Django Unchained (2012) gives us a superhero in place of a slave. It’s a film that mocks racism, slavery and white supremacy in the most masturbatory way possible. The point is that people can go to the movies and see Jamie Foxx kicking a slave-owner’s ass, or see the KKK fumbling with their masks. A lot of people see this as some sort of biting social satire. I disagree. I think it’s a kind of misplaced catharsis for some of our country’s most shameful history. The idea is that if we elevate a slave to the position of a vigilante, we are empowering black people.
Django gets freed by a bounty hunter and offered a job working alongside him. The bounty hunter is named (and I’m not making this up) Dr. King, and he’s just about the nicest bounty hunter in the entire world. He’s white, but he detests slavery and he’s so heartwarmingly moralistic that he and Django become best friends and go on the road together. Eventually, he sacrifices his life to save Django. Dr. King will kill any of the uneducated, inarticulate, tobacco-spitting rednecks he meets along the way without batting an eyelash, but his heart just melts at the thought of Django being unfairly persecuted because of his race. I imagine this character is meant to represent the way a lot of people feel they would have behaved if they had been born during the time period. They would have gone cross country in a wagon freeing slaves and killing criminals.
There’s a moment in Django when Dr. King and Calvin Candie discuss Alexandre Dumas, the author of The Three Musketeers. Dr. King speculates that Dumas would not have approved of Candie’s decision to feed one of his slaves to a pack of dogs while he was still alive. Candie inquires, “soft-hearted Frenchman?” to which Schultz responds, “Alexandre Dumas is black.” At this point, we the audience are supposed to fall out of our chairs, because it’s just so badass. If you take a step back from this, you realize it only happens so the audience can feel comfortable in their belief that slave-owners were uneducated idiots.
Tarantino is not afraid to show us slavery at its most violent, and he deserves some credit for that, but people assume because he’s willing to portray the harsh realities of the Antebellum South, his movie is more honest than others like it. I don’t think that’s necessarily true. I think Tarantino just likes gore. The story doesn’t adhere to any kind of need for historical accuracy, so why should the violence? The characters’ use of anachronistic slang like “[that] don’t mean shit” and “hello my ass” suggests that authenticity extends only far enough for the dialogue to remain Tarantino-esque.
The real controversy of the movie, of course, is its handling of racism. Tarantino has taken a lot of flack over the years for his use of the n-word in his scripts and he is frequently accused of being racist. I have always respected the way he defends himself in the face of such fierce opposition, but this movie (I believe) takes away from that sentiment. It’s a historical apology film. So was Inglourious Basterds (2009), but it was done a lot better there. The difference with Django is that Tarantino has a much more active role in the teaching of his lesson. He has made a film that’s anti-racist to the point of being sugary. Do I think Quentin Tarantino is a racist? No, but can something like Django Unchained really work as a meditation on the implications of slavery? Is it really emancipatory or is it just a liberal teenager’s wet dream? Maybe it’s both, but I didn’t walk away from it feeling very sure.