In an interview years before he made Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino said:

[I want] to do movies that deal with America’s horrible past with slavery and stuff but do them like Spaghetti Westerns, not like big issue movies. I want to do them like they’re genre films, but they deal with everything that America has never dealt with because it’s ashamed of it, and other countries don’t really deal with because they don’t feel they have the right to.

Tarantino called this new genre the “Southern,” as opposed to the “Western.” And just as the Spaghetti Westerns from the Sixties (Westerns made by Italian directors) were often quite violent (at least, for the time) to portray the rugged realities of the Old West, Tarantino could bring his signature style of violence to this new genre in a way that displayed the awful exploitation and racial hierarchy that was the nexus of the Antebellum South.

This is Part 2 in an ongoing series analyzing Quentin Tarantino’s filmography. For Part 1 on Inglourious Basterds click here.

As a side note, it is interesting to note that two highly influential movies that could be classified as “Southerns,” that is, Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind, are notorious for their sympathetic portrayal of the Confederacy and the Ku Klux Klan. They are also notorious for their ridiculously long runtimes (did they think they could slip their traitorous propaganda past us by lulling us to sleep?). 

Django Unchained opens with our titular character (played by Jamie Foxx) wandering the forests of Texas. He is driven by a group of slave drivers. Django’s life is forever changed by the appearance of Dr. King Schultz (played by Christoph Waltz) a German dentist-turned-bounty hunter who buys Django’s freedom, and then proceeds to blast the living daylights out of the entire band of white slavers. 

Tarantino wastes no time in introducing us to the brutal world of Django Unchained. Like the Spaghetti Westerns from which the movie draws inspiration, it is either kill or be killed. The head of the slavers threatens Dr. Schultz by pointing his gun at him. Dr. Schultz wastes no time in shooting first, precisely because he has no time to waste. Those who have seen famous gunfights like the ending scene of A Fistfull of Dollars are familiar with this kind of mentality.

But where Django Unchained pushes things further, and goes from a “Western” to a “Southern,” is in what Dr. Schultz does after the gunfight. He sets the rest of the slaves free and encourages them to savagely murder an already-incapacitated slaver before finding their way to freedom. This is the world of Django Unchained: a world of violent retribution against the perpetraitors of slavery, a world where, in the words of Soviet Gulag survivor Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, “the oppressed at least [conclude] that evil cannot be cast out by good.” 

This observation is proven true again and again — every time Django and Dr. Schultz take out bounties that all happen to be involved in the slave trade. Though we may wince at the gore and bloodshed, Tarantino uses it to remind us of an uncomfortable truth: slavery was so entrenched in the South, so much a part of its economic and cultural fabric, that there was simply no way to uproot it except through violence. All other methods of debate, persuasion, and compromise proved ineffectual, and by 1858, the year the movie takes place, there was little left for the country to do except expunge itself of its original sin through war.

That being said, there seems to be an essential element missing from Django’s crusade, a certain darkness to his mission that gives the viewer a sense of foreboding. This can be seen in the way Tarantino uncomfortably embraces the “House Negro” stereotype. This was a popular trope that claimed that slaves who served in households were more subservient and willing to “sell out” their fellow blacks than the slaves who worked in the field (a more popular epithet for this stereotype is “Uncle Tom”). No doubt slaves like this existed, but this image of the House Negro (particularly the way Tarantino portrays it) seems more to stem from minstrel shows and infighting among blacks in the Civil Rights movement who accused other blacks of being too moderate.  This is most clearly seen in the character of the house slave Stephen, portrayed by Samuel L. Jackson, whose goofy dialect, shuffling walk, and receding hairline seem more commonplace in a racist minstrel show than in anyone that actually existed in the Antebellum South. 

In the film’s final scene, Django wastes about as little time in killing Stephen than he does with the other white slavers, burning Stephen alive in his master’s old plantation house as revenge for Stephen’s lifetime of weasley sycophancy to his master. The message of the movie seems to be clear: If you cooperate in any way with the system, even if you are also oppressed by the system, you are deserving of the same punishment of those at the top. There can be no compromise. Maybe this is a fair description of the slave-holding South, but it becomes concerning when Sam Jackson has admitted that his main inspiration for Stephen was Clarence Thomas, the black Supreme Court Justice who has often been accused of being an “Uncle Tom” for his conservative views. 

