Django Unchained: A Movie About Other Movies About the 19th Century
I’m loathe to wander too far into the ever-more-complex discourse around “Django Unchained”, which, unlike “Inglourious Basterds”, is pushing a lot of American buttons because of a general dislike of examining our own ugly history as much as we like to examine Germany’s ugly history. But I do want to protest one aspect of the discourse on the movie, which is the way that it’s being conducted as if “Django” was written and performed primarily to be a commentary on the institution of slavery itself. If that was so, I doubt it would be as provocative or interesting a movie as it is. Tarantino’s take on slavery would only be upsetting to the Lost Causers, who are admittedly a huge chunk of our population, as his portrayal of it is as an unvarnished evil that destroyed everyone who came into contact with it. This is an accurate and not particularly controversial point to make, barring right wing America that still waves the Confederate flag and concocts elaborate schemes to let slave-defending Southerners off the hook for their crimes against humanity.
No, “Django” is filling seats and wagging tongues because it’s about something weirder and more complex than simply stating that slavery was deeply evil. The movie, like “Inglourious Basterds” before it, is really more about other movies than it is about the historical time period in which it takes place. “Inglourious Basterds” is best understood as a strange satire/correction of WWII movies, specifically calling them out for treating Jews like voiceless victims and using “plots to kill Hitler” as grist for the mill, even though there is no suspense around how they turn out. “Django” is doing something very similar with Westerns, and specifically with the cowardice displayed by them around the history of the Civil War and slavery.
But this framework is something that’s openly ignored or dismissed in most reviews I’ve seen of “Django”, which I find kind of odd. For instance, in a piece about the historical accuracy (basically, none) of “Django”, Jelani Cobb is dismissive of those who point out that it’s not so much as alternate history but as alternate film history:
It is precisely because of the extant mythology of black subservience that these scenes pack such a cathartic payload. The film’s defenders are quick to point out that “Django” is not about history. But that’s almost like arguing that fiction is not reality—it isn’t, but the entire appeal of the former is its capacity to shed light on how we understand the latter. In my sixteen years of teaching African-American history, one sadly common theme has been the number of black students who shy away from courses dealing with slavery out of shame that slaves never fought back.
Cobb makes interesting points in the essay, but glossing over this distinction is a fatal flaw. If we look at “Django” as a satire not of the actual era, but of how Hollywood has commonly dealt with it, I do think the movie makes a lot more sense. It’s a bloody, exciting, and often comical overturning of film tropes that already play fast and loose with the historical realities of 19th century America.
The typical Western is about a white man who is socially marginalized in some way and becomes an outlaw, albeit one with a good heart. He’s often strong and silent but super cool and relatable, and while he has a good heart, he lives in a violent world and has to advance his concerns through being especially adept at violence. Westerns exaggerate the extent of violence in the West and make heroes out of people who were often just thugs and lowlifes. The outlaws often get away with their crimes way more than they did in reality. Westerns usually take place in the years after the Civil War, but despite this, somehow characters—even former Confederates!—somehow have little or no relationship to the recently terminated institution of slavery.
With that in mind, you can see how “Django” turns all that on its head. You want a hero that’s marginalized and living as an outlaw, but has the moral case against his enemies? How about a former slave who wants to get his wife out of slavery, instead of a former Confederate. Sick of seeing Westerns that pretend that slavery was a minor issue barely worth mentioning? Here’s a Western where slavery plays as central a role as it actually did in history. Don’t mind seeing anachronistic Westerns where our outlaws with good hearts kill and rob their way to freedom without ever having to face justice? Why not stretch that anachronism a little farther to encompass a slave who gets his revenge? (For what it’s worth, I enjoyed Jamie Foxx “doing” Clint Eastwood more than I enjoy Clint Eastwood.) Quentin Tarantino has probably watched every implausible, silly Western that American audiences have eaten up for decades, and he’s now making a movie that lays down a challenge: Can you suspend your disbelief for a former slave character as well as you can for the fantastical versions of former Confederates, outlaws, and gunslingers we’ve all watched before? If you can watch a movie like “Gone With the Wind” that whitewashes history, why not watch one that does so for the good guys, for once?
That’s the argument at the heart of “Django”, and I haven’t seen many, if any, reviews that take it on instead of comparing the movie to the realities of history. Which is strange, because the movie doesn’t hide in the slightest what it’s doing. Tarantino puts all sorts of really obvious signposts throughout. “Basterds” hung a lampshade on the whole affair by having the climax of the movie in a movie theater. “Django” can’t do that, exactly, but the entire movie is obsessed with the concepts of performance, theater, and storytelling. King Schultz and Django have a bounty hunting strategy that is based on acting a part; they play various roles to ingratiate themselves into various communities to find info they’re looking for. At one point, Schultz does a short story-telling performance of the story of Siegfried and Brunhilda, with Django as the eager audience. There’s an extended discussion about the importance of “stagecraft” when it comes to the fights to the death between slaves. On top of that, “Django” directly quotes and parodies both “Birth of a Nation” and “Gone With the Wind”, using shots from taken those movies but filling them with content that mocks those movies. And that’s just what I noticed in the first viewing. I bet, watching it again, I’d pick up a lot more.
None of this is a defense of the movie per se. If you think it’s still in poor taste to make a movie satirizing the filmic history of Westerns and Civil War movies (particularly Lost Cause-sympathetic ones) on the grounds that the real life history is too fraught, there is an argument to be made. If your concern is that the actual history of slavery and the Civil War are still too controversial to make movies that mock other movies for their revisionist history, there’s a really good point to be made there. I think those conversations can and should be had. But I just want to point out that in having them, it’s important to do so with acknowledgment of what’s actually onscreen in “Django”, which is not a movie that directly comments on this history itself, so much as a movie that grapples with the long history of other movies playing with and distorting these histories for various reasons, both aesthetic and political. What’s onscreen is a vicious satire of those movies, and any discussion of it really should start from there.