Review: Django Unchained

WARNING: There are spoilers for people who haven’t seen Django Unchained. If you still want to see this movie, don’t read this article.

I wasn’t expecting Django Unchained to have a very advanced view of race relations in America. I expected it to come down as “slavery is really bad,” and in that respect I wasn’t disappointed. I will also say that it is a very well-put together movie. Quentin Tarantino knows how to put a movie together, the problem is that he is not as deep as he’d like to think he is, and the movie left me with a bad taste in my mouth.

The problem with Django Unchained is that it is a revenge story. The plot of the revenge story is as follows. Somebody does something really, really bad. The Hero corrects this by killing the bad guy. The hero wins and order is restored. Django Unchained takes the revenge plot and places it within the context of the slave plantations of the American south. In this, we are given a thematic sequel to Inglorious Bastards, which I didn’t really like. I liked Django Unchained a bit more, but it still has much off the problems with Inglorious Bastards in that it has a troubling view of history. Quentin Tarantino is obviously shocked at the crimes of the Holocaust and the slave trade, but I don’t think he’s handling it in the best way. It’s easy for us to get angry about this and want to kill the sons of bitches who were responsible, but it is not for us to do that. My ancestors were not interned in death camps or shipped across the ocean like a sardine, then have their entire identities stripped away. I don’t know what it’s like to be socially repressed, and I am fully aware of how problematic it would be for me to do it.

There’s also the fact that, for a movie ostentatiously about black people, there is an awful lot of white person driving the plot. Dr. Shultz is probably the most engaging character in the movie. He’s articulate, has most of the best lines, and is the closest thing the movie has to a decent white guy. He also “frees” Django, but only because he needs him to track down his bounty. He openly says that while he finds the institution of slavery distasteful, but he takes advantage of it any way to meet his own ends. Django, for his part, isn’t really that developed a character. He’s basically a Nat Turner, an archetype of the Black Man’s rage against the White Man. Despite that, he is still lacking in agency of his own. He exists in the White Man’s world, despite the fact he is an agent against that world. Django is quite simply, not a very engaging character, despite the movie being about him.

The thing about Quentin Tarantino is that really, he’s not writing these stories for Jews or Black People, he’s writing them for the ancestors of the oppressors. Our culture has come to the realization that our institutions are based on a history of violence against all kinds of people, such as Jews, people of African descent, Hispanics, Asians, women, homosexuals, First Nations, forgive me if I miss anybody here. As a straight white cisgendered male, this brings up questions of my own identity. This is not to belittle the discrimination of others, quite the opposite in fact. We simply don’t know how to process being “the bad guy.” Some of us ignore it completely, and some of us make Django Unchained. Neither of these is a healthy way to come to terms with this, and I think the best thing is just to move on. We should acknowledge what happened in the past, and we should get over it. Again turning to Django as Nat Turner, we have the archetype of the unruly black man fighting against the tyranny of the White Man, in service of the White Man’s guilt at being the White Man. There is a bit of displacement with Stephen, the Uncle Tom house servant, but Stephen’s status as part of the White Establishment connects him thematically to the White Establishment. To take this to its most troubling conclusion, we have Stephen so we don’t have to see Django kill the powerful white man. Sure we see him kill a lot of white guys, but when it comes to the man we are lead to believe is the most evil man in the South, the dead is done by his white partner.

If you’re expecting a look into America’s dark heart, this is probably not the best movie, it’s too one-dimensional for that. Quentin Tarantino is, at the end of the day, an exploitation film-maker who has somehow managed to get into the big leagues, and has somehow gotten the idea that he’s got something deep to say about the human condition. In the end, Django comes off as highly problematic, but again, I was expecting it to be. If Quentin Tarantino wanted to bring up issues of race, he has only done so in as much as we can all agree that Quentin Tarantino is not cut out to be bringing up the question of race.

FURTHER READING

Surviving “Django” by Roxane Gay

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