Monday Movies Is a Little More Used to Americans Than He Is

Have you seen Django Unchained yet? What did you think?

Quentin Tarantino’s films are such excesses of signifying that I get headachey trying to write anything comprehensive about what’s becoming known as his slavery revenge epic (not entirely accurately, for reasons I’ll get to). So I’ll throw out a couple of thoughts I had and hope that by now some of you will have enjoyed it and will throw in.

If you haven’t, I’m going to spoil away below the fold. You may prefer to prime your Tarantino pumps with this seemingly unending, possibly ouroborean, Kotsko-Canavan-et-al Twitter battle royale on the subject of Tarantino and revenge. I wrote a scattered summary of my thoughts on Tarantino before IB came out, and wrote about the use of language in its first scene here (with the return of polyglot performer Christoph Waltz as Dr. King Schultz, it remains relevant). AUFS discussed IB here, in many terms that pertain to Django.

Indeed, it’s so obvious that Django, a movie by a white man about a black man’s revenge for slavery, is a companion to Inglourious Basterds, a movie by a goy about a group of Jews’s revenge for the Holocaust, that it bears pointing out both how they’re different from each other and how revenge fantasies are different from revenge.

To the latter point, Malcolm Harris gets at it sideways in the Storify linked above, tweeting “I’m sorry, if you’re being occupied by the Nazis, it’s not just ‘revenge’ to kill them. Same for slaves”. Not at all — and politically, this remains current, mutatis mutandis — but the filmgoing audience is neither occupied nor enslaved, which is what makes the movies their revenge fantasies.

Even counting Harris’s warning, neither Django nor IB consists solely of violent revenge. In IB, Shoshanna’s vengeance is the most strictly defined — she takes revenge for the murder of her family. The Basterds are on a military mission; for them, revenge is a spur and a bonus.

For most of Django Unchained, Django’s actions are more similar to the Basterds’ than to Shoshanna’s. For him, paid work — state-sanctioned bounty hunting — replaces military direction. With his first kill, he revenges himself on the overseers who scarred his wife and him for seeking freedom, but it’s only because he’s commercially useful to Dr. King Schultz that he gets to indulge at all. Still, it’s a situation that he can live with: “I kill white people and get paid for it? What’s not to like?” It’s not revenge, it’s justice — but it’s justice with a sweet revengey tang.

But then, in the second act (such as it is) of Django Unchained, Django isn’t trying to extract revenge — he’s trying to extract his wife from Candie Land, a notorious Mississippi plantation where she wound up after they were sold apart. Since their bounty hunting depends on Django “playing a part,” he resolves to play the worst of the worst — a “One-Eyed Charly,” the kapo of the plantation, the slave whose value to the master is his familiarity with slaves. And when Dr. Schultz wavers in his role, offering to buy a slave named D’Artagnan to keep him from being torn apart by dogs, Django doubles down and forbids his partner from doing any such soft-hearted thing. He won’t break character. He wants to get his wife back. And neither of them want to die in Candie Land.

It’s a struggle, of course. Twice we see Django, watching the humiliating tortures doled out to his wife Broomhilda, reach his hand for his gun. It’s hard to believe that the third time won’t result in the apocalyptic blaze of glory we all paid ten to fifteen dollars to see.

But it’s Dr. Schultz who has the itchy trigger finger. It’s not just the memory of a man torn apart that makes him slip his Derringer from his sleeve. It’s the illiteracy of Candie’s brutality. He’s a Francophile who doesn’t speak French, who named a man D’Artagnan while remaining ignorant that Dumas was black.

(As in so much of Tarantino, there’s a splendid intertextual payoff. Dr. Schultz’s original buy-in to Django’s quest is driven by its mythic resonance. “When a German meets a real life Sigfried, it’s kind of a big deal. As a German, I’m obliged to help you in your quest to rescue your beloved Broomhilda.” Dr. King Schultz’s attachment to the rescue is driven by his German-ness, which he sees as a particular efflorescence of a cosmopolitan world-spirit, uniting myth and culture. But this particular myth winds through Wagner directly into the Third Reich — it’s not hard to imagine Waltz’s Hans Landa being just as obsessed with that myth, possibly even wishing to redeem its uses by parochial, pedestrian Hitler.)

