In Amaryah Armstrong’s recent post at Women in Theology she points to a talk by Frank Wilderson that compares the approaches to slavery in Django Unchained and Manderlay. Wilderson argues that “My goal [was] to raise the level of abstraction from discussion of interpersonal guilt and innocence–that is, from a question of morality–to a discussion of institutional violence, structural violence, and the collective responses to that violence by people in revolt. … Manderlay condemns the US and Western Modernity by arguing that a totalitarian despotic regime and democratic socialism are one and the same to and for the slave. Django Unchained seems to believe that America and Western Modernity are imbued with certain evils which can be reformed and indeed transformed, if the right people have the right change of heart.”
I can understand how Django Unchained could be interpreted that way, but I wonder if Wilderson is not sufficiently accounting for the particular genre that the movie is working with? As Adam pointed out in his original post, it is a revenge fantasy, (in line with Inglorious Basterds and the Kill Bill films) and as such, is working within, while also subverting, the revenge fantasy genre conventions. Along with Adam, I took the character of Schultz to be a (rough) embodiment of the white liberal. His ambivalence at allowing Django to seek out his goal (saving his wife) on Django’s own terms is evident on their journey to Candyland when Django kills the slave. As they are set to leave Candyland, Schultz’s attempt to maintain his own personal integrity ends up trumping his commitment to solidarity with Django, setting off the catastrophic circumstances that leads to his own death and Django’s capture.
The character of Schultz is thus a way of working through the implications of white liberal commitment to universal equality. He temporarily gives up his position of power and allows Django to work towards his liberation on his own terms. Ultimately, however, his commitment to his own reputation wins out. How often do we see white dudes who are more concerned with their own reputation and culpability than they are with liberation? Django Unchained shows how the attempts at solidarity will necessarily run aground if the vestiges of concern for the privileged person’s reputation (I swear I’m not like those other white dudes!) takes over: the entire struggle is compromised.
However, there is perhaps a limitation to the film that Amaryah pointed out on Twitter: Is Django’s goal ultimately one of embodying white masculinity? Perhaps this points to the limitations of the revenge fantasy genre. In this (a)moral universe, the only way that Django could achieve the goal of saving his wife is precisely by enacting white masculinity better than any of the white males. This is another way of reading the death of Schultz: there can be only one white male hero.
Ultimately, I don’t think it can be denied that Django enacts white masculinity, but perhaps this points to further questions: Should Tarantino not make movies that are working out the revenge fantasy of oppressed persons (which will likely take the form of enacting the oppressor’s subjectivity)? Does a movie need to show how an oppressed person “should” respond? I don’t claim to know the answers to these questions in advance.