Django Unchained is a 2012 film written and directed by Quentin Tarantino. The film stars Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Samuel L. Jackson, and Kerry Washington. The film was nominated for five Academy Awards and won two; Best Original Screenplay for Tarantino, and Best Supporting Actor for Waltz. The film is set in the Antebellum American South, and follows its titular protagonist on his quest to be reunited with his wife Broomhilda. It clocks in at a lengthy 165 minutes. Despite overall positive reviews from film critics, the movie also received negative criticism from several quarters, including director Spike Lee's refusal to see it because he felt the film's premise was disrespectful to his ancestors, and concern over the film's whopping 109 uses of "nigger."
Now that the basics are out of the way, there will be some spoilers, so if you haven’t seen the film and want it to unfold as a surprise, it would probably be best to stop reading now. Let me start off by mentioning that it isn’t the word “nigger” that gets my goat here; for the most part “nigger” was used in an appropriate and historically accurate way. The most common rebuttal to black criticism of Django is that its critics are being oversensitive to the word. While I recognize it has an ugly legacy, and I personally find it unpleasant, it cannot be separated from historic slavery, and I find it pointless to try to depict the depredations and dehumanization inherent to the “Peculiar Institution” without dealing with words that still discomfit us.
Slavery is presented in the film as perversion rich dilettantes engage in out of boredom or evil, rather than the pervasive economic system that it actually was. We see slaves tortured, slaves executed, slaves giving tours of the grounds, slaves kept as dusky mistresses in expensive townhouses, slaves idling on rope swings, and slaves fighting gladiator battles in the parlor. But, with the exception of a brief moment in the kitchen where Stephen terrorizes the household staff, we never see slaves working. Hard, back-breaking work is used by an antagonist as a punishment worse than torture and death. There’s even one scene where Candie’s town slave in a ridiculous French maid costume sits at the table with her master and his slave mistress. The film seems to both exoticize and eroticize the slaves’ experience. Black flesh is lingered over in fetishistic detail; there’s one light shot that trails up Jamie Foxx’s naked body that made me uncomfortable in a way the whippings didn’t. This is not to say that slaves were not sexual objects, quite the contrary, but the film’s treatment of its subject delights in that objectification and indulges in it, rather than hold it up for ridicule and scorn.
There is a very good scene that underscores the pervasive, banal evil of an economic system with slavery at its heart; King Schultz, played by the inimitable Christoph Waltz, comments sadly that as much as he deplores the system of slavery, it is currently useful to his ignoble, selfish aims and that he cannot therefore offer Django his freedom yet. This was a thread that I really wanted to see played out to its logical conclusion, a mostly sympathetic character corrupted by the wickedness of the world around him (Octavia E. Butler tackles this very theme in her excellent, searing novel Kindred) but this is all too quickly averted by Schultz falling into a weird mentor relationship with Django which eventually settles into a kind of partnership that does not feel earned via actual character growth or development.
And what to make of Django? He never struck me as an actual person, but rather revenge fantasy wish fulfillment. He glowers and stomps, ignores social mores and castes all through a toxic environment ostensibly designed to keep him in place. And this is why he fails as a character. Tarantino seems so interested in making Django sort of a memetic badass that he forgets to imbue the title character with any humanity. There’s no mensch in this Übermensch. The cruel realities of slavery meant that a black man in the South, free or not, had to learn when he could speak, and how far he could push limits; Django never bothers. That he doesn’t even bother to act the part of a valet when Schultz provides him a plausible explanation for accompanying a wealthy foreign eccentric was irritating; when he knocks a white overseer off his horse and taunts another in front of the vastly wealthy and cruel Planter Calvin Candie was head-bangingly unbelievable. The film itself questions Django’s behavior when Schultz admonishes him not to antagonize Candie’s people; yet the only response Django can offer is the oddly self-assured “I’m intriguing him.” It seems extremely implausible that freed slave Django would be willing to venture into the Deep South and risk re-capture or worse for love of his wife Broomhilda, but unwilling to make their lie stick by acting his part.
Broomhilda is also an unrealized character. She is a McGuffin rather than a person, and her only characteristics seem to be crying, fainting, and an ability to speak German. Kerry Washington is a fine actress, but she’s wasted here. There is no real chemistry between Washington and Foxx, and while Broomhilda is sexualized, she never seems to evince her own sexuality. Their relationship is a poor point to hinge a movie on, and the love Foxx seems to profess for her seems more courtly romance than visceral, overpowering emotion.
The film’s greatest success is Stephen. Played with panache and nuance by Samuel L. Jackson, Stephen is slavery’s Frankenstein’s Monster. As Calvin Candie’s clever, manipulative majordomo, Stephen is the power behind the throne at Candyland, but was both created and delineated by the same evil system that makes him property. While I am unhappy that the film decides to take the 60s view of the “house nigger” as the collaborator with the slave master, rather than his victim, Jackson manages to impart a world-weariness to his character that makes him not wholly unsympathetic. I think Tarantino would have made a more interesting film had he decided to make Django a funhouse reflection of Stephen; a clever manipulator whose amoral decisions are reflective of the evil world around him. But Tarantino is too enamored of the lone figure who takes terrible revenge on those who have wronged him, even when this sacrifices plausibility in the film.
Despite his boasting that black men will grow up to see Django Unchained as a “rite of a passage,” it is my fervent hope that this is not the truth. Tarantino didn’t really make a movie about slavery at all. He made a Spaghetti Western with slavery and its awful legacy as props and background color. It is an entertaining, eye-popping, candy-colored, but ultimately insubstantial film. I don’t think it provoked any new thoughts about race relations in much of the audience I saw it with. It struck me that when Stephen mocked Schultz’s idea of a black Hercules as “niggerles,” the audience was laughing with Stephen, not at him. This is not to say that one cannot make a Western that examines race through a critical lens while being primarily entertainment; Blazing Saddles did just that in the 1970s. But while Django Unchained delights in the coolness of fake blood and stylized vengeance, it ignores interesting moral questions by painting its antagonists as utterly loathsome. It is no brave thing to depict slave masters as evil. Moreover, in creating a vengeful badass who almost single-handedly wreaks revenges on a plantation, the film robs its slaves of agency. Rather than being people, slaves are once more objects for entertainment, precisely what the film accuses its antagonists of using them for.