Django Unchained: a review

As Quentin Tarantino’s new film, Django Unchained opens we see a group of manacled black slaves led down a forest path by two horseback riding slavers.  A title reads: “1858, two years before the Civil War.”  The American Civil War began in 1861. 61-58=3.  The slavers are carrying what appear to be Henry repeating rifles and those are also the primary rifles used by all the characters throughout the entire movie–either Henrys and Winchesters, lever-action repeating rifles. Henry rifles were invented in 1862, but not really mass produced until 1864.  The most popular Winchester rifle seen in most Western movies–and widely seen in Django– was invented in 1873. Nobody in 1858 could possibly have had them.

Leonardo DiCaprio plays a Southern plantation owner named Calvin Candie–we’re told that his is the fourth largest plantation in Mississippi.  Candie’s plantation, whimsically called ‘Candie-land’, has many slaves, but he seems to make most of his money through what he calls mandingo fighting–wagering on prize fights among slaves–and also prostitution, involving his female slaves. Mandingo was a 1975 film–not sure the name was known much before then. (It’s also a film Quentin Tarantino is on record as despising).  When we see Candie-land, we don’t see any cotton fields at all, though cotton was the main cash crop in the antebellum South.

What we might conclude from all this that Quentin Tarantino is an idiot who knows nothing about history, and didn’t bother doing even the most rudimentary research.  Or, we can conclude that these anachronisms and inaccuracies are deliberate, and that something else is going on in this film.

In every other sense, the movie looks like, sounds like, feels like a Western.  Tarantino himself has called it a ‘spaghetti Western.’  It looks like a Sergio Leone film, the kind of film Clint Eastwood made famous, films like the Dollars trilogy (A Fistful of Dollars; The Good, The Bad and the Ugly; For a Few Dollars More), which were made between 1964 and 1968.  In those films, a gun-toting loner (using the kinds of guns available in the 1870s) comes to a town run by corrupt and powerful men, and cleans things up. That’s also the plot of the second half of Django.  Sort of.  

Here’s the story: Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a German dentist, has become a bounty hunter instead.  He purchases and frees Django (Jamie Foxx), who joins him as his assistant.  Django rather likes being a bounty hunter (“getting paid to kill white men, what’s not to like,” he says), but really wants to free his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), who is owned by Calvin Candie. Schultz (an interesting combination of abolitionist and psychopathic killer, kind of like John Brown actually, though without the religious zealotry, superbly played by Waltz) agrees to help him. Schultz and Django nearly pull the purchase of Broomhilda, but are outwitted by Candie’s butler, Stephen, a brilliant combination of Stepin Fetchit and Machiavelli, played by Samuel L. Jackson.

Spoiler alert: Schultz kills Candie, and is himself killed by one of Candie’s men.  Django shoots various Candie-land gunmen.  Eventually, after not one but two massive shoot-em-ups, Django and Broomhilda are reunited, though the body count around ‘em is very high indeed.

In the first of those shoot-outs, Django manages to take out dozens of Candie’s men as they burst through the mansion’s main entrance.  The pile of bodies gets higher and higher. I kept thinking about the Civil War, the Bloody Angle in the Battle of the Wilderness, the Matthew Brady photos from Antietam. We can see that resemblance. Those echoes have to be deliberate–slavery was ended in this country through violence, and one way to read this film is as resolutely an anti-slavery film as it’s possible to make.

But that’s only one way to read it.  After all, Southern slavery, plantation slavery, was primarily about cotton.  The life of a male slave in the south was a life of unremitting toil, to be sure, but working in a cotton field. We never see that life at all in Django.  What we see instead is slaves being whipped (which obviously happened, but not indiscriminately–killing or crippling a slave was economically foolish), a slave being torn apart by dogs for running away (very hard to imagine, again for economic reasons), and this mandingo fighting, prize-fights on which owners would wager. I suppose that might also have happened, but it was hardly a central feature of slavery.

And of course it’s completely preposterous that one former slave armed with a six-shooter could take on maybe forty white overseers armed with repeating rifles, shoot it out with all of them, and emerge victorious.  May I suggest that a strategy of shooting six guys with one handgun, then taking one of their guns and shooting six more with it strikes me as perhaps unlikely to succeed.  In real life. Movies are a different story.  It’s basically what Clint Eastwood does in Pale Rider. In Westerns, in movies, gun shooting miracles are common-place.

Django‘s a much stranger movie than most, though. Early in their partnership, Schultz and Django kill three brothers for the bounty, but anger their employer, a plantation owner named Big Daddy (Don Johnson).  So Big Daddy decides it’s time for the Klan to set things right.  Never mind that the Klan was actually started by Civil War southern general Nathan Bedford Forrest after the war.  Before they ride, there’s an extended comic sequence, as all the Klan riders gripe about how hard it is to see out the eye holes in their cloth masks.  And one of them, with a kind of pathetic dignity, takes off his mask, and tells ‘em that his wife made all their masks, and did the best she could and if they didn’t like the result, well, they were welcome to try it themselves.  The scene goes on and on and gets funnier and funnier–Jonah Hill was one of the riders, and maybe the funniest. So what’s that scene doing here?

