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?