by Tom Steward
Django: Unchained, the latest film from director Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill), is jointly a western and Southern melodrama delivered in the Blaxploitation and Spaghetti Western traditions dealing with slaveholding in a pre-Civil War American South. The director’s intervention into nineteenth-century African-American historiography in such a fashion was potentially problematic. Tarantino’s only previous attempt at historical filmmaking had been the counterfactual World War Two film Inglorious Basterds and both the western and Southern melodrama are film genres prone to substituting historical realities for myth and nostalgia. He has also been rebuked by many black cultural commentators (notably director Spike Lee) for the treatment of African-American culture and language in his films and, while providing black America with empowering screen icons, Blaxploitation movies typically say little about the social experience of African-Americans. In an interview with Channel 4 News, Tarantino articulated the dual aims of Django: Unchained to highlight the ‘holocaustic aspects of the slave trade in America’ and ‘give black American males a western hero-a cool, folkloric hero’. Indeed, the film ambitiously attempts a revisionist account of American history, frontier mythology and western genre conventions simultaneously.
Historical intertitles inform us that it is 1858, ‘two years before the Civil War’ for those seeking context. On the Southwest frontier, field slave Django (Jamie Foxx) is freed by German bounty hunter and former dentist Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) to act as eyewitness for the manhunt of slave-abusing outlaws The Brittle Brothers. After punitively despatching the brothers on the plantation of Big Daddy (Don Johnson), Django and Schultz fight off a raid from a primitive (in every sense of the word) incarnation of the Ku Klux Klan and Django spends a Texan winter learning how to ‘kill white people, make money from it’. In the spring, discovering that Django’s estranged wife-the Tutonically-named Broomhilda (Kerry Washington)-is now a house slave in Candieland, the plantation of Francophile slave-owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), Django and Schultz pose as two potential buyers of slaves for Mandingo fighting as proxy to rescue her. However, the fraud is soon discovered by Candie’s elderly house slave and confidant Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson) and Schultz and Django resort to slaughter and terrorism to reunite the Django family and ensure the couple’s freedom.
Tarantino’s film offers a perceptive commentary on the social and cultural oddities, idiosyncrasies and contradictions of the Old South. Candie’s interactions with his trackers in which one is virtually unintelligible to the other satirically demonstrates the gulf in class between the plantation owner elite and poor whites. The portrayals of Candie and Big Daddy eloquently capture the seemingly irreconcilable tensions between the genteel hospitality and violently racist tendencies of the Southern gentleman of the period. He also astutely observes the complex social strata of Southern African-Americans, not simply in the hierarchical distinctions between house and field slavery but in acknowledging more obscure social types of the era such as the ostracised black slave-owner, one of whom Django briefly poses as. The film also recognises the absurd and conflicted position black slaves held in relation to white society; at once they are both commodities to bought, sold, exploited and destroyed and yet surrogate members of the family and household. Witness Big Daddy’s slave women who roam around the plantation like children in a playground and Stephen acting as both father and business guru to Candie despite his bondage.
Tarantino’s cinema has always been notably cosmopolitan and, as evidenced by Inglorious Basterds, becoming increasingly European in its perspective and subject matter. Django: Unchained is no exception and reflects critically upon the Old South’s engagement with European society and culture in the Victorian era. Dr. Schultz is frequently called upon to expose the veneer of Parisian splendour in Candieland for all its gross superficiality and simplification. It is Schultz who points to the dark irony of Francophile Candie’s naming of slaves after characters from Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers, himself a writer from Afro-Caribbean slave origin. The British period-drama standard scenes of intricately precise table setting and the English Victorian phraseology (‘little Dickens’) witnessed in Candieland evoke the hollow and incongruous aping of English gentry manners in Southern plantation life. Our German protagonist also brings the values of enlightenment to the era of slavery, seen symbolically in the opening scene as Schultz shines a lantern on slaves being transported by night on the Southwest frontier before giving them freedom. Meanwhile, references to the legend of Broomhilda give American western mythology a Germanic spin.
