Tarantino’s Django Unchained: Slavery and the Wild West

One way of reading Tarantino’s movies is to hear them asking us if we’ve looked at the world lately.  Not because they are realistic but because the world isn’t.

— Michael Wood, London Review of Books, July 20, 1995

The combination is not as peculiar as it might sound – a freed American slave who rights wrongs with vengeful thirst, albeit in the manner of a gunslinger and bounty hunter.  But with Quentin Tarantino, a degree of contrived idiosyncrasy is always required.  This is an extension of themes explored in Inglourious Basterds, where the viewer is teased, reminded and coaxed into thinking of his sources, not to mention previous labours.

In Django Unchained, Django (Jamie Foxx) becomes the exterminating angel, or, in this case, the Siegfried in search of his beloved wife, the enslaved Broomhilda played by Kerry Washington.  (Another Tarantino contrivance – the German name Brunhilde morphs into clownish reference, the result of Anglo-Saxon ignorance.)  His assistant of circumstance is a former German dentist who prefers to conduct a more profitable line of surgery: bounty hunting.

The colourful literate and very lethal Dr. Schultz (Christoph Waltz) sees it as his duty, one of patriotic and cultural sensibility, to aid Django in this quest to rescue Broohilda from the plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). He has found, in Django, mythology made flesh.  He has also found a means of adding to his ledger of valuable corpses, liberating Django through making short work of his captors, and using his knowledge of various unsavoury characters.

Noble vigilantism is given its bloody queue, something that is practised by all sides from slave owner to freed slave.  The debate on principle is short, even if Tarantino might be searching for some clear moral tale.  The bounty hunters go about accumulating corpses of value under the remit of “officers of the court”; the slave owner, reflected by such individuals as Candie, goes about his business of finding mandingo fighters and treating the black world as one of lashing labour and gladiatorial spectatorship.  As Schultz admits himself, everyone is in the business of making money out of flesh, one way or the other.

Each time Tarantino introduces the confrontations he has come to cherish (Reservoir Dogs, Natural Born Killers, Kill Bill), the viewer knows that there will be a High Noon as a blood splattered orgy of culmination, a teenage boy’s fascination with the toy gun that turned out to be a real one.  Each, however, has a twist of horrendous bad luck, something which Michael Wood notes in the London Review of Books (Jul 20, 1995).  Pulp Fiction perfected this – the couple who attempt to hold up a café frequented by two far more adept killers; chance meetings of enemies on streets; unsuspecting refuge in a pawnshop run by disturbed hillbilly types; an accidental shooting in the back of a car.

These moments have become self-mocking.  At one point, a wounded person gunned down by Django in the Candyland mansion stays prostrate for the duration of the scene.  He is repeatedly hit in the leg by men from his own side, even as he howls.  The audience, or at least the one this critic managed to find himself in, roared with laughter.  This is vaudeville in the morgue but as Tarantino has himself pointed out, “it also happens”.  And, importantly, those who truck in violence can be witty – be it the Klansmen who find themselves complaining about the slits in hoods, or even the phrenology mad Candie who threatens to brain Broomhilda before Django and Schultz.

That slavery was an institution that rendered its subjects actors in a brutal stage play provides Tarantino with material he might have done more with.  The greatest success of any oppressive order is complicity, the acceptance by the oppressed that the order is not only natural but immutable.  Luxuries are confused with rights.  Samuel L. Jackson’s Stephen, Candie’s permanently suspicious butler, accomplishes this picture with frightening and skin crawling skill.

What tends to stand out in odd fashion is Tarantino’s portrayal of mandingo fighting, where the purchased slaves fight to the finish in gladiatorial style.  Here, comic book violence ceases to touch upon reality at all.  After all, it jars with the fact that the durability of any slave system, notably that which functioned in the American south, was the need to preserve slaves rather than destroy them.  As Edna Greene Medford of Howard University suggested, “It’s a stretch because enslaved people are property, and people don’t want to lose their property unless they’re being reimbursed for it” (Next Movie, December 25, 2012).

There is always high principle in the murkiness of a Tarantino script, even if it tends to get waylaid. Schultz insists, despite his murderous ways, that he is operating a decent enterprise of moral hygiene and self-interest. Candie might allow a slave to be torn to pieces by dogs, but he is also a stickler for Southern convention – by all means, you will pay the promised fee for a slave, but you must shake on it even if the law is silent on that subject.  Good and evil do their merry dance, and the wicked ones always get the superb lines.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com. Read other articles by Binoy.