, which was published in 1961 and then made into a movie in 1975, also called “Mandingo,” which featured much inter-racial raping—it is one Tarantino’s favorite movies (as he has said), a voluptuous piece of erotic and violent trash. In other words, his love of junk has led him to mix nonsense with the actual brutalities of slavery. The Mandingo scene in “Django” ends with DiCaprio’s plantation owner giving the victorious man a hammer to finish off the loser. You hear the skull being smashed. In “Django,” all the atrocities against blacks are staged as viscerally as possible, with lip-smacking emphasis. I wouldn’t call the scenes sorrowful. Is Tarantino telling us much about slavery that we don’t know, or is he turning us on with cruelties that set up an even bloodier vengeance?
Tarantino has used this basic mechanism of exploitation in the past. There was Uma Thurman slicing her way to vengeance in the “Kill Bill” movies; the Jews performing a counter-Holocaust, incinerating the Nazi leadership in a Paris movie theatre in “Inglorious Basterds” (thanks, Quentin); the women taking care of Kurt Russell’s nasty stuntman in “Death Proof.” Tarantino is so bent on revenge that he imposes it retroactively, and counterfactually, on history. He’s indignant over the submissiveness of history’s victims, so he gives them a second shot, as it were, to eliminate their masters. As Candie gives his phrenology lecture, he holds the skull of Old Ben, a former slave who shaved Candie’s father every morning with a straight razor. “Why don’t they kill us?” he muses, and he points to bumps in the skull which indicate, to his eyes, inborn traits of passivity. Well, Tarantino gives him an answer.
In the end, Django takes his revenge, killing dozens of white men and women, and the blood explodes off the bodies in little bursts of red. We’re meant to understand that the violence isn’t “real,” that it’s hyperbolic. There’s even grisly little joke about it. One of the bad guys is used as a shield by Django, and the sap gets shot again and again, and he howls. It’s funny, in a sick way. But how many jokes can you appreciate before you begin to feel a little rotten? “Django Unchained” isn’t a guilty pleasure; it’s a squalid pleasure.
Django Unchained both entertains and emotionally unnerves you in a way that only a Quentin Tarantino film can achieve. But, unlike Inglorious Basterds (2009)that softens racial subject matter by placing it in a World War II context, Django puts America's horrible past with slavery up front and center stage in the pre-civil war west. And, like all of Tarantino's films, Django Unchained is an ironic mix of humor and violence that steadies you between the horrific and the comical, so that your senses are neither overwhelmed by the film’s violence nor lulled into denial of the seriousness of the subject matter, by its humor. Nonetheless, this fantasy, spaghetti-style western that some have called a “slave revenge fantasy” will have you pondering its odd uniting of serious social issues with the absurd, long after having seen it. And, this is exactly Tarantino’s aim.
The film has triggered much controversy over what some regard as an insensitive, humorous treatment of slavery in America’s past, like Spike Lee who is sure that the film is racist and surely will be "disrespectful to his ancestors” (CNN, Gene Seymour). Also, the novelist-satirist-poet Ishmael Reed believes that Tarantino's latest film is an “insult to the spaghetti western genre”. And, further, some people worry that the film makes you “root for Django’s overcoming of oppression, rather than a collective victory for the black race.”
I appreciate their concerns, but have to disagree, respectfully, with their points of view. The film’s use of humor isn’t designed to cover the horrifying abuse of black slaves. In fact, the film’s silliness provides a sharp contrast to its depiction of the dehumanizing treatment of slaves, and in this, actually highlights the horrors of slavery more than the film’s humor.
If you have an ounce of moral, psychological, and spiritual awareness and sensitivity, you will leave the film “morally queasy”, like CNN blogger, Gene Seymour did. This is exactly what Tarantino wants you to feel, no matter his film's entertaining format. He gives us characters who pursue their desires ruthlessly. And, although their passions and conflicts seem unique to the time, they express features of human beings that still persist. For example, most of you will find it difficult to relate to the film's sadistic Mississippi plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), who enjoys watching black men kill each other for sport (Mandingo fighting). But, you may tune in regularly to Monday night football or watch boxing matches. Or, perhaps you watch Bravo's housewives who are known for their violent outbursts and brawls. Or, you are one of the 70 million readers of the sado-masochistic best-seller Fifty Shades of Grey. You enjoy aggression in sports, literature, or television, if it is presented in a socially-acceptable context, right? Yes, these forms of entertainment are a far cry from watching black slaves kill each other for sport. But, it's still aggression, no matter its context.
