The “D” is Silent, Hillbilly

If the theme of subjugation has a spectrum, Quentin Tarantino has cleanly bookmarked both ends of it in the latest installment in his already notorious career as a filmmaker.  If we see a bedraggled and weary row of black slaves being led through the desert in the opening credits, there’s a good chance that we’ll encounter its blood-steeped anti-thesis by the end of the third act.  And if we know anything about the writer and director, we can be relatively certain that the agent of this plot-shift will be a carefully engineered retribution.  Enter Tarantino, revenge flick aficionado.

In a bold attempt to merge both genre and content, Django Unchained discriminately borrows influences from a messy juxtaposition of spaghetti western, Blaxploitation, samurai epic, and historical narrative with enough flying bullets and squib-bursts to give it a darkly comic feel. The effect is original, and brings a slightly surreal flavour to the story-telling.  We’re witnessing the familiar backdrop of the South pre-civil war, but it has a tint to it that lets us know we’re looking out from the other side of the mirror.  It manages to sustain a sort of alter-ego retelling of a contentious period in American history, but rather than muddying the protagonists of Dr. King Schultz (played by the inimitable Christoph Waltz) and Django (a hardened Jamie Foxx), it gives them a unique setting to develop their exceedingly contrary characters.

After freeing Django from his would-be slaver overseers on the condition he assist in identifying three known criminals known as the Brittle Brothers, Dr. Schultz proceeds to take Django under his wing in what we fear is a tired master-apprentice motif symptomatic of the western genre.  The clincher is that Django doesn’t start off as a weak character – he’s a marksman from the moment he picks up a gun, and his torment under the regime of white men’s whips makes him a harder killer than Schultz ever will be.  As Django remarks with cavalier stoicism, “He just ain’t used to seein’ a man ripped apart by dogs is all.  I’m just a little more used to Americans than he is.”

In many ways it produces a static character, one whose restraint barely holds against the bourgeoisie protocol of Mississippi plantation owners like Monsier Candie (DiCaprio flexing his inner villain).  But while he may not suffer the same oppositions in his character – he’s unflinching in his determination of who gets shot and who don’t – we still love to watch him experience opposition in the form of boorish, uneducated, had-it-coming hired guns with Winchesters.

As with all of Tarantino’s films the dialogue is stylized and stark, whether it’s wavering between Django’s trademark retorts (“I like the way you die, boy”), Schultz’s humorous matter-of-fact sentiments (“My good man, did you simply get carried away with your dramatic gesture, or are you pointing your weapon at me with lethal intention?”), or Monsier Candie’s heated analogies (his take on phrenology).  It echoes the austerity of the landscape and cultural framework that the movie moves through, not always pleasantly.  The dramatic irony strung through some scenes makes you squirm.

From a technical standpoint, Django Unchained deserves its accolades.  The criticisms, on the other hand, seem to be (pardon the pun) black or white – some hype it as one of Tarantino’s best films to date, tackling an issue of race that’s generally been swept under the carpet in popular culture.  He’s usurped the hereto white male domain of the classic Western with a black ex-slave out-for-blood underdog.  But the film stacks its morality too evenly – you’re either decent or you’re scum, and as a result we lose some of the complexity of the interplay between the two.  There’s no real “grey” character, although Schultz comes close.

The main opposition to the movie seems to come from those who oppose the gratuitous violence Django showcases, and those who feel that, rather than discouraging racism, it has advertently promoted it.  True, we’re just seeing a flipped card – Django is unremitting and indiscriminate in his methodical HK-style shoot-outs and executions of any character remotely linked to the slave trade.  We have a black man backed up against a wall, and rather than submitting to the garish Hannibal Lecter-esque muzzles that we see on slaves throughout the film, he’s fighting back without the crutch of mercy.

Personally, I think there’s some credit due in Tarantino’s attempt to establish a black icon next to white pioneers of the Western (Southern?) genre like John Wayne and Clint Eastwood.  As a filmmaker, he’s always been adept at putting a microscope over things we don’t always want to look at critically.  At the same time, if we don’t see this icon as multidimensional, if the violence he doles out doesn’t have some sort of context, then what was the point?  And even if you do hit smack on the nose, there’s always going to be contention when a white guy tries to tackle the issue of black segregation – because he doesn’t “get it”.  He won’t ever “get it”.  Because the white guy doesn’t have the same legacy of violence and oppression, he will never truly be able to empathize.  That’s just a fact, right?

But if it is, then we’ve fallen into our own trap – because if a white North American like Tarantino is ethically obliged to avoid confronting themes of racism, then it’s only perpetuating that gap.  So, whether he succeeded adequately or not (and I’m not saying one way or the other), I have to tip my hat to him for choosing not to tread lightly, for igniting a dialogue that even half a century post-Civil Rights Movement has been pussy-footed around like a bear-trap.  So, thank you Mr. Tarantino for sticking your foot in it.

  • Geoff Cohen

    Great review. However, it feels alittle late, seeing the movie came out at Xmas time.