A first pass at Django Unchained

[WARNING: Spoilers!!! I’ve tried to put enough prefatory material that you can easily skip past it in Google Reader at least.]

From the moment I first saw the preview of Django Unchained, I could predict the criticisms from my general vicinity of the internet: Tarantino’s exploiting black suffering, he’s not giving the appropriate amount of “agency” to the hero, he isn’t using the opportunity to educate the broad public about the true horrors of slavery, etc., etc. After seeing the film, I’m convinced that all those fussy, hand-wringing critiques are bullshit. If he’d taken the advice of liberal critics, he would’ve made the kind of self-congratulatory, “morally nuanced” film that they’d show in schools in February as a token gesture. Maybe he would’ve even won an Oscar!

The one critique that stands is: “Isn’t it kind of weird that it’s a white dude making this movie?” And it is, but that isn’t Tarantino’s fault. An identical film spearheaded by an angry black man simply wouldn’t have been made, for much the same reason that our first black president doesn’t support slave reparations. Until American society stops being so deeply racist — i.e., probably not in our lifetimes — a white artist is going to be stuck in a double-bind when it comes to race. Either you bring the black experience into the conversation the best way you know how and inevitably get accused of some form of racism, or else you leave it to the blacks and ensure that it remains a “ghetto,” special interest topic — rather than the scar that runs down the very center of American history and society.

This double bind is irreducible, an unfixable problem. There’s no “right answer” to the portrayal of race for whites because and as long as our whole society is wrong. Either you remain silent, “just to be safe,” or you take the risk — and maybe create something like The Wire.

So, here begin the spoilers: it has to mean something that Tarantino casts himself in the film only to blow himself up with the very same dynamite that will blow up the plantation. It has to be important that his character doesn’t get to go along with Django on his last adventure, that in the end Django stands alone with his own scheme and his own tricks and his own unforgettable lines. It also has to mean something that the last person he kills is Samuel L. Jackson, who embodies submission to whites in the most hyperbolic way.

You want agency? Even in such a fantasy movie, where Django automatically knows how to ride a horse and shoot with uncanny accuracy, it’d be intolerable if he emerged instantaneously as a full-grown, independent man after a lifetime of slavery. That would be the ultimate liberal fantasy: to believe that something like slavery, with its continual humiliations, does not affect the core of human dignity, that it cannot destroy a person (as it does Samuel L. Jackson’s house slave). Some have worried that Django embraces DiCaprio’s “1 in 10,000” figure, but he explicitly rejects the racial/phrenological underpinnings of that statement — we can only conclude that he’s the only black man to have come to that plantation as a free man, as a man with his own ambitions whose dignity has been purposefully cultivated and supported.

One thinks here of DuBois’s “talented tenth” that would be enough to raise African-American society to a level of autonomy and dignity within the broader American society. Django’s figure represents 1% of that — not enough for a social revolution, but hopefully enough to make a life for oneself and blow some shit up along the way. I’ve read critiques that are uncomfortable that Django isn’t up for freeing slaves in general, but we vividly see how it’s not that simple. Without the proper paperwork, whatever freedom he could grant would be fleeting at best. No one watched Office Space and expressed disappointment that our bored office workers didn’t take the next step and abolish the capitalist mode of production. Why impose that impossible standard on the other’s struggle?

And this is where I think people are missing the exact thought experiment that Tarantino is carrying out in Django and Inglourious Basterds. The genre conventions that he favors all set the story in a lawless, amoral realm where there is no legitimate authority and it ultimately comes down to kill-or-be-killed. What these two films claim is that such settings exist in the real world, in our most familiar history. He purposefully brackets the possibility of “changing history” — he sets IB at a point in the war where the worst has already happened, and Django is set at the historical moment when slavery seems most invinsible and self-assured (even claiming a rigorous scientific basis!).