Sadism seems to be an ongoing feature of human nature. Thus, no matter how far away from us in era and character Tarantino's characters may seem, their drives exist in us, if only on an unconscious, repressed level.
Tarantino shows society as stuck in a Darwinian survival of the fittest theory of human nature that shows human beings as only as capable of competing effectively in the world as their genetic makeup permits. In fact, there’s a very disturbing scene in which the cruel plantation owner Calvin Candie proclaims that blacks are inherently submissive, because of three depressed marks that characterize the structure of their brainstem.
The great personality theorist Sigmund Freud is also relevant here, as his theory of personality stems from Darwin’s theory. Freud saw human beings as inherently selfish and willing to do whatever it takes to compete effectively and to keep fit enough to stay in power.
According to Freud, your innate desire is to reap the greatest pleasure from living, by gaining an upper hand on people and circumstance. But, to avoid punishment, social rules and laws force you to consider other people’s needs and welfare, so that you have to turn your natural, pleasure-seeking desires into forms that are socially and morally acceptable, if you are to survive in a civilized world.
Hence, you have to negotiate desire with other people’s needs and social norms, to avoid punishment, social rejection, and disgrace. The compromise between the two is the best of what you can expect of life. Moreover, genetic makeup determines the ability to achieve a compromise to your advantage. This is what makes you fit to survive.
Take for example, Dr. King Schultz, and black slave Django, whom Schultz recently freed: Schultz wants the financial reward of killing outlaws and Django wants to rescue his wife Brunhilde (Kerry Washington) from slavery. But, the two are better fit together, than either is alone. Schultz needs Django’s passion and brawn, as much as Django needs Schultz’ intellect and wit, to meet their goals. So, they strike a compromise to satisfy their desires. Django bounty hunts with Schultz for six months, in return for which Schultz will help Django to free his wife from slavery.
There are many examples of Darwin's and Freud's theory of human nature, in this movie. Tarantino gets us to consider the features of human beings that make them most fit to survive. Is it brawn as depicted in Mandingo fighting? Or, is it ingenuity and intellect, like Dr. Schultz, that helps us to survive? Or, perhaps, love and passion is the best expression of human nature and that which helps us to thrive (Django and Brunhilde)? Dr. Schultz' evolution of character informs us as to where Tarantino falls on this matter.
Dr. Deborah’s Wisdom on the Matter
Is there nothing more to us than a survival of the fittest mentality? I don't agree completely that our sole motivation is to stay fit enough to compete effectively. It’s true that you will do what you have to, which includes subscribing to social rules and laws, to satisfy some desires. Take for example, you are hungry and want to eat. You will get a job and buy food, rather than steal it, to avoid punishment. This is the aspect of social and moral development that shows that you have learned how to negotiate desire with norms. But, it's not the most advanced expression of human development. Darwin and Freud understood the most basic drives of human beings but didn't theorize well as to humankind's drive for deeper psychological and spiritual meaning and purpose. Freud would have us think that even these loftier pursuits can be linked back to a selfish desire to feel good about yourself. For example, in Freud's theory of human motivation, Mother Teresa's desire to help needy and suffering people is more selfish than selfless. She does so to feel good about herself, because her real desire is to ignore rather than help needy people. Freud suggests here that selfless action is more masochistic than it is emotionally developed or spiritual because the manifest behavior is the complete opposite of the true desire. To me, it's a convoluted attempt to justify every action through his theory's main idea that we are hedonists at our core. But, I will let you decide what you think about this.
You cannot live healthily or happily by living solely to satisfy your own needs.This is what Schultz discovered by freeing Django. He discovered in himself desires that were greater than material reward. Django's burning desire to rescue his wife Brunhilde from slavery, at all costs, gave Schultz hope in something greater than himself. This is what unchained Schultz from a survival of the fittest mentality and allowed him to start living by his deeper principles.
Thus, not all behavior is motivated by a desire to avoid punishment and social disgrace. You are not narrated into structures and theories of personality. YOU are the narrator of experience; you are able to rise above competitive expressions of human behavior, because YOU, rather than your impulses, can decide.
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