Why ‘Django Unchained’ is Subversively Complex and Disappointingly Simple

By  · Published on December 29th, 2012

Editor’s Note: This article contains spoilers for Django Unchained (and all of Tarantino’s other films).

With Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino has taken a decisive shift in his approach to storytelling. Abandoning the non-linear, present-set depictions of an organized criminal underworld in Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown and the Kill Bill films, Tarantino has not only transitioned to more conventional linear storytelling (with the exception of the requisite flashback), but chooses familiar historical contexts in which to tell these stories. With the WWII-set Inglourious Basterds and now with the pre-Civil War-era Western Django, Tarantino has made a habit of mixing the historical with the inventively anachronistic, and has turned recent modern histories of racial and ethnic oppression, dehumanization, and extermination into ostensibly cathartic fantasies of revenge against vast systemic structures of power.

In a recent interview conducted by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Tarantino discusses his approach to mixing history with cinematic fantasy in Django Unchained. After touching on the film’s liberal use of the n-word (which has had a controversial presence in Tarantino’s contemporary-set films), Samuel L. Jackson’s “Uncle Tom” character Stephen, and the depiction of Jamie Foxx’s Django as a miraculously invulnerable “Superman,” the director states,

“It was interesting, because on one hand I’m telling a historical story, and when it comes to nuts and bolts of the slave trade, I had to be real and had to tell it the right way. But when it comes to more thematic things and operatic view, I could actually have fun with stylization – because it is taking parts from a spaghetti Western. And I am taking the story of a slave narrative and blowing it up to folkloric proportions and to operatic proportions.”

The third major studio film this year to take place during the slavery/Civil War era (the other two being the year’s double-punch of Lincoln films), Django Unchained strikes an uneasy, sometimes contradictory balance between cinematic fantasy and real-life histories of atrocity. Cinematic revenge in Django Unchained is both subversively complex and disappointingly simple.

Tarantino’s Career, From Criminal Underworlds to Revenge Fantasies

Tarantino’s ’90s work shocked and enthused audiences, critics, and filmmakers for three major reasons: his inventive non-linear approach to storytelling; his aesthetically vibrant and morally ambivalent balance of violence and cool; and his postmodern incorporation of a multitude of cinematic references. Only the third component has remained a defining characteristic of his work since.

But these first few films remain undeniably rich. The underworld characters in Tarantino’s 90s work, especially Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, exist on a variegated, dark scale of morality that resists any traditional good guy/bad guy binaries. Sure, Harvey Keitel’s Mr. White is clearly more principled than Michael Madsen’s sadomasochistic Mr. Blonde, but both are capable of murder, and Tim Roth’s two-faced Mr. Orange flips ethical questions on their head by being both a figure of lawful authority and incredibly deceitful at the same time. Pulp Fiction’s “protagonist,” John Travolta’s Vince Vega, is a ruthless hit man who is shot while on the toilet in the middle of the film’s pretzel-shaped narrative structure. In the world of Tarantino’s 90s output, there are no good guys, supposed innocents get hurt, few happy endings are available, and a dude accidently getting shot in the backseat of a car is fucking hilarious.

Tarantino began a gradual shift towards more simplistic moral binaries with the Kill Bill films, which also inaugurated his focus on revenge as a driving theme. While Uma Thurman’s The Bride is complicit in the same criminal underworld as her targets, the tragedy met by her attempt at legitimacy, the presence of her daughter (outside the horror genre, children are mainstream cinema’s rarely-questioned symbol of innocence), and her opponents’ masterful ability to defend themselves all justify revenge as a means toward survival. As with Pam Grier’s Jackie Brown, the path towards a character’s happy life is necessarily paved with blood.

But it was Death Proof that fully heralded the Tarantino we know today. A relatively straightforward departure, this half of the Grindhouse double bill is a feature-length exercise in direct, methodical revenge by women against a man who exploits and murders women. The film clearly delineates the oppressor from the innocents, and the film ends with unmistakable closure when the target is violently vanquished. While an admittedly “minor” work by the filmmaker, Death Proof is exhilarating, even breathtaking in its cathartic reduction of a murderous alpha-asshole to a pathetic, crying rag doll at the hands of a quartet of badass women.

Django Unchained and Tarantino’s Imagined Histories of Revenge

Tarantino continued the straightforward revenge trope with Inglourious Basterds, albeit on a much grander scale. The film re-imagines WWII ending in a cacophony of fire and bullets directed against the entire Nazi leadership, all (largely) at the hands of a few Jewish soldiers and one Jewish rebel. The revenge is, once again, sweet and executed without a hitch, but was, in contrast to Death Proof, accentuated it with a playful sense of imagined historical vindication: in playing with one of the biggest atrocities of Western history, Tarantino asks that, for two and a half brisk hours, we imagine the oppressor getting slapped by hand of the oppressed.

With Django, Tarantino once again imagines the revenge of the “Other” against their oppressor, employing for a second time some of semi-recent Western history’s most definitive and unquestioned bad guys in his switch from Nazis to white Southerners who most profited from the enslavement of other human beings.