Dr. Schultz’s cultural pride ruins their chance of escape. It’s his ultimate fussiness that sets up the final, explosive showdown. As likable and capable a protagonist as he is, he winds up hoist on a kind of Nicholas Kristoffian narcissistic do-gooderism — without which he, Django and Broomhilda would have made a legal and non-lethal escape, minus $12,000.

Dr. Schultz’s death speaks to Tarantino’s overall project with these two movies. He’s rejecting high-minded justification as dangerous fussiness. Narrow your focus: not only do these killers need killing, they need killing by them what they would kill. It is a good and joyful hatred indeed.

Possibly better and more joyful — after all, the Nazis are evil enough to stand in for evil’s caricature, while Ta-Nehisi Coates has to keep reminding us that the Civil War isn’t tragic. While the Obama presidency and the realignment of 2006 changed things slightly, for years only a Southern Democrat could hold the White House, and it was an axiom of my 90’s-era Formation of Modern American Culture class that the South had won the Civil War in all but name. It’s easy to kill Nazis, but white folk walk among us still.

While the horror of the Nazi regime really only shows up in the first chapter of IB, the extermination of Shoshanna’s family, the horror of slavery is paced out through Django — the memory of branding, the Mandingo fight, the dogs. (The Night Rider scene, with Jonah Hill and Don Johnson as a pair of proto-Klansmen with eyehole complaints, will go a long and welcome way towards moving the Lost Causers from tragic figures to clowns.) Until it’s absolutely necessary to save his wife, Django intends to accept the horrors of Candie Land. Once he erases it in a rain of bullets and nitro, there’s a note of comic inadequacy in the final gesture. With no Hitler to kill, all he can do is leave with a prancing horse and his wife’s walking papers, free… to take care of his home, and his family.

Django Unchained isn’t as gleeful as Inglourious Basterds; it’s an angrier movie. Hitler is an easy target. Whiteness dies hard.


Of course, there’s more. What did you make of QT staging the final confrontation between Django and Stephen, Samuel Jackson’s savagely, tragically hilarious house slave? Is Dr. King Schultz’s name a mashup of Dr. King and Sgt. Schultz? Why does Tarantino continue to stage scenes where Christoph Waltz’s different languages work to his advantage? Is Django Unchained the least easily dismissed Tarantino film as being “about movies”?

What’s your take?


24 thoughts on “Monday Movies Is a Little More Used to Americans Than He Is

  1. There are times when I feel a definite psychological need for a good revenge ‘n’ vindication flick — specious ethnicities, human, alien, or animated animals don’t really matter all that much — and Django Unchained certainly filled the bill in a way Kill Bill never did.

    But there did seem to be a number of racial stereotypes in there, didn’t there?

  2. I wondered why there was no suspense to the Stephen/Django showdown. Stephen had no gun and was no threat even if Django wouldn’t have had a gun. As a viewer, the only question was what Django was going to do to him.

    There was what felt like a palpable racial tension in the theater where I saw the movie. The black viewers laughed much more openly at the jokes that included the word “nigger”.

  3. At The Root, Henry Louis Gates interviews Tarantino — and QT upbraids him for “his class’s” representation of slavery!

    So what you’re talking about, the way your class and people in general have so put slavery at an arm’s distance that … just the information is enough for them — it’s just intellectual. They just want to keep it intellectual. These are the facts, and that’s it. And I don’t even stare at the facts that much.

  4. Also, Richard Brody focuses on the same critical action by Schultz that I do. He winds up more ambivalent than I did, but this is what I was trying to get at:

    The apocalyptic handshake is also a sort of moral warning about the impossibility of fighting the battles of others; if Schultz’s retributive anger proved ultimately ineffective, counterproductive, and catastrophic, it’s because his revulsion in the presence of Candie ought to have been secondary to the mission at hand, a mission undertaken for the benefit of Django and Hildy. Instead, Schultz made it personal, and thereby lost his cool. The difference between Schultz making it personal and Django making it personal […] is that for Django, a freed slave, the fight is literally personal, whereas for Schultz it’s one of principle. And so his apt role is as Django’s subordinate, even if he is the mission’s figurehead. When Schultz arrogates to himself a point of honor that really belongs to Django, all hell breaks loose.