Watching the film, I kept thinking of Brecht.  Bertold Brecht, the brilliant German playwright, director, and theorist.  What are the main tenets of Brechtian epic?  First and foremost, the audience needs constantly to be reminded that they’re seeing a play.  Or in this case, a film.  The deliberate anachronisms, the jarring shifts in tone, the intrusive use of titles, the hard, fast zooms in the camera work; all of it adds up to a filmic equivalent of verfremdungseffekt: alienation.  The film makes use of a story drawn from myth: in this case, Brunnhilde and Siegfried, from the Nibelungenlied.  Brecht called for gestic acting–most of the acting in this film, though very good, is somewhat cartoonishly stylized. The film is built around a deliberately alienating use of history: what Brecht called historicism. And music.  Brecht included songs in his plays.  Tarantino uses musical underscoring, but again, it’s jarring; the music in this film ranges from Ennio Morricone to Jim Croce to hip-hop. What Brecht was aiming for was a kind of theatre that rejected catharsis–he wanted plays to promote social change, to begin an audience dialectic. The focus is on the film’s ideas.

So why?  The film is anti-slavery–big deal. Everyone’s anti-slavery.  Except when we’re not.  This is a film about history, about American history, and the role of slavery in that history.  But it creates an alternate history, an intentionally and ideologically false history, because that’s also true of most of what we think of as ‘American history’.  The ‘history’ presented in Westerns is as false and misleading and ideologically driven as the false history perpetuated by some in the US today.  We still hear it; the Civil War wasn’t about slavery, for example.  It was about state’s rights.  It was ‘the war of Northern aggression.’ Plus, the slaves weren’t treated all that badly, and were often treated kindly–it wasn’t all that a life, really.

So this film deliberately and intentionally creates a false narrative, conflating the Western film genre with an imaginary South of mandingo fighting and slave prostitution. It conflates the gunslinger hero of Westerns with less legendary figures; a freed slave and a German dentist. And it does all of it with great brio and panache and comic intensity.  Above all, Brecht thought, plays should be entertaining.

Here’s what else it does.  It properly and accurately places violence at the heart of Southern slave-holding. In fact, mandingo fighting, if it existed, wasn’t central to plantation life (and probably wasn’t named after bad mid-’70s movies).  Cotton farming was. And slaves weren’t routinely beaten to death, or killed by dogs, or allowed to kill each other with hammers; they were too valuable as economic assets to waste like that.  But underneath the patina of Southern sophistication and culture, atavistic violence remained the engine that drove the whole enterprise. We see it in DiCaprio’s Calvin Candie, a brilliant performance as a Francophile art collector whose rotten teeth reflect the rotten emptiness of his soul, and his creepily incestuous relationship with his eternally smiling sister, Lara (Laura Cayouette).  Violence, in the South, may have been carefully concealed to outsiders, but Tarantino places it front and center in his film.  It doesn’t matter if mandingo fighting really happened.  Slavery was never anything but the violent subjugation of human beings.

The film has been targeted by moralists for its violence, especially in the wake of a national controversy over school shootings and calls for gun control.  Hollywood destroying America; that kind of thing. Such concerns are, of course, irrelevant to the film itself.  It’s a Western, and people like Westerns, despite their violence.  They represent American violence in support of a narrative of good versus evil.  We love that myth–the lone gunslinger standing against corruption.  They’re very John Wayne.  Tarantino shoves the violence of Westerns and the violence of slavery in our faces, conflates them into a brand-new myth, in which freed slaves take out their righteous anger against their former masters. Shoves it in our faces, and then has the temerity to ask how we like it.

And since the entire thing takes place in a world of movie-made myths, the version of ‘American history’ it invents doesn’t have to be true.  It just has to remind us of truth.  In fact, a great many Americans died to destroy slavery, 600,000 casualties from 1861-1865.  And freed slaves did commit violence upon the class that had enslaved them–180,000 black soldiers fought in the Union army.  And freed slaves did work to purchase the freedom of their spouses. And white slave-owners certainly did father children by their slave women.  Because slavery was pretty much always about the constant threat of violence.

Did I like it?  I was shaken by it.  I was moved, by Kerry Washington and Jamie Foxx and Christoph Waltz and the tremendous sadness of Sam Jackson’s character. I was appalled by it.  And it’s going to be a few days before I’m able to shake it off.  I’m not sure what more we want a great film to accomplish.

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