Tuesday, January 15, 2013
The Social Implications of Tarantino's Django Unchained and Why It Matters
Labels: Movie Reviews
Django Unchained left me in stitches.
Yes, there was the side-splitting, fall-out-of-your-chair comedy delivered masterfully by Samuel L. Jackson and Christoph Waltz. But there was something else that cut at me. It wasn't deep enough to hinder my enjoyment of a truly excellent film by Quentin Tarantino, but there was a scar I couldn't help picking at in the hours after I left the theater.
It all started with one scene. Django, played by Jamie Foxx, is sitting with Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) in a cave after having killed the three brothers they were looking for. Django is a slave that Schultz rescued so that he could assist Schultz in the capture of the aforementioned brothers. During their time together, Django shares with bounty hunter Schultz that he is married to a fellow slave who happens to speak German. Schultz is German, and explains that her name, Broomhilda, comes from a well-known German tale. The camera shots during the telling of this tale frames Django below Schultz, looking on with wide-eyed wonder as the man who secured his freedom tells the story. Even those not well-versed in film theory could see the underlying power dynamic established in that scene alone.
The film is titled Django Unchained, but there were times when I questioned how much the film was about that character. It seemed as if the film belonged as much to Christoph Waltz as it did to Jamie Foxx. It could be the issue of acting, but still, something about that didn't seem right, not to take away from any of the performances, of course.
I'll reiterate that Django Unchained is an excellent film that has enough gore and humor to make the two and a half hours worth it. I commend Quentin Tarantino for telling an excellent story and not pulling any punches regarding its source of inspiration.
However, I still found myself troubled by how inconsequential Django was in his own story. The majority of his agency stems from a white man, from his release from bondage to his brand-new career as a bounty hunter. Even the film's resolution, which I won't ruin for those who haven't seen it yet, owes a considerable amount to Dr. Schultz. Although Dr. Schultz is a "good guy", a foil to the evil Mr. Candie, he is still white, which means that he still benefits from the institution of slavery, and admits as much to Django in their first conversation. This also means that Django is still indebted to a white man, although the terms are a lot less severe. This debt is resolved in the film's third act, in typical bloody Tarantino fashion, but it remains that it existed in the first place. As a young black man watching this film, about a slave exacting his revenge against the institution that caused irreparable harm to him and countless others, it bothered me how much of that revenge was made possible by a white man.
I completely understand that Django, like other Tarantino films, is an extension of his wonderfully twisted fantasies and maybe shouldn't be delved in too deeply or taken too seriously. Unlike Spike Lee, I also wasn't bothered by the liberal use of the N-word because that was a reality of slavery back then, as were the whippings and the scars that were also present in the film. I just would've liked to see Django being more responsible for his agency throughout the film, serving a more equal and powerful role to Dr. Schultz.
Then again, maybe it would have been too beyond the scope of reality. Much of the film is beyond that scope, but it is an undeniable and harsh truth that the agency of blacks, especially in comparison to whites, was nonexistent during slavery, sans an infinitesimal few. Yes, Django Unchained is blood-soaked, hilarious, and excessive in every possible way, but it is surprising because of the indelible scars that it has and will uncover in the collective African-American consciousness, the same scar I was picking at watching that cave scene. In an era where the relevance of our complicated, heartbreaking past within our present seems to fade, Django Unchained is an excellent film to bring it all into perspective.