Quentin Tarantino Commits Black Revolution in Django Unchained: A Film Review

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*Spoiler Alert*

    As I went to the cinema to see Django Unchained, I was cool and curious. While Quentin Tarantino has made some marvelous movies in the past, one of my all-time favorites being Pulp Fiction (1994), I was curious about what kind of film Quentin would produce with a subject like slavery. While I figured it would be a simple vengeance film, as the first 20 minutes went by, I realized I was highly mistaken. Instead, what I was watching was a complex, sophisticated film engaging in pure ideological violence, concluding with Django and his wife Broomhilda trotting off into their own taste of Black Utopia. I want to reflect on several revolutionary moments in this film that stuck out to me.

    When I think of American films regarding the legacy of chattel slavery, particularly the portrayal of whites regarding the ‘peculiar institution’, I find myself annoyed by the fact that whites are never denied the ability to save face. Never are white’s complacency fully implicated with the peculiar institution. Instead, they are shown in a manner that leaves the watcher to challenge the notion of white complacency with racism. Amistad is a perfect example of this ideological vulgarity. In “Amistad” (1997), the co-protagonist is an initially apathetic lawyer played by Matt McConaughey; enlisted by a white abolitionist, who is assisted by a token black free-man, depicted by Morgan Freeman, who goes all the way from Virginia to the United States Supreme Court to fight for the freedom of a slave. Never does the viewer questions the lawyer’s intentions or suspects him of racism. Instead, the viewer walks away questioning the notion of ‘white racism’ with the juxtaposition of good-willed whites presented in the film. This paternalistic, face-saving dynamic is heavily present in films like “The Blindside” (2009), where whites are depicted as caring, ultimately well intentioned people who are never ‘those racist people’ towards Blacks.

    Django imposes on the viewer are far more radical, if not revolutionary, role for whites in race-laden films. In Django, all whites are implicated as guilty, aiders and abettors to the peculiar institution of chattel slavery and white supremacy. Even the co-protagonist Schultz; a German dentist turned bounty hunter, played by Christoph Waltz, is not awarded innocence as he continues to do business with the virulently racist plantation owner, Calvin Candy, played by Leonardo DiCaprio. Calvin is the antithesis of Schultz’ open-minedly naïve character, exemplified by his vicious destruction of his own human property by a grueling death in the maws of ravenous hounds, let alone his participation in the fictional bloodsport of Mandingo fighting. Nevertheless, Schultz’s acquiescence to Calvin’s cruelty is only vindicated by committing an act of honorable suicide, killing Calvin in the presence of his gun-wielding bodyguard. Django is a revolutionary film in this context because all whites; racist, tolerant, rich, working class, poor, man and woman, are all implicated in the evil machinations of a white supremacist world. Quentin Tarantino does not give any space for white innocence because such innocence doesn’t exist in Quentin’s realistic portrayal of antebellum America. As Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek gestures in his many works, ‘ideology is not what is expressed, but what is not expressed [included] within ideology’. In past films, what is said is that ‘there are good and bad whites, not all of them can be bad’. What is not said is that ‘surely white racism is not as bad they [Blacks] say if there are good whites’. This point is driven home like a salt-laden shotgun shell when Django, in swift retribution, goes on a killing spree against all the vessels of white supremacy.

    If you haven’t already figured it out, there are no white saviors in Django Unchained, blacks are their own saviors. Django first kills the poor white slavehands; who, under Calvin’s command, unleashed bloodthirsty hounds on a black male slave; dancing in jubilee as the slave is mauled alive, rejoicing in their illusion of self-value over the valueless in a race-drunk America. Django then greets the returning funeral procession, killing the white male overseer; a white working class male, who is sexually and physically threatened by Django throughout the latter half of the film. An interesting scene takes place before Django’s path of vengeance where the overseer attempts to castrate Django before being interrupted by the house slave; only to walk away after a tauntingly playful stroke to Django’s male organ. Unexpectedly, Django kills the unsuspecting sister of Calvin Candy; her powerlessness as a white woman, in a world dominated by white men, gains her no special privilege for her attempt to sell him off to a convict labor mining company earns her male equality in the form of a cold bullet. Even private property, the sacred haven of whiteness and class privilege, is given its poetic end as Django razes it with a coolness a Communist cannot even match. Django: Unchained is guilty as charged as a near-three hour film of pure Black Revolution.

    Yet, it doesn’t stop there. Quentin not only commits revolution against white acquiescence and denial, he also revolts against Black insecurity in this film by depicting Blacks as truly powerless victims of slavery. In Alex Haley’s Roots, blacks are still given the dignity of being seen as human beings capable of intelligence, engaging each other as competent adults, and having dignity enough to have private homes. In Django, slaves are depicted as uneducated, even childlike by the virtue of their dependence on their slave owners. Even the vulnerability of strong black men and beautiful black women are left untouched in this film as black bodies are depicted as exotic, sexually alluring, and freely open to the exploitation of whites. A pure example of this is Candies’ slave Shiva. Seen early in Django and Schultz’s first encounters with Candy, Shiva is depicted as a reality-defying erotic experience through her Jezebel-like presence. Her sexual mystique turned-on-full even lures the viewer’s mind into a wild goose chase, equally guilty in eroticizing the black female image. The most jarring scene in these regards is when Django’s wife, Broomhilda, her nude black feminine form open for the audience to see, is lifted out of a hole, without shame on behalf of the white plantation workers, and carried with impunity in a wheelbarrow. This scene’s power was enough to stir the audience into an eerie silence, even causing some black viewers to leave in disgust or anger. Django is no simple ‘revenge flick; calling it as such denies the film the justice of playing fire with the sophistication and depth often reserved for political-correct, Oscar-winning films such as “Crash” (2007).

