By Sharifa Stevens
I confess; there’s just something about movies where the bad guy goes down in flames and the good guy wins. It may be in the spiritual DNA; we live in a time where evil reigns, and we long for the day when it is utterly vanquished. Movies that mimic the good-triumphs-over-evil theme temporarily satisfy the longing for justice.
I went to see Django Unchained in search of this temporary satisfaction.
Django Unchained, directed by Quentin Tarantino, is a Western with all the signature Tarantino-style hyper-violence, profanity, and a heaping helping of the N-word. Django (played by Academy Award winner Jamie Foxx) is a slave walking from Mississippi to Texas in a chain gang. Christoph Waltz’s character, King Schultz, is a bounty hunter looking for the Brittle Brothers, whom only Django can identify. Schultz purchases Django, but the German-born bounty hunter is anachronistically kind, treating Django as a man, a business partner, and a protégé. King frees Django. Django was separated from his wife after both were branded and sold after a runaway attempt–and he would do anything to get her back from Candieland, the large plantation owned by the especially loathsome Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). King and Django partner to rescue the damsel in distress, by any means necessary.
Perhaps initially, the historic 1977 TV miniseries Roots and Django Unchained may be compared; both are period pieces taking place in the pre-Civil War South featuring enslaved people as main characters. I’ve read the book, and I can tell you that Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained ain’t no Roots. Yes, there’s whipping and humiliation and brutality. There are plenty of black people who presumably die as slaves, and plenty of white people who presumably continue as slavery’s beneficiaries. That’s where the similarities end. Django is better compared to revenge flicks like Payback or Death Wish. Really, though, Django is best equated to Tarantino’s other vengeance-themed movies, such as Kill Bill or especially Inglourious Basterds. Basterds, like Django, is a fantasy-history-meets-vengeance film, set in WWII with Jews and Nazis (in the film a group of Jewish soldiers actually kill Hitler. We wish).
I like movies where people who think they’re above it all get theirs. When have we seen a story where a slave gets retribution and then lives to talk about it? [crickets] This movie serves up what we all wish would have happened. In one scene (possible spoiler!), a depraved man is relishing in the imminent whipping he’s about to dole out on a young girl because she broke some eggs (he’s also whipped Django’s love interest without mercy in the recent past), while his brother gleefully waits for the “fun” to begin. Django shoots the would-be whipper, grabs the whip, and repeatedly lashes the brother while all the enslaved folks gather to watch.
Tarantino turns the slavery discussion on its head. We are used to talking about slavery–if it’s discussed at all–in unemotional historical, economic, and war terms, or in romanticized portraits of gentility. Rarely do we talk as a country about the psychological, terror-inducing effects of slavery and racism on its victims. In this film, we see it. There were intense nonviolent instances of the horrors of being black in the antebellum South. Just riding a horse, sitting down for a beer, or making direct eye contact were acts punishable by death.
Tarantino masterfully manipulates the audience so that we are desensitized to the deaths of villains. Laughter erupted at what would normally be considered ghoulish (again, possible spoiler); the slave master’s sister being literally blown away, gullible slave traders getting blown up, a band of racists pausing to talk about eye-hole placement in their masks.
In a country where Barack Obama is president and Jordan Davis is gunned down, Quentin Tarantino serves us up a portrait of an Angry Black Man…who lives. President Obama must appear unemotional and unthreatening, lest he appear too angry. Angry black men tend to be regarded as threatening, regardless of whether their anger is a legitimate or rational response (except in the boxing ring, basketball court, or the football field). Appearing threatening can be lethal to black men. Jordan Davis was a teen who was gunned down in November because he appeared threatening while playing loud music.
Tarantino brings us an Angry Black Man and challenges us to deny his anger is righteous. We watch as Django is constantly subjugated; watching his people–his wife!–slashed by the whip, baked by the hotbox, and crushed by the libidos and diabolical whims of others. Tarantino affords Django the opportunity to be angry. Finally, a few theatrical moments of freedom to be angry!
Anger can be righteous. Anger’s results are not always righteous, and Django’s murderous rampage is not all good. To save his wife, he sacrifices the life of a man whom he could have saved. He watches as the man is viciously murdered for sport. There is nothing good about passively condemning the innocent; the ends didn’t justify the means in this instance. He should have seen himself in the man he watched die.
I was disappointed with how cardboard several of the characters were. Kerry Washington’s Broomhilda is just generically pretty and tragic. I see now why Waltz and DiCaprio are up for Golden Globes. They, and Samuel L. Jackson, who plays a lowdown, slippery house slave (not sure why he hasn’t received a Golden Globe nod), serve up riveting performances. Django is at his most exciting when he is exacting vengeance. I wish I knew more backstory so I could root harder for them as a couple. But alas, how many nameless, faceless slaves share a story of being torn apart and abused without even a testimony to remember them by?
Ironically, Django still felt naive to me, even as a historical-revenge fiction. I left the theater wondering what grave consequences face Django and Broomhilda as they ride off into the night. Two black people riding horses in Mississippi? It can’t end well, not even in this story. Django barely made it out of Candieland. He doesn’t own enough ammo to shoot his way out of the entire antebellum South.
Sharifa Stevens is a wife and mother, singer, and writer. She earned a B.A. from Columbia University and a Master of Theology degree from Dallas Theological Seminary. She lives in Dallas.