He also rigorously omits any grounds for moral ambiguity: there is no “good Nazi,” no “good Southerner” — in both cases, the heroes are representatives of the oppressed group (who are not morally complicit more or less by default) or else foreigners whose cultural heritage produces a kind of sympathy with the situation. American “white folk” — who, in the hilarious scene where the Klansmen are having trouble with their masks, are portrayed as being essentially the same kind of bumbling suburbanites who are present in the audience — are not redeemable in Django. When Django consents to watching the slave be eaten by dogs, he attributes such behavior to “Americans,” full stop. Tarantino gives us no grounds whatsoever for questioning that generalization, no exceptions (not even the mysterious woman with the red bandana).

What are we to make of Dr. King Schultz in this perspective? I’m going to say that he’s the liberal conscience of the film — as signalled by the fact that he initially takes advantage of the situation of slavery but declares that he “feels guilty.” The character’s entire trajectory once they arrive at Candie Land is that of growing moral outrage. Django is willing to throw a man to the dogs to save his wife — King Schultz finally can’t bring himself to shake a man’s hand. It’s fundamentally arbitrary what he’s willing to go along with and what he’s not. He can pretend to be buying a human being to subject him to fights to the death, for example, but he wants to be very sure everyone knows he didn’t fuck Broomhilda in her capacity as a “comfort girl.” (Surely his outrage that such uncivilized folk would play Beethoven is meant to remind us that his character in IB is exactly that kind of “cultured monster,” and perhaps it even allows one to wonder if the only redemptive element in one’s “cultural heritage” is that which allows for solidarity with the oppressed.) His incoherent attempt at moral integrity ultimately gets him killed and effectively destroys everything he and Django have been working for — though his death then opens up the space for Django to save himself and bring about his own personal redemption completely on his own terms.

The trajectory of King Schultz put me in mind of the Brecht poem that Zizek loves to quote, where they take account of the fact that they are dealing with a “good man” by shooting him with a “good bullet” against a “good wall.” In the limit situation of slavocracy, the “good man” must be killed — certainly Django largely winds up suppressing and even killing the “good man” in himself, sacrificing his impulsive response to injustice (rushing to kill the two brothers before they can whip a slave) in order to survive and have some hope of building a life.

King Schultz can “afford” his empty gesture, but Django can’t, not in the white man’s world where he finds himself. All he can do is use the white man’s weapons — and white men themselves as “human shields” (above all the lawyer, who takes dozens of bullets in what is surely a symbolic move). He can even mobilize white men’s guilty fascination with blacks, acting “even worse than these white folks” in order to gain their trust. He has only the narrowest space to maneuver, a space that is opened up only by the self-interest of a white man (perhaps symbolic of Lincoln’s opportunism in freeing the slaves?), and he fully exploits it, gradually (and, I might suggest, realistically) shedding his submissiveness and dependency along the way.

It’s a beautiful film — in fact, simply as a film, I think it’s better than Inglourious Basterds, which was always on the verge of being a loosely related series of vignettes rather than a coherent film. This one has an overarching narrative frame: the Bildungsroman. Indeed, it may be the best Bildungsroman ever filmed. And I don’t know if, at this moment in American culture, it could’ve been done any other way — without the over-the-top violence (each gunshot produced approximately three gallons of blood) and obvious fantasy elements to make the medicine go down.

34 thoughts on “A first pass at Django Unchained

  1. While I like the reading of Schultz as the representation of the “good liberal,” I also wonder how unnecessary his final act truly was. Obviously, it blew apart his and Django’s plan, nearly destroyed any chance at rescuing Broomhilda and unleashed an epic bloodbath, and so in this way was definitely selfish on Schultz’s part. On the other hand, I think part of what Tarantino was getting at is that Candyland needed to be destroyed. In fact, it was morally right that it be destroyed. The individual dramas of Schultz and Django pale in comparison to the need to blow that place up, to destroy it and everyone who profited from it. I don’t think it that makes Schultz any less selfish, but I do think it was in many ways an unavoidable act.

  2. Well, yes. I just mean that, at a certain point, saving Broomhilda and bringing down the plantation become part of the same goal, and I think part of what’s going on is that Django realizes they were always the same goal, and there was never going to be an opportunity to truly free Django’s wife without blood being spilt. Partially, that’s dictated by the genre conventions of the film itself, but it’s also dictated by the truth of the institution of slavery. In the real world, the US was never going to gradually legislate slavery away. Sooner or later there was going to be fighting.

