Brilliant masterpiece or irresponsible filmmaking? A review of Django Unchained
by John Caruso
American Director Quentin Tarantino’s latest offering, Django Unchained plays out as a spaghetti western revenge fantasy set in the antebellum Old South instead of the Wild West. Like Tarantino’s other work, this film seems to be primarily concerned with demonstrating its own coolness, from its sharply witty dialogue, to its everything-goes soundtrack, to its lovingly shot cinematography, to its slow-motion explosions of graphic violence. As its several Oscar nods testify, the larger-than-life spectacle of Django Unchained represents precisely the type of film that puts butts in seats, even with a Christmas Day opening.
As always Tarantino puts his cultural obsessions on full display, with the result that this film will no doubt prove to be as thoroughly adored by his fans as it is reviled by his detractors. Fellow American director Spike Lee, himself no stranger to making racially charged films, has famously refused even to see Django Unchained on the grounds that it is “disrespectful” to those who suffered slavery. Even in the pages of Portland’s own cooler-than-thou hipster rag Willamette Week, Matthew Singer (“Unchained and Unrestrained”) has reluctantly admitted the film has super-cool cache before settling in to ask of its director: “But has he made a responsible film?”
That’s a hard question to ask about a mainstream American film. But in fact exactly these types of questions have been at the core of discussions about art for centuries and have particularly vexed Americans at least since the antebellum era, the same historical period Tarantino views through his own anachronism-tinted lens. Is the purpose of art fundamentally didactic? That is, should art be “responsible” to teach us proper moral lessons? Or must art exist essentially on its own terms representing simply art for art’s sake? As you can guess without even going into the history of aesthetics, these questions of morality signal some very fundamental issues about art and its social functions.
We’re unlikely to sort through the myriad issues here. But since the question of morality is one that viewers and reviewers keep asking about Django Unchained, clearly at some level the moral implications of this film need to be addressed. But first, let’s take a slightly closer look at the film it’s being asked about.
In the title role, Jamie Foxx finds himself suddenly freed from slavery by a German immigrant named Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) who has turned from dentistry to bounty hunting. Although he despises slavery, Schultz needs Django’s help to find three outlaws. He pays off a pair of odious slavers money for Django but then promptly gets him a horse and frees him. Then after enlisting the former slave’s help on one job – a job that entails killing three white men on a Tennessee plantation no less – Schultz invites Django to partner with him and collect more bounties. After Django accepts, Schultz teaches him how to read, how to shoot, and most importantly how to play the various roles he will need to take on as a bounty hunter. In fact, in many ways this idea of play-acting drives much of the film’s tension for its central characters – the disjunction between appearance and reality.
Consider one of the film’s most brilliant and ridiculous images. Schultz rides around the countryside in a horse-drawn wagon crowned by a big plaster tooth, an enormous molar that bounces around on a spring attached to the top of the wagon. The absurdity of that bobbing tooth is one of the films most delightful touches. It’s vaguely anachronistic and deliberately strange, just like Schultz himself who hasn’t practiced dentistry for years. He’s gone from removing rotten teeth from people’s mouths to removing rotten people from society. Schultz makes it a point that he doesn’t attempt to capture these criminals because doing so would presents him with too much personal danger. Instead, he just kills them outright and turns in their bodies for cash. Schultz goes about this brutal profession with a knowing grin and snappy patter worthy of a Raymond Chandler novel. Not only does this demonstrate his unassailable cool in the Tarantino universe, but it also underscores his position as an outsider.
Schultz’s first name is telling here too. King, like a king, recognizes that laws are essentially fiction but he’s a consummate manipulator of those laws to his own advantage. Throughout the film, Schultz often makes a point of following the letter of the law, using such legalities and social fictions as a form of domination. Clearly, Schultz does not respect the “law” of the South’s peculiar institution and this is precisely why he sets about helping Django to subvert it.
Django, on the other hand, despises even the appearance of such “law.” He plays along only in so far as he must to save his own life and the lives of those he cares about. Like Schultz, he recognizes that the “law” is arbitrary and cruel. However, because one cannot finally work revolution from within the system, ultimately Django must become an “outlaw” to rescue his beloved and to enact his revenge. This playing of roles has revealed to him, and to the viewer, the way in which even seemingly natural social orders are always essentially fiction because they are founded on imaginary constructs. In order to liberate those oppressed by such ideologies, the entire edifice must be razed.
By playing out its fairly standard western revenge fantasy within the context of the antebellum South, Django Unchained achieves triumph for its hero, and by extension vindicates and cinematically avenges those who suffered under the holocaust of American slavery. And it accomplishes this feat by subscribing to that same credo of racial empowerment that Spike Lee himself has espoused – “Uplift by any means necessary.”
But is Django Unchained moral?
Indeed, it is not. To achieve its artistic goals, this film can’t accept such constraints because ultimately art that is deliberately “moral” always shades into the moralistic. What we term “morality” in such contexts tends to refer to the unquestioning didactic support of the artist’s own social values. This is why Triumph of Will, Leni Riefenstal’s masterpiece of Nazi propaganda remains the ultimate example of a moral film – it recites for its viewers the lessons they should already have learned so well. For the same reason, many of Spike Lee’s films, such as Jungle Fever and Bamboozled can be seen as moral films. They tell us how we’re supposed to think about race. Of course, Lee is too smart of a filmmaker to make pure propaganda, which is why his best films continue to interest us and provoke important cultural discussions. But the impulse, by Lee or anyone, to limit films to expressing pre-approved moral messages, whether those ideas are about race or American history or whatever, is frankly troubling.
This film shows us what was or should have been the cultural results of the Civil War – black heroes rising triumphantly against their white oppressors. Instead, American filmmakers gave us such enshrined classics as Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind, films that have tended validate or whitewash America’s evil past. For whatever historical inaccuracies it contains, Django Unchained stands as a corrective to such earlier apologia. It might not be Amistad or The Color Purple but I agree with Bob Cesca’s assessment that this difference is why Django Unchained is one of the most important movies of the year – precisely because it will be seen by such a different audience than those which that saw either of the other films. Instead, this film shows the ugliness and violence of our national conflicts in all their horrible majesty. It pits the most treasured of American ideals, those embodied in the gun slinging western hero, against the of the most egregious of America’s offenses against its own notional identity, the institution of human slavery.
Django Unchained stands forth as a truly brilliant film, a deeply American masterpiece of contemporary cinema.
A 19th-century Americanist and textual scholar, John Caruso teaches at Marylhurst University in both the Department of English Literature & Writing and the Department of Culture & Media.
Photo: daysofthundr46 via Flickr, Creative Commons