Spoiler alert! This article includes revealing plot information.
Before viewing Quentin Tarantino's new film, Django Unchained (in theaters now, starring Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Samuel L. Jackson), I had heard about the various controversies surrounding the film — and frankly didn't care about them. I am in general a fan of Tarantino's work, and the provocative elements of his movies (violence, nudity, other profanity, historical inaccuracy, genre-bending) are nothing new. What Django does a little differently is take disparate American narratives and genres and blend them in a style that that some have taken offense to.
The most widely quoted judgement on the film came from director Spike Lee, who early on refused to see it on principle. Lee stated, "I can’t speak on it ’cause I’m not gonna see it. The only thing I can say is it’s disrespectful to my ancestors, to see that film." He Tweeted "American Slavery Was Not A Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western." Many have been turned away from Django, asserting that the frequent use of the N-word and "controversial" depiction of slavery were morally repugnant to them. Samuel L. Jackson responded to Lee's complaints in an interview, curtly remarking "I don't think the word is offensive in the context of this film ... Black artists think they are the only ones allowed to use the word. Well, that's bull."
Race in film is a challenging topic, and one that I am certainly interested in and sensitive to. While Tarantino's movies in the past have dealt with issues such as sexism, gang violence, and anti-Semitism, none have so directly confronted the historical and current face of slavery and racism in the United States.
From the film's opening shots, Tarantino makes clear that a central aspect of the film will be the enslavement of and cruelty towards African-Americans in the pre-Civil War South. Viewers are spared little in terms of torture or degradation. Slaves in Django are beaten, whipped, shot, branded, chained, kept in cages, and forced to fight each other to the death. In a particularly graphic and horrifying scene, one man is torn to pieces by dogs at the command of his master. When asked by Calvin Candie (DiCaprio), a plantation owner, why Dr. Schultz (Waltz) is sickened by it and he (the titular Django, Jamie Foxx) isn't bothered, Django replies that he is "used to Americans."
Maybe we aren't. No one should be. And in Tarantino's world of violence, it would be easy for these painful evocations of our nation's terrible past to be trivialized as other acts are in the film. In scenes where dozens of men and women are shot and blood coats the walls, the violence loses some of its shocking character. Instead, it becomes an almost comical comment on violence itself.
Never did I feel that the raw brutality of violence towards African-Americans in Django had this quality. I'm not sure what preserved the gravity of these scenes for me. It may have been the fact that much of the punishment doled out to the slaves was one-on-one, and all of it was unjust.
Critics have lambasted the movie's "inaccurate" and "licentious" imagining of slavery during this time period. In an article appearing in the New Yorker, Jelani Cobb wrote that "It seems almost pedantic to point out that slavery was nothing like this." Others have voiced anger over the film's lack of focus on slavery.
These opinions, though valid, are perhaps overly plaintive. Tarantino is allowed creative freedom as a filmmaker. Django never presents itself as historically accurate (in the vein of its predecessor Inglorious Basterds) or as a straightforward "slavery" movie. Instead, the film plays fast and loose with genre conventions, anachronisms, its music, and indeed with its sometimes satirical portrayal of racism. At times a somber revenge thriller, at times a rollicking adventure, Django stays (just barely) grounded in the foundations of a spaghetti Western.
All of these aspects of Django Unchained combine to create a searing portrait. But what is its statement on race?
I believe that the film's clearest moment thematically comes near the end of the climax, when the loyal and racist "house nigger" Stephen (played with bravado by Samuel L. Jackson), shot by Django after the death of his master, Calvin Candie, screams as the opulent home begins to burn. "There will always be a Candyland!" he bellows.
Instantly, the film's complicated view of slavery and race becomes a little clearer. Though slavery is unequivocally an absolute and horrible wrong, it may lie deeper in each of our psyches than we'd like to believe. The most disturbing scene of the movie is not an outrageous act of violence, but rather the way that Stephen falls to his knees and sobs, clutching at the corpse of a man who had kept him enslaved for 70 years.
The moral ambiguities of revenge and racism are unsettling. When Django assumes the role of a black slave trader to infiltrate Candyland and rescue his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), he describes himself as "the only thing lower than a house nigger." Yet he plays his part so completely that he insults the African-Americans around him with disgusting slurs and allows Candie to let his dogs rip apart a runaway slave. Are these "evil" actions justified in the search for revenge and liberation? The film does not provide an ethical answer to these questions nor to the character of Stephen. It is left to audiences to interpret the deliberate grey areas of Django.
Not to digress, but I'd like to return to Stephen's last words. "There will always be a Candyland" of course refers to the enduring legacy of slavery and institutionalized racism in the States. I believe that Tarantino's unique choice of soundtrack music, which blends traditional Southern spirituals and bluegrass music with 21st century rap and R&B, is one of his methods of showcasing the lasting and pervasive presence of prejudice. The idea that we continue to be complicit in a bigoted society that strips some of its people of basic dignity and that violently maintains an unequal status-quo is a chilling one. On this thought, Django spares further superficial commentary.
I do not think that Django Unchained is a movie that sends a "bad racial message." Rather, it thrilled me to enjoy a story where a black man is unabashedly the hero.
Unlike other films of the season that have white-washed suffering (such as The Impossible) or previous slavery films (like Spielberg's Amistad, where white lawyers fight for the Africans), Foxx is allowed to carry the film with his charisma and power as a individual both because of and independent from his race. Though the German Dr. Schultz is originally responsible for buying Django's freedom, the film strictly keeps clear of making him a kindly enlightened white savior. Django takes the reins early and holds on tight. Even to strike a comparison between Django and the 2008 critical darling Slumdog Millionaire with its almost entirely Indian cast, the latter film fares poorly, relying on its mechanism of salvation-through-Western gameshow and its rosy post-colonialist view of poverty. Django is not a victim, a bystander, or a sidekick, and the movie's framework does not trap him in a stereotype or particular character progression.
Django may not display a conventional, expected, or entirely accurate picture of race and slavery in the mid-1800s. The views are the director's own, and the story fictional. These things do not, in my opinion, detract from the potency or efficacy of the film as a perspective on the topics and their current manifestations in American culture. Django Unchained is a gruesome and offensive movie. But it did not offend me. I left the theater thinking about racism in a different way, and if a film can manage to make audiences think and be so thoroughly entertaining, it is certainly one worth seeing.