Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, the chronicle of a freed slave-turned-bounty-hunter’s violent quest for reunification with his still-enslaved wife, has lit up the blogosphere since its release on Dec. 25. While Spike Lee has lambasted Tarantino, Roger Ebert has given his film four stars. Django has America talking. In fact, we’re doing a bit more than talking. We’re debating, we’re comparing, we’re reexamining history.
With this most recent blockbuster, Tarantino has asserted that most Americans have not confronted slavery – that is, have not taken the time to reevaluate the American identity, collectively or individually, in light of its cruel construction on the backs of dehumanized blacks laboring against their wills. We have not considered slavery as, for example, the Germans have considered Nazism. History does not seem to weigh as heavily on American shoulders as it does on others.
Tarantino’s previous effort at the helm of Inglourious Basterds (2009), the Nazi revenge fantasy that culminates in the revelation that we, the audience, have been the real fascists the whole time, suggests what he thinks about white, middle-class America’s historical culpability in these terms. However, in Django, Christoph Waltz redeems the “German genius” with his portrayal of Dr. King Schultz, the philosophical and gentlemanly German bounty hunter who plays opposite Jamie Foxx’s Django. In this way, Tarantino’s art is for the good. The buzz surrounding the film has kicked off a long overdue reconsideration of the American empire and its sometimes insidious actions.
Leonardo DiCaprio turns in possibly his greatest performance yet as Calvin Candie, the racist, pretentious and narcissistic plantation owner who shows that slavery made monsters out of the most educated men, while Tarantino effectively wastes Kerry Washington’s talents as she spends most of the movie crying or appearing silently in Django’s dreams. However, the high entertainment value does not mask the fact that Django’s wild-West-style web of American historical fantasy is not as morally compelling as its director might have you believe.
Tarantino unrelentingly depicts slavery’s cruelty. One scene shows a black slave literally torn to pieces by a pack of dogs. In this way, the director shows his audience that he has grappled with slavery, that he has labored over an understanding of the institution’s evil. He essentially makes himself a moralist. Django is a morality tale that takes justice (or vengeance, depending on your perspective) as its muse. However, considering the historical moral shortcomings of the antebellum South, Tarantino’s imposed moral code is a type of fantasy. Spike Lee’s criticism of Django – “American Slavery Was Not A Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western” – rings hollow when we consider that Tarantino never claimed to have written a documentary in the first place. Foxx also makes this point in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. Indeed, as soon as we see Django wearing a ridiculous metallic baby blue outfit similar to the one worn by the child in Thomas Gainsborough’s painting “The Blue Boy” (1770), we know that the film is a fantasy. It’s an artful farce, a wishful what-if.
If Django Unchained is fantasy, then Tarantino affords himself the power to replace the historical reality of slavery with something better, something redemptive. He has the opportunity to ask questions about how America can reconcile itself to this past. Instead, he indulges in a gleefully pornographic bloodbath, literally painting “the big house” red with blood. It almost seems that the bullet-riddled human body functions as Tarantino’s proverbial “f-word;” he uses it as a crutch and it replaces more thoughtful action or dialogue. One scene actually shows Django shooting off a slave-driver’s penis as he rises from a bathtub – it’s just too much. At times, he irresponsibly turns the unbridled violence into comedy. In the theater, I found myself laughing and then wondering about what I was actually laughing at. Perhaps that is the point. Even still, Tarantino replaced the moral universe of the antebellum South with a childish desire for unrestrained vengeance. Richard Brody of The New Yorker puts it best: “the world that [Tarantino] imagines and admires, one without reconciliation, is essentially and crudely adolescent, a version of history as blood feuds in which anger begets anger and revenge breeds revenge as he watches from the superior position of the cinematic referee, at a safe historical distance” (“The Riddle of Tarantino,” The New Yorker, Dec. 28). If Tarantino wants the moralist role, he has to earn it. He does not do so with Django Unchained. However, as a craftsman of narrative entertainment, he remains unparalleled.