Django Unchained (2012)
There are times when my local cinemas beat the rest of the world, opening new Hollywood offerings on a Thursday to give us a 24-hour head start over the American audiences. On other occasions, it can be weeks or months before a title reaches us. Some titles are never shown here. Django Unchained (2012) was slow in arriving here and I was then slow in making time to see it. It’s a dog-ate-my-homework kind of excuse, but it’s the best I’ve got for this tardy review. So rather than follow the usual pattern, I thought it might be interesting to examine it as a contemporary commentary on the history of racism in America. The first and most obvious question is why Quentin Tarantino, a leading director, should choose this time to make a film about slavery. We have the first African American as President of the United States so, if this is the highest job in the land, I suppose we might declare prejudice dead. That this is now a post-racial America. Except, of course, America is obsessed by questions of race and its implications.
So far in 2013, the Supreme Court has heard two cases on race: one on affirmative action in university admissions, the second on whether voting practices have improved to such a point there’s no longer a need for federal laws to protect the minorities. The timing of these cases is somewhat ironic because America is almost at the tipping point when whites will become the minority in population terms. This makes it rather important to lay down markers for civil rights as the demographic landscape changes. Hence a film that, for the purposes of entertainment, deals with the reality of racism and discrimination as part of history, is inevitably holding up a mirror for society to see how far it has progressed since that time. We see black poverty then and note blacks are three times more likely than whites to be below the poverty line today. As then, so today, the wealth gap between the white and the other races remains wide. Significantly, all the current surveys confirm that anti-black sentiment has actually been stirred up by President Obama’s election. It’s just we’re more civilised about how we choose to discuss the relationship between the different groups today.
The other more general question is why Quentin Tarantino has elected to wrap an exploration of American attitudes towards race in an essentially European vehicle. The basis of the plot is clearly signalled at an early stage as a version of the myth of Siegfried and Brunhilde, drawn from Icelandic, Norse and German sources. We’re told Django (Jamie Foxx) has to go through the fire and use his sword to kill the dragon Fafnir to rescue his wife Broomhilda von Schaft (Kerry Washington). Or, if you prefer to look past the overt mythology, this is a fictionalised version of America’s past filtered through the cinematic style pioneered by Sergio Leone, one of Europe’s most interesting film-makers (although the original film titled Django was actually directed by Sergio Corbucci). I suppose these attempts at universalisation allow American audiences greater cultural distance by staging a “One Upon a Time in the Wild South”. Perhaps telling a more parochial and hence realistic story would have been too painful. Although it’s interesting to note how casually all the characters use the word “nigger”. In itself, this is a challenge to contemporary political correctness which prefers to sanitise language to avoid reminding people of the past and show respect to those who have survived into the present.
The opening sequence shows us the chattel side of the transaction with two men herding some slaves across the landscape like walking meat. There are two questions arising from this set of scenes. Django is a man with sand. For all his terrible experiences, he’s relatively unbowed and walks proud as soon as he has the chance. He’s also unsympathetic to the others in chains. He could argue for their freedom or offer encouragement to their escape, but he’s indifferent. This is repeated when he attends a “Mandingo” fight-to-the-death between two slaves. Although he has the excuse that he’s playing a role and it would be dangerous for him to break character, there’s no indication he cares what happens to either fighter. The second point of interest is the reaction of the two white slavers to the uppity European, Dr King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). Because of his superior manners and more sophisticated use of language, they feel he’s patronising them. Out of insecurity, they react to his offer to buy Django with threats of violence. As a well-armed bounty hunter, the foreign visitor is able to assert himself. As to the morality of bounty hunting, Django’s later analysis is appropriate. Killing white folk and getting paid for it. What’s not to like?
Big Daddy (Don Johnson) is asked a very pertinent question when he agrees to send one of his slave women to show Django around the estate. Do you want me to treat him as a white man? Ah, now that really would be a step too far, wouldn’t it. There has to be an intermediate category into which a free African American can be slotted that’s somehow better than a slave but not equal to a master. Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) opines that exceptional Black Americans can rise to form a new class. So while they can never be equal because of their colour, they can have a better status. As he says, the sun rises up and shines on all equally. Yet, of course, advocating this new class makes all blacks more free because it gives them hope of advancement. Consequently, this makes Candie a threat to local whites and a more equivocal target for Django. Except, of course, his subsequent behaviour clearly shows he deserves to die, e.g. because he promotes “Mandingo fighting”. It’s perhaps relevant to point out that slaves fighting each other to the death is fiction. With so much money tied up in slaves, they were far too valuable to sacrifice in this way. This is not to say slaves did not fight and their owners bet often quite larger sums of money. Tom Molineaux won his freedom through fighting and emigrated to Britain. It’s curious Quentin Tarantino should have wanted to make Candie more brutal. I thought having dogs rip a slave to pieces was doing the job well enough. This leaves one other stereotype to include in the film. Stephen (Samuel L Jackson) is the Uncle Tom figure who’s deeply resentful of anything that disturbs the natural order of things. And, of course, he’s cute enough to see through the plot to buy Broomhilda and alert his master. Collaborators are always more dangerous than their masters because they see both sides of the fence more clearly.
And the moral of this somewhat overblown epic? In this dog-eat-dog (or human) world, the only ones who get to the top are those who can shoot better than the other guys. And if guns aren’t enough, dynamite gets the job done on a more industrial scale. The film is not, you understand, a political road map for reconciliation, for finding an accommodation between the different points of view. Every man on display here reaches the point where discussions end and killing begins. This is reinforced by stereotypes. The KKK is mocked over the question of using bags as masks, but is not condemned for being homicidally inclined. For this purpose, many of the white underclass are shown as more incoherent and stupid than their black counterparts. Yet the slaves are overly submissive or active collaborators. They earn Django’s contemptuous indifference. Put another way, if Django is one of the new class of superior African Americans who rises to the top both on his own terms and in the eyes of others, he can’t afford to be sentimental about the plight of any of his inferiors, regardless of colour. In the end, he will kill both black and white if that’s the price of getting what he wants. Schultz says, “I’ve never given anyone their freedom before and now I feel somewhat responsible for what happens to you.” That’s the European’s view of equality. But there’s no sign Django has any comparable emotion at the end. He may have liberated a major group of slaves, but he has absolutely no interest in what happens to them. Indeed, tomorrow, all the local plantation owners, fearing these surviving slaves may be the catalyst for rebellion on their own estates, ride over the horizon and kill every last one of them. But Django and his wife are long gone, riding off into the sunset. I’m not quite sure what the message of the film is supposed to be nor quite who it’s addressed to, but one thing is clear. Django Unchained is not a message of hope.