Now that Quentin Tarantino’s latest movie, “Django Unchained,” has been nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, its cultural significance has been officially certified. But there is still much confusion about precisely what that cultural significance might be.
First and foremost, it’s fairly easy to review as a movie: it’s “Inglorious Basterds” with slavers instead of Nazis. It even features the same marvelous supporting actor, Christoph Waltz, who received an Oscar nomination for his efforts. Waltz is one of those actors who could make reading his grocery list interesting. In “Basterds” he was the villain; in “Django” he’s the wise mentor to our hero. He’s essentially playing a mirror image of his character from “Basterds,” while preserving his fearsome intelligence and avuncular personality. It would be interesting if Waltz’s Nazi character in “Basterds” turned out to be a descendant of the bounty-hunting dentist he plays in “Django.”
Every other attribute of “Django Unchained” is secondary to its identity as a Tarantino movie. It’s a moralistic excuse for staggering outbursts of bloody violence, separated by long conversations filled with profanity. I actually found the conversations in this film less sharply-written and entertaining that in some of the director’s previous efforts, particularly “Inglorious Basterds” – which was basically a series of vignettes about people having dangerous conversations, which at least one party knows are going to end in bloodshed at any moment.
“Django” is much too long – it’s almost as long as “The Hobbit!” – and the pacing suffers from a sort of false climax that seems to have been defused just to create one more scene, which gives Tarantino a chance to appear in the film. It’s really not the best example of his craft, as either actor or director, but anyone who enjoyed his other films is likely to have a good time, and a few individual scenes – an argument between dimwitted night-riders over the merits of wearing bags on their heads, Django the freed slave hearing the legend of Brunhilde from his German mentor, a menacing encounter with the reigning king of hillbilly psychosis, Walton Goggins – are terrific.
What Tarantino is indulging here is the same license that caught his fancy in “Inglorious Basterds” and his two-part “Kill Bill” saga: the notion of villains so utterly reprehensible that the heroes are justified dispensing any level of brutality toward them. (Before that, he was fond of stories in which nearly everyone was some species of monster.) No fate is to gruesome for a slaver, a Nazi, or the sort of people who would steal a woman’s baby after leaving her for dead. Audiences always love seeing villains get what’s coming to them. Tarantino likes to crank that impulse up to “11,” and see if everyone is still on board. In the old-time Westerns, bad guys clutched their chests and died bloodlessly under the guns of heroes. In the revisionist Westerns of the Sixties, Seventies, and Eighties, they caught bullets in the stomach, dying in pools of blood. Tarantino has Jamie Foxx’s Django aim even lower, then rubs his hands with glee and peers into the audience, delighted to observe that everyone is still clapping and cheering. These are slavers he’s killing, right? Nothing is too bad for them.
The initial cultural controversy surrounding “Django Unchained” is the extensive use of a notorious derogatory term for black people. Tarantino appears to have a special dispensation, almost unique among white people, to use this word as often as he likes. It’s peppered through just about every script he produces. There have been quibbles about the historical accuracy of using the word so extensively in “Django,” although crticizing this film for historical accuracy is like criticizing “Star Wars” for its dubious space science. In both cases, accuracy is nowhere near the point of the exercise.
Then there is the question of slavery itself, which various people attached to the film have portrayed as something we need to have a “national conversation” about. This was always an oddly blinkered stance for them to take, because our national conversation about slavery has continued uninterrupted for decades. It can hardly be described as a topic that gets skimmed over in school, at either grade-school or collegiate levels. It would be safe to say that the academic community portrays slavery as among the most important elements of American history… if not the most important. This is not a taboo subject that Quentin Tarantino, Jamie Foxx, and Samuel L. Jackson are courageously broaching for the first time, after generations of uncomfortable silence.
It would be better to ask if we’re doing ourselves a disservice by shackling modern America to the sins of its past – both the ancient evil of slavery and the more modern, but still fast-receding, era of segregation. We absolutely wallow in that stuff, rather than refusing to discuss it. We even allow the gravitational field of decades-old racism to warp our very language, to the point where some people would face instant career disintegration by using the “n-word” a single time in public, while Quentin Tarantino is applauded for capering around and chanting it like a child seeking attention through rude behavior. Other people with different skin tones make millions by weaving this word into song lyrics.
Wouldn’t it be better if we agreed together – as one united people – that this word is hellish and wrong, quarantining it as we would a virus? We might have to carefully deploy it to produce historically accurate scripts set in certain eras, but this can be done without repeating it every minute or two. There is an argument to be made that hateful words can be defused through mockery and humor, but that doesn’t seem to be happening with the “n-word,” or else everyone would be licensed to use the toothless old obscenity at will.
The idea that the slow-witted, psychopathic slave owners of “Django Unchained” have any relevance to modern America is sick and insulting. The return of chattel slavery is not in prospect. No American for generations has been a slave, or a slaver… at least, not within the boundaries of the United States. Perhaps Tarantino, Foxx, and Jackson would consider making a movie about the places in the world today where slavery does still exist, and show their audiences who is doing it, and why. But efforts to use the pre-Civil War era as some sort of dark mirror for current events should be viewed as violating some sort of slavery codicil to Godwin’s Law, which concerns the irrationality of comparing modern political actors to Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany. Too many of us carry on as if the civil-rights movement happened yesterday, and emancipation the day before that. The America of 2013 has all sorts of very serious problems to contend with, but an impending return to the bizarre plantations run by Big Daddy or Calvin Candie in “Django Unchained” are not among them. It is both unjust and frivolous to pretend otherwise.
Not that Tarantion himself seems very interested in adopting such a pretense. He just wanted to show despicable people getting blasted into bloody chunks, by heroes whose actions might make the audience uncomfortable, if their targets were any less vile. The last cultural ripple emanating from “Django Unchained” concerns the extensive use of firearms as instruments of conflict resolution, at a moment when Hollywood is very interesting in promoting gun control, in part as a defensive measure against criticism of movie violence.
The most casual viewer of Django’s adventures would immediatley note the relationship between gun ownership and freedom. If there’s an underlying “point” to Tarantino’s entire body of work, it would be that the rules of any dangerous encounter are written by people holding guns. (For a particularly uncomfortable exploration of that point, see the encounter between The Bride and Bill’s brother in “Kill Bill, Volume 2.” Not even Hollywood-horsefeathers levels of martial arts prowess are any substitute for a gun.) Of course, Tarantino is not comfortable discussing his stories that way – he just wanted to splash fake blood on celluloid and sell it for a few million bucks. But if it wasn’t for a good man with a gun, Django would have ended his life in chains, and from the moment his chains were broken, his skill with a gun allowed his life to continue. That’s one aspect of humanity’s long and violent history we’re not likely to escape any time soon.