Quentin Tarantino finally made a version of Inglorious Basterds for me. I thought it a mite peculiar, the minor obsession with the gore fest about smashing Nazis over the heads with baseball bats, but about halfway through Django Unchained, it all finally clicked for me. I was born and raised in the South, where the grotesque history of race relations there is still a deep source of shame for me personally, even if I never took part in slavery, lynchings, race riots or segregation. But I live in its wake and I benefit from it, even indirectly. The effects of such a painful chapter of human history were plain to see in my day to day life and effects such as incarceration rates, poverty, and drugs continue to be one of the most shameful aspects of contemporary American life. It’s a wound that people try to ignore, even if it still causes pain as it is picked fresh every day. That this country was built on the backs of enslaved human beings and that their descendants are still treated as second class citizens by the system that has so clearly profited from their misery continues to haunt any American of conscience.
So as I was cheering on the bloody escapades of our hero in Django, I suddenly considered that this must be how my German friends, who are also so deeply ashamed of their past, must feel when they watch Nazis get blown up on the big screen too. And how good for Tarantino that he’s figured out a way to tap into this deep cultural shame, and offer us all something of a therapeutic catharsis. Finally! I get to see plantation owners eat lead for their crimes. Tarantino doesn’t back away from the gore: we see slavery in all its bloody and grotesque splendor – men being torn apart by dogs, rape, dismemberment, castration, constant humiliation, and, through the portrayal of the collaborator Stephen, even the sometimes-deeper infection of the minds and hearts of the enslaved themselves. And just as we all secretly desire, the plot shifts from a story in the last forty minutes or so to the bloodbath we’ve all been waiting for. The killing spree that takes place for the latter quarter of the film was inevitable – the hand that has been reaching for the gun for the whole film is let free. It feels terrible, in a way, to enjoy watching anyone be killed, but this is part of the glory. Not being able to fully enjoy it, though wholeheartedly supporting it, is the white liberal’s prize in Django.
Likewise, the character of Dr. Shultz affords the white viewer an easy buy in- he is also white, also horrified by the gruesome reality of slavery, but also uneasy at the gore and depth of the violence. His desire to help save Django’s wife and leave without incident is proof of this itself. But Django wants blood – indeed, he deserves it. While Shultz is unable to fully stomach the part of “mandingo-dealer” in order to accomplish his goals, Django himself has no issue with making the sacrifices of moral pride necessary to accomplish his vengeance and save his wife. While Dr. Shultz turns green as a man is torn apart by dogs, Django says that he is used to it, having been around Americans longer than his partner has. Could I ever tap into this source of rage and vengeance? Could I ever cheer at the screen while the slaveowner’s sister – blissfully ignorant of her brother’s darker crimes, a mirror of many where I grew up – was blown away in cold blood?
But then, maybe this film was not for me. This could be a deeper catharsis for those in the audience who were still beat down by this history, not in the abstract and shameful way that I was, but in socio-economic reality. So then, why was Spike Lee famously boycotting the film? Maybe the answer is grounded in the fact that a white man made this movie – it can always be excused as just another Tarantino gore-fest. If Spike Lee had proposed making a film about a former slave riding through the South killing white people, he would have been laughed out of Hollywood. No one would finance that. The controversy would be enormous, never mind how many times the dreaded N-word would be thrown at the audience. It is mildly controversial when a white man makes the film, but would be unthinkable if a black man did it.
Maybe this is where we should situate this film politically – the vengeance of Django is acceptable under the watchful eyes of Tarantino, but the same film would be too much, too real if it was made by someone such as Spike Lee, a politically outspoken black man. As Tarantino makes it, the historical irreverencies can be chalked up to an attitude that the movie can be read as apolitical – Spike Lee’s main contention with the film. In which case, I’m inclined to agree with Lee: is it possible to make an apolitical film about slavery in the United States without being grossly offensive?
Overall, the film delivers on skill and acting. It’s not as blood-and-guts as some of Tarantino’s other work, though the violence is still staggering. A cheer went up from the audience as a white overseer was shot on horseback, his blood splattering the cotton plants. The resentment still exists, and the effects of slavery are still felt all over this country. Is Django Unchained a sign of broader race relations in the states, or is it simply a way for people to feel better about themselves for a while before stepping back into the cruel reality of American life?