The trouble with Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino’s latest flight of violent fantasy, is that it’s never quite clear how seriously to take it. As Tarantino told the Daily Telegraph six years ago: “I want to do movies that deal with America’s horrible past with slavery and stuff but do them like spaghetti westerns, not like big issue movies.”
Django Unchained is exactly such a film, and the dissonance between its grave subject matter and its camp representation is its strength. It follows the freed slave Django (Jamie Foxx) and the German bounty hunter Dr King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) as they enact their bloody vengeance on the sadistic, slave-owning power elite in the American antebellum South. But it’s not quite a “big issue movie”: arms and legs fly across the screen as jokes are cracked, and blood spews forth like water in a kind of dark, farcical comedy.
In the United States, that juxtaposition has already engendered a great deal of controversy. That is to be expected from a playful take on the most sensitive subject in the American past and a script in which the “n word”—perhaps the most taboo utterance in the national vocabulary—seems to appear as frequently as punctuation. The film’s flippant interchange between the serious and the silly has confused many and offended even more. As the director Spike Lee, who publicly refused to see the film, tweeted on 24th December: “American Slavery Was Not A Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western. It Was A Holocaust. My Ancestors Are Slaves. Stolen From Africa. I Will Honor Them.”
American slavery was not a Sergio Leone spaghetti western, but the film does deserve some credit for at least attempting to remind its audiences of the real horrors that were a feature of daily life in the world it inhabits. The “n word” was used frequently and the violence that slaves were subjected to was far worse than anything that can possibly appear on any screen.
But there is a significant problem with Django Unchained, one that lies not with Tarantino the provocateur but with Tarantino the counterfactual historian. At first, there is something deeply appealing, even liberating, about the power Tarantino has given the fictional Django, the same power he gave to Jewish victims of Nazi oppression in Inglourious Basterds (2009): the power to break free of a sadistic and deeply rooted master-slave dialectic and to take revenge in a way that the real victims of the past never could.
As the New York Times film critic AO Scott put it: “vengeance in the American imagination has been the virtually exclusive prerogative of white men.” In Scott’s view, Tarantino has successfully undermined that ideology by pushing the boundaries of the “American imagination” to liberate vengeance for all, black as well as white. And the opening up of vengeance does seem to be Tarantino’s intention in Django Unchained: the film’s tagline plays on the Declaration of Independence, promising “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Vengeance” as if the third were an inalienable right.
The problem is the way in which Tarantino forces Django to exercise that apparent right. In liberating his hero from the literal chains that bind him in the film’s opening scene—in enabling him to take revenge on the men and the society that have taken his wife, his freedom and his dignity—Tarantino has ultimately made Django resort to the same technologies of violence that the white plantation owners used on their slaves.
What is worse is that this violence, the whipping and beating and shooting, doesn’t come naturally to Django: it is something he is taught by Dr Schultz, a white man. A poignant—if undeveloped—scene occurs when Django resists gunning down a slave-owner from afar, noticing his young son playing in the field nearby. Schultz tells him to continue, and he does. His instinctive humanity is stifled and he is still denied the freedom to act as he wishes, even in determining how best to enact his own revenge.
The same is true of Inglorious Basterds. In that film, Shosanna Dreyfus—the Jewish victim—takes her revenge by essentially reconstructing a gas chamber of her own, adopting the iconic Nazi apparatus as an effective means of murder. In asking a profound “what if” in both Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained, Tarantino has destroyed the reality of occupied France and the antebellum South but retained the system of violent oppression that governed each place. In other words, he may switch master and slave, but he never removes or even challenges the awful system that binds them together. He seems to afford that system an unshakeable power that still holds these victims in its grasp, even in positions of ostensible empowerment.
After all, what is that empowerment actually worth if his characters can’t quite speak for themselves? If these characters are liberated from the chains of history only to be forced into emulating their oppressors, can they really be called free? Django often says of his own name: “The D is silent.” The same, unfortunately, can be said of Django himself. At the end of the film, we have no idea what he would have done with his own freedom, had he been allowed to decide for himself. That’s not vengeance but a different kind of slavery—slavery to violence.