    The most interesting part of the film, and the conclusion in its ideological reign of terror, is when Django finally saves his wife. In this age of Tyler Perry’s ‘Madea’, Black men are cruel, chauvinistic creatures that are only good for raping, misleading, and beating black women. Here Quentin commits a great heresy against a Tyler-Perry-fixated Hollywood, depicting a Black man as an angry, valiant knight on a white horse saving his black woman and showing off for her. Quentin even twists his heretical knife even deeper showing a black woman in jubilee, proud of her Black male compatriot for saving her vulnerable black womanhood in an age where male saviors are seen as sexist ironies of female weakness. In this film, the heretical triumph of womanism over feminism sings loudly from beginning to end.

    In conclusion, this film is surely a jewel; not only as a choice of evening entertainment, but as a captivating, soul-stirring, comical, and angering film that marks another silver screen conquest in Tarantino’s portfolio, while providing a far more accessible tool for teaching the legacy of slavery. While many will oppose such a suggestion; counterpoising that the legacy of slavery should be taught, according to Spike Lee, through ‘respectful’ and ‘true’ stories, Django proves that only the disrespectful playground of fiction can deliver above and beyond in this regard. True stories give way to the self-assurance that the horror of slavery is an account of exaggerated individual accounts masquerading as mass narrative. No, in Quentin Taratino’s masterpiece, the breadth of slavery is given the proper playground to delivers its horrors and darkness with careless abandon. Django:Unchained is a canonical addition to the story of modern film, a modern cult classic for generations of film perverts to come.

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4 Comments

  1. Much of what this describes is not revolutionary. Even through this review, the sexism and racism of Django unchained are evident; it seems this movie denies all characters their agency, in blacks the ability to fight back and resist, in women the ability to save themselves, or even, it seems, to think for themselves, and in whites any sort of decency; yes the image of the ‘good white person’ haunts our culture and fights realization of racism, but at the same time such people did exist.
    I would recommend you reconsider your notion of revolutionary and radical, because right now you are wrong.

    • I am curious to what would make you think there would be agency to begin with? Slavery was American totalitarianism…..if i was born into a bondage and told every day -from birth- my duty was to be someone’s property, working sun up to sundown, what agency am I suppose to have? Its slavery, not Braveheart lol (Think North Korea here).

      Secondly, indeed they did exist. HOwever, the context that I was referring to ‘good white people’ was in the context of film. I can’t think of any racial movies where black characters were their own saviors. One of my favorite philosophers, Slavoj Zizek, talks about how Hollywood has a way of making films channeling ideological attitudes of our times…and films regarding race have a way of trying to ‘whitewash – no pun intended – white apathy and complacency. Django Unchained, for me anyways, was a revolutionary film in this way that it didn’t hold anything back….Even something historically fictional like ‘Mandingo Fighting’ was an excellent plot device in driving the dehumanization of the black body, how it was nothing more than an instrumental of white plantation owners self fulfillment, through wealth, abd, or, sexual pleasure. It was a revolutionary film in this regard because it drove that home clearly….Its not like past movies where it you had this tisket-a-tasket approach to racial issues (like Crash, which I hated as a movie).

      While I am aware some people would rationalize that I am wrong for seeing it as a radical and revolutionary, but as a black film watcher that is tired of seeing movies like ‘The Blindside’, this movie rocked my world.

      • I must agree with the previous comment. There is little in Django Unchained that might be deemed genuinely “revolutionary” or emancipatory. Let us consider for a moment the ridiculous title of this post: “Quentin Tarantino Commits Black Revolution in Django Unchained.” The very notion that a white American man whose career has largely consisted in producing contrived Orientalist knock-offs (think Kill Bill), hyper-individualist revenge fantasies (Kill Bill, Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchained), and repeated acts of cultural appropriation (Kill Bill again, now three for three) can or is likely to forward the cause of Black emancipation and empowerment is nothing more than a desperate reiteration of the white-industrial savior complex’s founding assumption, namely, that white representation of Black agency, usually within the accepted ideological limits of late-capitalist society, is somehow progressive or radical. Hardly.

        While Žižek’s particular form of ideology critique is potentally valuable (though not entirely novel, with roots in Marx’s work on ideology, Foucault’s discourse analysis, Lacan’s psycho-linguistics, and Jameson’s notion of the political unconscious), it is, Žižek’s own career should be proof enough (see: http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2011/11/2011111011283172950.html and http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2013/01/2013114142638797542.html), no guarantee of immunity to those ideological trends and oversights. Django Unchained continually reproduces the hyper-individualistic and patriarchal assumptions of late capitalism and effectively erases the very real collective struggles of Black slaves, both men and women, for their own liberation (think Nat Turner). Moreover, it is absurd and counterproductive to argue that denying any shred of human decency to whites is somehow progressive. That whites benefit from slavery and institutionalized white supremacy is clear enough, but those are structural and discursive matters; by imputing the problem to some imagined white essence or nature rather than concrete institutions and forms of discourse, Django Unchained merely perpetuates the dominant preoccupation with individual misbehavior rather than systematic injustice. But I’m not saying anything that others haven’t already said much better: http://jacobinmag.com/2013/01/why-django-cant-revolt/. At the end of the day, the question needs to be asked why hacks like Tarantino get a free pass and considerable funding for denying Blacks collective agency while Black directors with a more progressive vision are effectively disfranchised, erased, and denied the financial resources necessary to adequately compete in the film industry.

        Your post, while well meaning, misses the fundamental issues.

  2. Jeeze people get a job.

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