    I also like that the cultural interests of Schultz (Beethoven, the Nibelung) are likely the same as Hans Landa in Inglorious Basterds. At what point does the opportunistic bounty hunter turn into the opportunistic SS officer?

  3. One thing I wonder about is that they seem to “respect” Broomhilda’s free status, at least to a certain extent. They don’t put her back in the hot box, though her sentence still has ten more days — they do throw her in a cabin, but they don’t appear to have anyone standing guard, etc. Unless I’m misreading that, it seems that they would’ve let Django et al. go if not for King Schultz’s moral gesture (indeed, up to the very end, Candie seems to think that he’s clearly gotten the better of King Schultz already and can’t even register the possibility that he’s disgusted with slavery as such). The outright destruction of the plantation only comes when it’s been subsumed under Django’s purely personal quest as a necessary act of vengeance.

    Another interesting thing: it’s only the extreme imaginative cruelty of Samuel L. Jackson’s character, who decides that the best punishment is to send him to the mines, that opens up the space for Django to escape.

  4. Also, Candie Land — the word itself includes “can die” (which no one in the movie thinks slavery can realistically do), but the game that it evokes is one in which no skill is involved, where everything is determined at random by the cards you draw. (I found a way around that as a child by stacking the deck, in what I now realize is one of my earliest memories…. Shit.)

  5. Yeah, there is a kind of fetishization of the law by the white characters: various white people Django runs into (such as the plantation owner “Big Daddy”) accept that he’s free, even if they find it strange, Schultz always makes big speech after killing a bounty about how it was his legal right to do so, Candie talks about his legal right to do what he wants with his property, and even proscribes how other freemen must act while in his house (the handshake). Successfully navigating through what is legal in this world absolves one of moral blame, or so the characters would like to think. Django recognizes that the legal system is both completely made-up and at the same time quite powerful: he breaks the law when he needs to, and uses the law to his advantage when he needs to (he still takes Broomhilda’s “free” papers with him at the end), but he never for a second believes that the law is itself a moral guide.

  6. And I love that about Candyland: we all reach a certain age when we realize that the game is rigged and some of us will never get to the Candy Castle no matter what we do. Our future political orientations are probably shaped by how we deal with that fact.

  7. Also consider Schultz’s bit of “legal advice” to the group of slaves at the start of the film–you can shoot this guy and head somewhere else, if you want to, but of course I won’t take responsibility for it. Even when Schultz knows very well the immorality of the law, he covers himself with it. But for the slaves who cannot do this, any kind of agency is identical with becoming an outlaw.

    One other thing: This is the first Tarantino film in which I remember seeing people who were really broken by the violence–the slave torn apart by dogs, or Samuel L. Jackson. I expect Django to make it through, just as the Bride did. Scars, sure, but the character himself has to come out whole. But Broomhilda puzzled me–for all the torment (and even the scars on her back), at the end she’s just there waiting to be liberated. It’s not that she’s resilient, but that in a way she’s untouched except superficially (her skin being referred to at least twice). That part of the story felt convenient to me, and I wonder what anyone else thought of it.

  8. I think the fetish of the law is a fantasy for the audience as much as the revisionist liberation narrative is–we want to look back and eradicate slavery; we want to look back and believe the law mattered.

  9. You want agency? Even in such a fantasy movie, where Django automatically knows how to ride a horse and shoot with uncanny accuracy, it’d be intolerable if he emerged instantaneously as a full-grown, independent man after a lifetime of slavery.

    There’s also the genre requirement. That the hero be a natural in the most important aspects, but raw around the edges.

  10. I think it’s just the opposite — it’s destroying our trust in legalism and formalism. The South clings to the law because it’s what gives them the “right” to own blacks. They only go “outside” the law (under cover of night, masked) in order to further enforce what for them is the law’s deepest truth.

    In a way, it’s deeply Pauline!

  11. Sticking to this idea of the characters’ view of the law, there has to be an intentional element to the characters’ inconsistent view of bounty hunting and slavery. The marshall and the property owners, even Stephen, only grudgingly accept the legality of bounty hunting. They accept its legality, but seem repulsed by it and give the sense that Schultz and Django were following the law but doing something wrong. After all, Stephen’s taunt of Django at the end is that he’s not going to be able to get away with these murders by showing some papers. He’s going to have to pay for killing all these folks.

