By Arturo R. García
When it’s all said and done, Spike Lee isn’t totally wrong in not wanting to see Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained.
Setting aside Tarantino’s interpretation of the pre-Civil War south for a second, Django finds him retreading familiar ground: it’s more Kill Bill than Inglorious Basterds. But in insulating both his hero and his story from history as much as he does here, the writer/director ends up shortchanging both of them.
Spoilers under the cut.
That’s no fault of Jamie Foxx, who ably delivers on portraying the titular hero’s slow-building emergence. (Indeed, that the film nicks from Joseph Campbell on top of Sergio Leone is the biggest surprise of all.) His Django goes from being a quick study to Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) to being better able to handle the meat of their mission to rescue Django’s beloved Broomhilda (Kerry Washington).
But, as Jelani Cobb points out in The New Yorker, some of Tarantino’s past predilections keep butting in:
Primary among these concerns is the frequency of with which Tarantino deploys the n-word. If ever there were an instance in which the term was historically fitting it would seem that a Western set against the backdrop of slavery—a Southern—would be it. Yet the term appears with such numb frequency that “Django” manages to raise the epithet to the level of a pronoun. (I wonder whether the word “ni—r” is spoken in the film more frequently than the word “he” or “she.”) Had the word appeared any more often it would have required billing as a co-star. At some point, it becomes difficult not to wonder how much of this is about the film and how much is about the filmmaker.
Cobb is correct in describing the use of that slur as numbing; Tarantino ends up inducing more groans than chills on that front. About the “best” you can say is that a) most of the people using it are defined as villains (Schultz avoids it whenever possible; Django uses it matter-of-factly or in the midst of playing someone of higher station) and b) the villains get theirs, without the benefit of being portrayed as “cool” or conflicted or anti-heroes; the closest the film gets to “typical” Tarantino dialogue is a scene where a bunch of proto-Klan members can’t get their look together, let alone their act.
As plantation owner Calvin Candie, Leonardo DiCaprio tears into the chance to not be stuck playing another nervy good guy. And there’s a fascinating exchange between Candie and his favorite servant Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson) where they show as much mutual trust as Django and Schultz, but only behind closed doors; to the rest of the world, they have to perform the massuh/slave relationship. It would have been nice to play both duos against each other more and explore that dichotomy.
Tarantino does succeed at bringing about discomfort using some quieter scenes: there’s no catchy score, for instance, on top of the “mandingo” fighting scene in Candie’s living room, where the only sounds are Candie’s brusque encouragement and the sounds of two desperate men; the scene of one of his slaves being torn apart from dogs ends up being a turning point for Schultz; Jackson succeeds in switching from playing Stephen as Candie’s willing fool to being his ruthless eyes and ears on the rest of the house; and, as David Brothers notes, the shot of a noose hanging as the newly freed Django accompanies Schultz into one town spells out how precarious his situation is.
But Tarantino cheats Django out of his ultimate revenge by linking Schultz’s death to Candie’s. The downfall of his mentor is a necessary step in Django’s journey. But eliminating the film’s most powerful villain–a man who bought and imprisoned his wife on top of literally playing games with the lives of others–means that what should be a triumphant third act for Foxx’s character becomes an abridged victory lap.
Imagine, for a second, the conclusion of Kill Bill without that final conversation between Beatrice and Bill. Without having Candie to overcome at the end, that kind of tension is taken from the conclusion of Django’s quest. He mows down the rest of the household’s leadership and Stephen, emerging as “that one in 10,000,” but emerges further removed from everyone but Broomhilda. This brings to mind another critique of Cobb’s:
On the hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, it’s worth recalling that slavery was made unsustainable largely through the efforts of those who were enslaved. The record is replete with enslaved blacks—even so-called house slaves—who poisoned slaveholders, destroyed crops, “accidentally” burned down buildings, and ran away in such large numbers their lost labor crippled the Confederate economy. The primary sin of Django Unchained is not the desire to create an alternative history. It’s in the idea that an enslaved black man willing to kill in order to protect those he loves could constitute one.
Indeed, as the film ends, we see Broomhilda grab a rifle of her own. While Tarantino gave us Django as a superhero, I found myself wishing for a story where she joined him in forging their own myth, one that could be woven into the greater battle about to unfold in Tarantino-Earth.