  5. I was impressed by the film, but frequently found it hard to watch–much harder than any of Tarantino’s priors. It didn’t feel much like Inglorious Basterds to me. While both slowly deviated into a fantasy world, there was a bit of almost Heart of Darkness to this one, as we saw an in a way more fantastic depiction of slavery the further they penetrated into Candieland. Some of this element puzzled me–in particular, one conversation. Calvin Candie says, more or less, “Why don’t they rise up and kill us?” and offers his explanation. Tarantino has surely done enough research to know that slave owners were afraid of precisely this, that uprising was a real threat. But in this film, there is no risk of uprising, not even from Django. Violence in the film is kept in a constant negotiation of what is within the law, from opening scene until Schultz’s final shot. That, and Django’s subsequent (illegal) re-enslavement touch off the excess of the ending. The Basterds are effectively lawless from the start. They mean to reverse the usual power dynamics and are indifferent to their own deaths. Django and Broomhilda seem to believe they cannot really live outside the law, can’t reverse those dynamics, and they want to live.

  6. adam morton: i’m pretty sure that scene’s a reference to melville’s _benito cereno_. (fwiw, overall, i think the movie is a pretty constant & masterful re-writing or engagement with some of the most powerful novels and films about slavery made.) not that you are, but i think it would be a mistake to read it as a supposedly direct (and naive) representation of a historical position. i think you’re right re: your reading of the ending…however, i actually think that’s one of the most complex and powerful aspects of the film, which is emphasized by django taking broomhilda’s papers off of king in the end. i was really struck by the film’s emphasis on the litigious nature of freedom for blacks, constantly reminding the viewer that the assumption is always that one is a slave and one has to prove otherwise via paperwork–which is a very different context than that of inglorious basterds. (much of course one could say about “passing” here as well.) i think it suggests a really different politics than that of basterds.

  7. Lindsey–Yes, that’s helpful (re: Melville). Right, I was not taking it as a naive move–it was a choice, a reference I didn’t grasp, but either way a conscious move away from history. The film won’t allow the possibility of a slave uprising to even exist, reinforcing the legal nature of the whole thing. To me, this makes sense of the film’s opening sentence–“two years before the Civil War.” That is, the uprising is yet to come, and it comes by the Confederacy initiating hostilities. “a really different politics than that of basterds”–I agree.

  8. adam m: i agree–but i think it’s trying to work with a revenge narrative plot to see what the other options for politics/resistance/imagination might be within (yet outside of) the particular contexts of the legal order of slavery, in which (for the slave), freedom can only ever be defined negatively (contra the contexts of inglorious basterds). i think you’re right that the “2 years before the war” is significant, but for me, that seems to be a way of *refusing* to see a war over the nation as the uprising. (though, based on tarantino’s comments about an imagined 3rd movie to complete the cycle w/ IB & DU, i don’t think he would dispute the fact that slaves rise-up…just that the civil war in toto isn’t the site of political uprising.) what’s interesting, then, is that the genre of revenge–and the genre of alternate history–is still constructed around certain historical limitations. for me, the movie seems to be really about how the ways in which we tell a story, imagine a history, imagine political response within that history (etc) determine our capacity for continued political response to those conditions & their legacies. that’s why so much of the movie is invested in, for example, taking alex haley directly to task and rejecting a “politics of respectability” narrative that one finds in _roots_, or reconfiguring the blaxploitation _mandingo_ movie (or playing with the Babo-shaving-Benito scene from Melville). how history is told is always a choice, and the movie seems to be contesting or validating those choices as they appear throughout literary/cinematic history, while also trying out an alternative imaginary. this is why i think it’s a real red herring when people critique the racial politics of the film based on its lack of an authentic depiction of slavery (duh!) or of its use of the spectacular. QT knows he’s making choices, but he also knows that alex haley did, too, and AH’s choices were about creating a different kind of sentimental relation to slavery (and bolstering a liberal politics). there’s also much to say about QT’s theory of violence…. well, anyway. :)

  9. Just to be clear: When Tarantino refers to Gates’s “class,” he’s talking about the slave narratives class Gates had referenced earlier.

  10. Re: “but the filmgoing audience is neither occupied nor enslaved”

    I think it might be good to reflect a little more on the reference to the present, the advance of neo-feudalism and the acceleration of the corporate totalitarian agenda in our times.

  11. The bit about phrenology and Ben’s genetic tendency toward servitude reminded me of a scene from Europa, Europa. In that, a Jewish boy pretends not to be to survive in Nazi Germany. There’s a scene where a Nazi doctor is explaining to a class of Nazi trainees that phrenology can be used to tell the difference between Jews and Germans. He, of course, calls the protagonist up and examines his skull, and uses his features to explain how they’re supposedly different from a Jew’s.