It is here that we discover that Django Unchained is not merely a fantasy about the South. It attempts to be an allegory about the state of race relations in modern America today. The system is built upon the oppression of minorities, the movie implies, and in a system that is built entirely on oppression, there can be no compromise, no reconciliation, no redemption, only retribution. When the film’s main antagonist, the cruel plantation owner Calvin Candie, brilliantly played by Leonardo DiCaprio, orders his dogs to tear an escaped slave to shreds, he notices that Django doesn’t even flinch. When Candie asks why Django is able to stomach this horrific sight better than his German companion, Django merely replies, “I’m just a little more used to Americans than he is.” Apparently, violence against African Americans is as American as apple pie.

But perhaps nothing makes the vengeful worldview at the heart of this film more clear than during its climactic gunfight. Throughout the movie, Django and Dr. Schultz are looking to reunite the former slave with his still enslaved wife, Broomhilda (played by Kerry Washington). They eventually track her down to the plantation of Monsieur Calvin Candie. Though Candie is a monster who masks his barbaric slave-holding in a veneer of Southern hospitality and sophistication, he eventually agrees to let Django and Dr. Schultz buy Broomhilda’s freedom. 

At this point, everything should be winding down. Django is reunited with his wife, both him and Dr. Schultz remain unscathed, and they can all head north to safety and freedom. But Tarantino can never let a good grudge go to waste. Before they leave the plantation, Candie asks Dr. Schultz for a handshake to close the deal, a mark of Southern gentlemanliness, and perhaps the only thing to soothe Candie’s wounded pride. Instead of indulging Candie for a few moments, Dr. Schultz responds by shooting him point blank in the chest. 

What ensues is a wave of violence between Django and Candie’s bodyguards. Schultz dies in the crossfire, and Tarantino treats the audience to several minutes of blood-spattering carnage. The movie revels in its vengeance. Django kills not only Candie’s bodyguards, but later murders every single slaver that ever showed up in the film, showing charity towards none, and malice towards all. Again, as the movie impresses on us, it is either kill or be killed. America was and always will be a Nietzschean struggle between oppressor and oppressed, between white and black. There can be no compromise or healing, even if it comes at a terrible cost.

Now may be a good time to direct our attention to two towering figures of the actual Civil War: Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. Unlike Tarantino’s grim view of an America that seems perpetually doomed to racial conflict, Douglass, a former slave himself, had a much more optimistic view. In a speech given to the United Kingdom on the eve of the Union’s dissolution, he said the language of the Constitution is: 

‘we the people’; not we the white people. Not even we the citizens, not we the privileged class, not we the high, not we the low, but we the people. Not we the horses, sheep, and swine, and wheel-barrows, but we the people, we the human inhabitants. If Negroes are people, they are included in the benefits for which the Constitution of America was ordained and established. 

Ironically, the only people in Douglass’s day who agreed with Tarantino that slavery was endemic to the United States were the slave-holders themselves. Douglass himself knew this to be a lie, which was why he so passionately argued for the Union to stay together. He knew that if the South remained in the Union, “the Constitution will afford slavery no protection when it shall cease to be administered by slaveholders. They [the slave-holders] see, moreover, that if there is once a will in the people of America to abolish slavery, this is no word, no syllable in the Constitution to forbid that result.” For Douglass, the true story of America was not the never ending oppression of the black race. It was the long and arduous process to afford them the same blessings of liberty that the constitution secured for white people.

Similarly, Abraham Lincoln knew and understood that America had to fight the Civil War to both preserve the Union and eliminate slavery. He understood better than most other whites of his time that slavery was a grave inustice that involved men “wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces,” and that the Civil War was God’s punishment on America for allowing slavery to last as long as it did. But Lincoln, unlike Tarantino, saw the violence of the Civil War as a cleansing penance that would eventually lead to healing, not a final retribution that signalled eternal enmity between the North and the South. In his Second Inaugural Address, Lincoln even acknowledged the fundamental humanity of Southerners by noting that both the North and the South “read the same Bible and worshipped the same God,” and warning the radical anti-slavery Republicans of the North to “judge not, that we be not judged.” He had a profound understanding that, while violence may be necessary to stop a terrible evil, it never will nor ever could be the last word in human affairs. This seems to be the complete opposite of the message of Django Unchained, as we are left with the final shot of a burning plantation house, reminiscent of the burning of Atlanta in Gone with the Wind. Black and white will always be at odds, the remnants of the house seems to proclaim from its smouldering ashes. The black man cannot expect to ever be equal with the white man if America is to remain America. 

Lincoln and Dogulass both had their own pessimism and doubts when it came to race relations, but Lincoln’s vision of America as “the last best hope on Earth” was the vision that America had chosen, and continues to choose (albeit many imperfections and costly mistakes), since the end of that terrible war in 1865, as opposed to Django Unchained’s bleak vision of eternal racial strife.We should continue to hope that America continues to strive for Lincoln’s vision as long as the republic stands.


Photo by Wonderlane