    None of the characters who wince at the bounty killing, though, seem able to extend the same idea to slavery (legal but wrong). Except maybe Schultz. I thought he essentially committed suicide not because of his hatred for Candie and disgust for the system, but because he couldn’t live with himself any more. Maybe the similarities, when heaped with allowing the slave to be torn apart and everybody sitting around enjoying his Beethoven were just too much for him to bear.

  12. matt: i’m not sure that anyone actually thinks the bounty hunting is ‘legal but wrong’ in the movie; the logic that ‘violence is inherently wrong’ doesn’t seem to apply in tarantino movies. violence is a tool manipulated by the forces of power. the paper work of the bounty hunter and the slave are inverse of each other: the bounty hunter’s warrant is the paper that takes away the right to life/freedom of a white man in the legal order; the slave’s freedom papers give the right to life/freedom to the former slave (in the legal order). both are tenuous; both have to be carried at all times. it seems that bounty hunting, far from being ‘bad,’ is the just the logical (and absurd) end of the possible manipulations of the system of law. the law itself is absurd; bounty hunting exposes that logic.

  13. I enjoyed Django very much. But not as much as Inglorious Basterds. I never tired IB, and thought its nearly three-hour running time moved along at an appropriately brisk pace. I cannot say the same, not wholly, for the new one.

  14. Lindsey – Perhaps I’m misreading what their responses were to? The marshall certainly seemed upset at having to let them go after they killed the sheriff. Don Johnson’s character was obviously very upset that the brothers had been killed on his property, hence the posse. I had taken that as distaste for the bounty hunting, but maybe they were upset because they felt Schultz and Django’s means of carrying out the hits were a breach of etiquette?

  15. matt: i think they (the sheriff/don johnson, etc.) don’t like it because they don’t get what they want. if it’s unethical in their eyes, it’s because it’s a loophole in the law, or a place where the law turns back in on itself, and lets a black man kill a white man (or, at any rate, lets a white man enforcing slavery be killed). they don’t like it because it’s a moment where the law–which has formerly made them masters of their domain–let’s someone else have the upperhand, takes away their sovereign right to rule the plantation or the wild west town. i don’t get the sense that either of those characters finds killing or violence immoral in and of itself.

  16. But not Broomhilda’s. And the bad guy’s name is Candie. And he’s killed by a former dentist. I assume this is one of QT’s exercises in non-, a-, or quasi-significance. For example, in Pulp Fiction three male characters feature earrings rather prominently. Marcellus wears them in both ears. Vince wears one in his right ear and Zed in his left. Does this have something to do with anything? Perhaps the sexuality of the three men? Or how about the two interracial marriages in the film, one with a black man and white woman and the other a white man with a black woman? In each case it’s the man who gets to say “nigger” repeatedly, regardless of race. Any significance there? Also in PF: wtf is with the dinner party at seven in the morning?

    I don’t recall any similar things in the films between PF and Django, but aside from the Kill Bill movies I have never seen any of them more than once (and never saw Deathproof at all).

    No real point here at all. I think about these things as interesting details and not especially revelatory, but I wondered if anyone had any thoughts.

  17. Plus there’s the fact that the tooth flopping around on top of the cart is the main comic relief in the beginning of the film (parallel to the huge pipe in IB, perhaps), and it’s also the place where they put the dynamite to blow up the lynch mob, having formerly stored the money in there.

  18. Hands down this is the best read I’ve read re: Django. And while I never needed anyone to persuade me that, yes, QT made another brilliant film, I can’t get over what for me is the smell test. I didn’t see IG for the same reasons I’m not going to commit myself to this one, mostly having to do with what I will still contend is what strikes me as the combination of cynical and naïve catharsis that is so emblematic, if not of the work itself, than of the aura it projects out into the public sphere.

    For my part, I can’t get past the block that we are supposed to feel good about the cinematic mayhem. And while I find your reading of the movie itself deeply persuasive, there are 3 interrelated critical pushbacks I’d like to offer.