    It struck me as interesting because in both instances it speaks a bit to those in power having some understanding that they needed to justify what they were doing.

  12. A poor rationalization is better than none. Today we have a whole industry of think-tanks, double-think-tanks, and half-track think-tanks cranking out sadistic statistics to order.

  13. josh: i’m working through to see what other direct references i can find (trying to write something about this myself–and working on checking the sources now). the benito cereno was just especially obvious since it’s perhaps the most famous scene in all of literature of a successful slave revolt, and the revolt’s capacity to continue to succeed hinges on babo shaving a white character in order to control him. also, the fact that the skull in the movie supposedly belonged to a man named “ben” (am i remembering that right??)–and the skull belongs to a white compatriot of the white benito’s in the novella–suggests a much more complex reading of the phenology scene (we don’t in fact have any way of knowing whose skull he’s really reading). etc. i don’t remember phrenology in BC, but it’s all over billy budd and moby-dick and seems to operate in a similar way to the movie at least in billy budd. (also, that scene is where the “exceptional” narrative gets refuted by dicaprio’s character. . . which seems to be playing with similar themes in billy budd…but i’m not sure how far i can go with making that stick as the point of reference).

    the scene where django whips the slaver before killing him is a reference to and re-writing of the whipping scene in alex haley’s _roots_–but tarantino says as much in an interview. of course, haley’s work became central to the politics of respectability model of blackness in the 1980s (think bill cosby here), so QTs choice to revive blaxploitation and the western–70s genres par excellence–is significant: aligning the politics of the film w/ black radicalism and subversion rather than the class aspirationalism of the decades that followed.

    will see what else i come up with in the next few days and return. :)

  14. oh! and i heard someone else say it, and i think i buy it, that the schultz/django relationship follows the model of white/black homoerotic relationships outlined by leslie fiedler in _love & death in the american novel_. (pairs of men run off into the wild in order to escape the legal order that would otherwise prescribe their relationship–most noticeably in _huck finn_.)

  15. I enjoyed reading about Schultz’s “German-ness” and “cultural pride,” but I don’t think that he killed Candie because of mere “fussiness” or “do-gooderism.” Schultz and Candie are unlikely doubles. Recall that Schultz himself notes the unsettling similarity between a slave trader and bounty hunter – both deal in “flesh.” Both turn runaways into corpses, and Schultz seems to very often pose as a buyer of slaves. The difference is that Schultz is deeply cultured – he is always inescapably, self-consciously theatrical, and this holds him apart from his dark surroundings. Candie, on the other hand, seems stupidly hypocritical – his culture exists with his immoral surroundings, the mandingo fight occurring right in the parlor.

    But is Candie necessarily hypocritical? Perhaps culture can exist with barbarism – the classical sculpture in the dining room suggests that revered men have always liked to watch doomed men fight to the bloody death, and the harpist is playing Beethoven rather well. (Whatever one thinks of Schindler’s List, one must acknowledge the disturbing truth in having the German soldier play Mozart at the piano while the ghetto is liquidated.) If culture can exist with barbarism, there is no real hope for Schultz in this world, and he can’t resist self-destructively killing Candie.

    Something similar, I think, explains the final confrontation between Django and Stephen. They are doubles for one another. After all, Django has spent most of the previous time successfully pretending to be a black slaver giving advice to a white man and even convinced Candie that he is the rare “exceptional” African-American. Django thus damages Stephen’s kneecaps, mocking his subservience and the dangerous possibility that Django, who has dined at a slaveowner’s table and previously acted as a white man’s valet, might himself become opportunistically subservient. (It’s also no surprise that Stephen would know what Django is up to.) Django’s return to Candyland should be so apocalyptic that it is just as self-destructive as Schultz’s execution of Candie, but, understandably, Tarantino likes his character so much that he lets him and Broomhilda get away (but to where?).

    The interesting, and perhaps honest, thing about the film is that it offers no real solution to slavery other than apocalypse – the Civil War that is prophesied to come. In the meanwhile, there isn’t any real and lasting escape – there’s no possibility of a regenerated social order just yet.

  16. I just want to quickly add that the most unrealistic element of the film is that Django requires dynamite to “erase” the “horrors of Candie Land.” Dynamite wouldn’t have been invented yet, right? So the film seems to admit that realistically, sadly, painfully, Candie Land cannot yet be erased.

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