Though not quite the fantastic subversion of history seen in Inglorious Basterds, Django: Unchained is certainly a play on the idea of historical cinema. Tarantino uses the intertitles and dates that secure the historiographical legitimacy of period films but often in ways that make the storytelling more mythic and generic. For instance, the opening caption reads ‘somewhere in Texas’. In his Channel 4 News interview, Tarantino showed his disdain for the cause-and-effect narratives of historical films (‘and this happened, and then this happened’) and he spoofs this cinematic simplification of history in the raid by the prototype Klan organisation. The mob criticize the size and positioning of the eyeholes in the homemade bags they wear as masks until Big Daddy pacifies them by saying ‘next time we’ll come out in the full regalia’. Such a scene has tremendous fun at the expense of the banal chronology of screen history. The films’ violence similarly works both with and against its historiographical credibility. Increased reference to and graphic realisation of acts of torture on slaves does more justice to the extent of suffering African-Americans endured than most historical films set in this era while Django’s murders are purely historical revenge fantasies seen in all their blood-splattered glory.
As one of Hollywood’s foremost postmodernists, Tarantino is known for his creation of new cinema out of past pop styles, and therefore it’s no surprise that Django: Unchained revisits late nineteenth-century America through its depiction in the cinematic western and Southern melodrama. Unusually for such an elegiac genre, this is a western detached from the frontier mythology which usually governs it, with its black and German protagonists (neither of whom have had much of a place in westerns!) and storytelling through German ‘mountain’ myths rather than American manifest destiny. Even the loving recreation of John Ford’s Texan winterscapes from The Searchers are tinged with one-upmanship in being a western about African-Americans that actually features black characters and not just Native American surrogates played by white actors. The western segment of the film (which occupies most of its first half) recalls the Mel Brooks’ spoof western Blazing Saddles which is concerned less with reinforcing the frontier thesis than re-inserting ethnic diversity and white racism into popular pioneer history. Like Brooks’ comedy classic, Django: Unchained links the anomalous appearance of the African-American in the Hollywood western to their ostracision by white frontier society (‘we ain’t never seen a nigger on a horse’).
Tarantino seems equally torn in his treatment of the Southern melodrama, which generically dominates the latter sections of the film. The director is obviously enamoured with the superficial beauty of cinematic images of Southern plantation life, the heightened green pastures and hazy pink skies from early Technicolor sagas such as Gone with the Wind (with precedent in American landscape painting) reproduced here with fascination. Tarantino clearly wants to re-capture some of the material pleasures of Hollywood’s lavish period costuming, with dynamic shots of ladies’ petticoats in motion and Candie’s Butlerian purple velvet long-coat, ornate waistcoat and cigarette holder deemed sartorially commanding enough to later adorn the body of the eponymous hero. But the director seems determined to turn the political content and characterisation of the genre inside out. In Stephen, the archetypal benign and avuncular elderly house slave which has been a character constituent of Southern literary and film melodrama from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin onwards is transformed into a conniving white collaborator and race traitor. The film completely eschews the Southern melodrama’s focus on the white women of plantation families, with characters such as Candie’s sister Lara Lee (Laura Cayouette) marginal to the action and characters eventually bullet-jettisoned off the screen.
For a film which arrives mired in ‘controversy’ I actually found there to be little in Django: Unchained that made me uneasy. It is undoubtedly pure exploitation cinema but with a radical political purpose that complements its excesses and its hyper-violence an entirely appropriate mode of filmmaking for the historical topic of slavery. The refusal to idealise all its African-American characters I found brave and challenging, consonant with the complex historical and sociological representation in the film rather than merely blaming black people for their slavery. Even allowing for Tarantino’s desire to push white women to the margins of slave melodrama, I took issue with the film’s portrayal of its female characters. Status and race aside, all the film’s women are seen as either passive victims or childlike bystanders. It is simply counter-marginalisation and an uncharacteristic oversight from Tarantino. In terms of race, my only discomfort comes from Tarantino’s self-appointment as the spokesman for African-American history. Cinema is certainly missing a black western hero but Tarantino’s sense of entitlement to provide one is curious, especially after seeing the film in a cinema made up almost exclusively of white men in an area with high numbers of African ethnicities.