Though there is no quandary in the moral standing of the recipients of Django’s bullets, Django Unchained feels at times to be incredibly subversive and exhilaratingly dangerous, especially in the context of its Christmas Day wide release. The film makes explicit the fact that American capital has been built upon the backs of an unforgivable legacy of forced labor, human enslavement, violent and psychological abuse, and systemic prejudice, all in a relatively new nation that hypocritically championed inalienable freedoms in its founding documents.

The film also addresses the relative, arbitrary status of law and order. While Christoph Waltz’s Schultz often (effectively) invokes law and order in his bounty hunting, the film pointedly depicts The Old South as a place in which such structures are locally established and enforced with its depiction of the KKK as alternative police and the plantation as an insular government. Django is even aware of the lazy cinematic stereotypes it utilizes to its advantage: as symbol of contemporary white liberal guilt and Django’s “white savior,” Schultz actually states, “I feel guilty.” Finally, the film provides a provocative portrait of ambiguous, grey-area morality in short-term decisions for long-term ends. In order to win his wife back while masquerading as a Mandingo trader, Django must prove to plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) that he can stomach horrendous violence enacted against other black bodies, including a lethal Mandingo fight and the killing of a runaway slave by a pack of dogs (two truly disturbing moments from which even Tarantino’s camera partly shies away). Through its (in Tarantino’s words) “operatic” revenge fantasy, Django Unchained contains a surprising amount of ugly truths that Hollywood usually shies away from.

While watching Django Unchained, I was reminded of the Ethiopian proverb that opens James C. Scott’s excellent book Domination and the Arts of Resistance: “When the great lord passes the peasants bow deeply and silently fart.” Scott’s book describes the resistance of the oppressed as existing on a scale of gradation: subtle performances of subversion that don’t singlehandedly shift balances of power can be part and parcel of slow ideological change when oppressive structures of domination are so pervasive that revolution can hardly be imagined, much less enacted; in other words, a nuanced, but important, means of resistance against a larger problem.

While Django makes several sly references to “silent farts” (like when Django almost imperceptibly winks at his wife before Schultz shoots Candie, thus signaling a language between the mutually oppressed that can still be spoken despite the oppressor’s control of communication) the film clearly prefers a more definitive, spectacular, comprehensive, and ultimately simplistic portrait of revolution-via-revenge. In doing so, conventional cinematic lines are drawn that turn their back on the complex moral messiness and lack of closure that characterized Tarantino’s great early work: Django is an inexplicably “natural” expert shot, all collateral innocents are spared his gunfire (and in case you think Stephen was only “performing” for survival like Django did, the enduring servant continues to speak the language of the oppressor after Candie’s death), and at one point Django’s nuts are literally saved at the last minute.

Django Unchained subversively reverses the John Wayne-inspired, totally batshit cinematic logic espoused by the NRA that “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun” by foregrounding white Southerners as history’s (but not often cinema’s) bad guys. But Django’s overt delineation of whom “the bad guy is” all the way down to Stephen, all at the hands of a lone Superman, not only kills the film’s tension, but mixes the cathartic with the icky.

There’s a telling moment in the film delivered by Candie. Telling a story about a late slave who shaved his father’s face with a straight razor daily without threat, Candie asks, “Why don’t they just rise up and kill the white man?” In making a film about a single slave’s successful large-scale revenge in pre-Civil War South, it’s not clear that Tarantino himself knows the answer to the question that he wrote into his lead antagonist.

Both Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained end with a building on fire, filled with the dead bodies of oppressors – a movie theater full of Nazis in the former, Candie’s plantation in the latter – each, to varying degrees, symbolizing the defeat of the antagonist’s ideology. In Inglourious Basterds, Nazism is a system that seems adequately “contained” and organized enough to be obliterated in one fell swoop. But as Django demonstrates by highlighting the relative, localized enforcement of racist ideology in the Old South, the institution of slavery can hardly be located within a few evil leaders. While Django’s closure feels satisfying, it also comes across as overwhelmingly false.

What Candie doesn’t mention is the fact that slave uprisings like the one he imagines did occur in this point in history, but usually didn’t go very far as potential revolutionaries would often eventually meet their fate at the hands of other white slaveowners. How long, then, could Django and Kerry Washington’s Broomhilda really last in the middle of Alabama in 1858, without food or money, and with limited ammunition? Even when it’s this overt and playful, cinematic fantasy isn’t always compatible with the history it re-imagines. Sometimes historical fantasy can become a troublesome denial of the pervasive level of viciousness in the history portrayed. To the extent that Django Unchained is both a “historical story” and a revenge fantasy, the enduring legacy of the former seems always poised to swallow the latter. The film chooses loud fantasy over silent farts.

Django Unchained is a vastly entertaining, intermittently cathartic, and even occasionally subversive historical fantasy about one slave’s revenge. But even in its overt self-awareness, the film goes out of its way to simplify the complex, and its closure feels perilously naïve.

(Author’s Note: Thanks to Ashley Miller for her help with this article.)