    [1] You write about the opening of a “space for Django to save himself and bring about his own personal redemption completely on his own terms” is precisely one of the fantasy elements that gives me pause about DU and IG. Having cut my scholarly teeth on first wave post-Holocaust literature and having grown up in that Jewish milieu circa 1975, I learned always to distrust, instinctively any such claims to “redemption,” especially personal redemption. Perhaps this frame of reference is too deeply Christian for me to want to accept.

    [2] You also write about the “fantasy elements [that] make the medicine go down.“ This also strikes me as too individuated. Re: these kinds of things, maybe I’m just being too old-school, but I would reject any such palliative, at least not in relation to the catastrophic suffering of “a multitude.”

    [3] Lastly, you ask if it isn’t “kind of weird that it’s a white dude making this movie?” But this misses a more uncomfortable point. It’s not just one white dude named QT making this movie. Again, I think this is too individuated a reading, and I find it peculiar, being a liberal myself to have to remind a Marxist, that there’s a social structure. It’s a whole bunch of white dudes making this movie, both in front of the camera and behind the camera, lots of white dudes, Hollywood producers and Hollywood money. That’s the more calculating and cynical part of the film about which I’m wondering what you think.

  19. It’s true that the whole framing of the movie is individualistic, and that’s a conscious artistic choice on Tarantino’s part — first of all due to the genre conventions of the Western, and then also by setting the story in antebellum society. We see to some degree how the system produces these individualistic impulses (above all in Samuel L. Jackson’s house slave character). In some ways, it’s eerily similar to the “divide and conquer” strategies the current ruling order uses against workers.

    It could be that I’m falling for the trap of “sociopathic comfort food” that I diagnose in Why We Love Sociopaths here. Django pushes the existing social order almost to the breaking point — indeed, arguably past it, insofar as he uses secretive extra-legal violence under cover of darkness against the whites themselves — but he still stays within its terms.

    In terms of point #3, I’m not sure I know enough to address it. I don’t think there has to be a conscious desire to display certain types of racial attitudes in preference to others — in this case, Tarantino is a known money-maker, a “prestige” director who has been granted a great deal of latitude, and there’s certainly a niche in the entertainment industry for “provocative” themes (like asking white people to cheer as a black man mercilessly slaughters their fellow whites). It seems likely to me that the system as it is set up now allows greater latitude to a white artist than to a black one. That’s completely unfair and perverse, but that’s how it is. The question is whether Tarantino is using his latitude responsibly, which of course includes asking if he’s been accountable to actual black people in doing this (and the accounts of how he handled Foxx’s misgivings about the character are encouraging in this regard).

    This probably doesn’t directly address your question, but it also occurs to me that there’s something much less individualistic about his portrayal of white people in the film, especially King Schultz. This interview where he responds to a critic who found part of the plot problematic clarifies that as good a person as King Schultz is, as much as he helps Django, he’s still ultimately a white dude who has to be in charge — he blows the whole thing up when he has to take on a submissive role. To me, that resonates with accounts I’ve read of how problematic white men can be as allies in a lot of situations (and with how I’ve behaved at some points as well, unfortunately). Where Tarantino finally comes down on the question of how whites can contribute to the liberation of blacks could’ve come from James Cone.

  20. All this is really helpful. I’m just not sure I’d give QT as much credit as I would give to you, as the critic. But that’s art, I guess. About this, I’m still not sure, your claim that “Django pushes the existing social order almost to the breaking point” if only because I think that Django is the existing social order, which never really breaks until it really, really breaks. But I’ll stop yapping now about a movie I’m not going to see. Thanks for your patience with the monkey (me) with his hands over his eyes.

  21. I’m just not sure I’d give QT as much credit as I would give to you, as the critic.

    I would. I think QT’s demonstrated by now that there’s a sophisticated and complicated moral shadow vocabulary in his tower without ground of film references, and that his origin story — the video store autodidact who absorbed it all and spit it back out — continues to lead to his underestimation. There may even be a sly way in which QT is paralleling himself to Django as the talented tenth of a tenth of a tenth — as the 1 in 10,000 artist who can do justice to this story.

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