[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.