The One Thing I Find Objectionable About Django Unchained – UPDATED
December 30, 2012 § 3 Comments
Probably no event in the recent history of film was more predictable than the offensiveness of an American slavery-themed faux-spaghetti Western by Quentin Tarantino. I’m really not sure if that’s at all significant for the criticisms themselves — to what extent does the dullness of a critique invalidate it? — but I thought I’d jot down the one thing about it I did find unsettling that I haven’t yet seen discussed.
But first, a tally. The frequent employment of the most offensive racial epithet in American history doesn’t especially bother me, and I admit I don’t fully understand the politics of its offensiveness in film. The pleasure Tarantino, a white man, evidently takes in using it in interviews notwithstanding, its function in the film is to shock, which it probably should, and to mark certain white characters as clear villains (not sure why Tarantino’s slaver character uses “black” instead other than to protect himself from criticism). It works similarly to how Nazi uniforms worked in Inglourious Basterds, to mark complicity in a social evil, rather than just responsibility for a personal one (the whole issue of collective responsibility being the biggest thematic difference between Tarantino’s “history” films and his earlier work). As far as I could tell, its significance when used by black characters to refer to each other is no more or less ambiguous than in the culture at large.
It’s also hard to care about criticism of the film’s various historical inaccuracies, or at least the fact that they exist. There were, for example, no mandingo deathmatches in the antebellum South. They refer to Mandingo (1975) and other blaxploitation movies dealing with slavery, but even these (as far as I know) hewed closer to the historical reality of slave boxing rings than Tarantino’s all-out bloodsports. The exaggeration is plainly an excuse to screen black bodies in various states of indignity and suffering while keeping the action movie genre focus, with the interesting side effect that we almost never see slaves laboring in the fields — the most spectacular scenes of violence revolve around decadent entertainments or house service. Again, as with IB, Tarantino is not interested in depicting historical atrocities but in manipulating a white audience’s reaction to their representation.
That the film fixates on the “white savior” figure, Christoph Waltz’s King Schultz, at the expense of the nominal black hero, is a little closer to what I consider to be the film’s actual obscenity. Once again, Waltz plays the libidinal center, the one who makes his appeals directly to the audience. He always has one up on everyone he meets, a seductive combination of type A fastidiousness and roguish opportunism. The normally charismatic Jamie Foxx is stuck playing the straight man. Here we have an inversion of what Robert Ray identifies as the standard two-hero structure of the Western — the law-abiding “official hero” and the more libertarian “outlaw hero” who sticks his neck out for no one, superego and ego, an opposition which traditionally resolves in a reconciliation in which the value of both “sides” is acknowledged in an unstable dialectic of social responsibility and desire, one which tends over time (especially in the revisionist Westerns of the ’60s and ’70s) to favor desire and the outlaw. As both a European and a bounty hunter, Schultz takes advantage of official legal codes and the cultural authority of “Western” liberalism to be, at one and the same time, a free agent and an enforcer of abstract “justice” against frontier (in this case Southern) customs. His fall comes when he loses his temper, in part as a result of his all-too-liberal (and mawkishly portrayed) sympathy for the plight of the slaves and in part because of his irritation at big slaveowner Calvin Candie (DiCaprio)’s ostentatious attempt to assert Southern civility over legal contract (demanding a handshake in addition to a signature). Though he is technically the mentor figure and not the protagonist, he has a character arc that combines “outlaw” and “official” in a much more interesting way than anything else in the movie is handled, and grants agency to Django, who plays the outlaw hero singlemindedly out to rescue his wife and (later) mete out revenge. In notable contrast to ’70s blaxploitation slavery films, Django expresses no interest whatsoever in liberating other slaves — in one key scene he insists (against Schultz) that a slave be eaten by dogs so as not to compromise their cover, and in a scene that mirrors his own rescue by Schultz, he only frees a small group of slaves as a side effect of freeing himself. Only in the last leg of a very long movie does conflict between white characters (Schultz and Candie) give way to one between two black characters (Django and Candie’s house slave, Stephen), a segment in which the tone shifts all the way into farce, consisting of Django effortlessly killing his enemies in cartoonishly bloody ways, over and over again.
So, not only is it the case that Schultz is the center of the film for the majority of its running time, the film can’t even keep an ironically straight face for the climax, when Django finally takes over. All of this could — maybe — be written off as so much well-meaning cluelessness, superseded by the subversive value (probably almost as effective now as in the ’70s) of a black slave hero and a German slaughtering giant swathes of white America, if that last stretch weren’t set up by Candie’s biological racist theories about the submissiveness of African slaves. With his ruthlessness and intelligence (his apparent willingness to treat other slaves as brutally as their overseers), Django proves to Candie that he is the “one in 10,000” capable of matching whites. Though he later takes this back, and his interest in phrenology is presented as kooky/creepy, it’s as if the last part of the film exists to prove Candie’s initial point — that Django really is a black superman in relation to an essentially servile race. The only reference to slave revolts is Candie wondering why they never happen. So while Schultz is the film’s primary libidinal center, Candie is its sole interpretive center — under a veil of irony (19th century biological racism is so goofy!) he’s basically telling it like it is, or like it turns out to be, without anything else in the film to contradict it.
By pointedly refusing any sense of popular solidarity on the part of Django, and by keeping him a minor character until the all-the-way-over-the-top finale, the film works hard to undermine its own premise. Its an “anti-racist” action movie in which only the racists are allowed substantial commentary, and in which the one expression of sympathy with the enslaved that goes beyond the personal is a) given to a white man and b) leads to his pointless death. If Django is a comment on American post-racism or on the history of representations of slavery in American film, its one that is at best remedial and at worst regressive on both counts, all the while extracting maximum value from the spectacle of black suffering, with only superior irony, that of the carnival showman waiting for the right moment to raise the curtain, to reassure its audience that they stand on the right side of history.
On twitter immediately after seeing this, I wondered why DU is so weak in comparison to Tarantino’s other work, pretty much all of which has more than its fair share of repulsive and/or incoherent moments. It’s even more linear and narrowly focused than Jackie Brown, with the ensemble work Tarantino is rightly praised for at a minimum. Now I lean toward thinking he lost his nerve — this is the first time I’ve seen him lose control or stumble through his chosen material. The big “mistakes” can be expressed strictly in genre terms — by importing a spaghetti Western conception of heroism, where the gunfighter is independent, uninterested in political or social struggles even if sometimes drawn into them against his will, etc., into the milieu of American slavery, he undercuts any statement of racial equality or critique of white supremacy many of the individual scenes (somewhat hamfistedly) try to make. I’m not sure Tarantino has ever let a genre speak for him in quite this way. A corollary I didn’t touch on above is that the one female protagonist is a nonentity, following authentic Western tradition, but this takes on truly horrendous significance when both members of the romantic dyad are slaves: the most important female character (one of maybe four or five total) is a black slave who has virtually no dialogue and is routinely stripped, tortured, and put on display. Shortchanging female characters is really not a critique you could make of him before DU, let alone something this crudely exploitative. A revenge Western about slavery is an ingenious conceit, addressing one of America’s deepest historical traumas while sidestepping the inevitabilities of the liberal “message picture.” It’s also probably something only a director with Tarantino’s clout and experience playing around with film history could have pulled off. Too bad then that the actual result is not only the writer/director talking out of both sides of his mouth, but also his least entertaining film to date.