Django Unchained or Django Unhinged? A Critical Perspective
Dan Bryan, January 12 2013
"I'm here to tell you, that however bad things get in the movie, a lot worse shit actually happened." - Quentin Tarantino in The Guardian
Quentin Tarantino's macabre, antebellum Spaghetti Southern Django Unchained has now (as of January 12, 2013) been nominated for Best Picture in this year's Academy Awards. If one views it simply as a piece of entertainment, and enjoys the gunfights and blood that ensue in this quite violent film, then it is arguably not a bad piece of work (I am not personally one who would argue this point). What is unfortunate is the extent to which Tarantino portrays this film as historical, only to deviate from that history in numerous places to the detriment of his story.
Just to be clear, I hated Django Unchained more than I would even hate a merely bad movie. There is that class of film that makes no claim to greatness, and from which none is expected, but Django Unchained is too good to fall into that category. It is too good because Tarantino creates four brilliant characters --
- Django Freeman himself (Jamie Foxx)
- The house slave Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson)
- The bounty hunter King Schultz (Christoph Waltz)
- Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), the plantation owner who fills every scene with menace.
It is in Calvin Candie that we see the true brutality of slavery -- his arrogance, his death sentences, the acquiescence he inspires, his flimsy Francophile-inspired facade of "culture", his gargantuan plantation, all comprising the faux ethereal quality of the world he creates in "Candyland".
I hated Django Unchained not because it lacked potential, but rather because it could have been one of the greatest movies in the history of American cinema, had a certain Tarantino not yielded to his most immature impulses as a filmmaker.
The first impulse I refer to is a known Tarantino trait among friend and foe alike -- his style of always going for the most violent outcome to a given situation, often in a way that belies subtlety.
More discomfiting in this instance is the way in which Tarantino picks and discards pieces of the slave experience as he sees fit, while simultaneously presenting this as a historical look at that "peculiar institution". He does this so often that what could have been his magnum opus instead devolves into a slavery exploitation flick. Let us examine along those lines the number of ways in which Django Unchained falls short.
The Specter of Rebellion
"I only had one question. Why don't they just rise up and... and kill the whites?" -- Calvin Candie (all quotes paraphrased)
Here is a good place to start -- the potential of the slave rebellion. A raw list of them would have to include the Stono Rebellion, Gabriel Prosser, Denmark Vesey, Nat Turner, and then of course John Brown.
There's no sign in The Guardian's article that Tarantino elaborated on how slavery was worse than in Django Unchained, but the Roman-derived practice of staking the rebels' heads to mile-markers on the roadsides would be a good start. This was precisely the punishment meted out after the Stono Rebellion in 1739.
Over time as threats of rebellion materialized -- it was no idle fear to the Southern planters -- the results were a crackdown on black slave culture with the goal of making it as servile as possible. The right to walk down the roads without a pass was non-existent. It was illegal for slaves to be literate. It was illegal for slaves to have their own churches or to congregate without the presence of a white man. Insouciant slaves were sometimes castrated as a means of making them more docile. A couple of states excepted, a serious of odious legal requirements were put into place to discourage masters from freeing their slaves, in order to keep the free black population to a minimum.
Finally in most southern states, all whites were required to serve time on slave patrols, who patrolled the roads and fields (day and night) to ascertain any sign of illegal gatherings or activity, and to question any slaves seen to be traveling.
The Specter of Rebellion cont. -- House Slaves
"A slaver is lower than the head house slave and that's pretty fucking low." - Django Freeman
If Calvin Candie is the head of the plantation, Stephan is the neck. With obsequious rhetoric the house slave places his own ideas in the mind of the master until the master accepts them as his own. He affects the language of docility and thorough it he gains access to the highest (and at the same time, lowest) position that a slave in the antebellum South can aspire to.
Gabriel Prosser had a plan for revolt involving hundreds of slaves in Virginia, set to transpire at a specific date, and it was betrayed by disloyal (or shall we say, loyal?) slaves for their pittance rewards. Governor James Monroe called out the Virginia militia to suppress the nascent revolt and Prosser was quickly hanged.
Thomas Jefferson himself maintained a network of paid slave spies at Monticello who were rewarded for the information they provided on intrigues and runaways. In Django Unchained, it is Stephen who plays that role to perfection -- right up to the point of his ludicrous demise.
Overall then, I'm curious as to what made Calvin Candie so curious as to why the slaves did not "rise up" as he suggested. The paranoia of the Southern planter class ensured a system of surveillance that rivaled that of a totalitarian dictatorship. As long as Calvin Candie was playing around with skulls, perhaps a skull or two on the fence posts with a brief explanation ("...those were a couple boys who tried to rise above their place awhile back...") would have made the extent of this totality more clear in the movie.
There is a gratuitous scene towards the beginning involving a slighted plantation owner in Gatlinburg, Tennessee and a mockery of the Ku Klux Klan. While the Klan was indeed a repellant organization, it was created in 1867 as a distinct reaction to Reconstruction. The entire point of the hood was for the terrorist Klansmen to hide themselves from Federal authorities. In 1858, even allowing that the Klan did not exist, there would have been absolutely no reason for these Southerners to disguise themselves.
A more realistic outcome to the scene at this particular plantation would have been for the owner to simply kill Django and send King Schultz on his merry way (or kill them both), but then of course, there would be no movie.
But wait... didn't we just say something about the nightly slave patrols above? Instead of having thirty fat-asses riding around on horses with burlap sacks around their faces, there could have been a much more realistic scene involving two or three of the murderous, intimidating trackers. Tarantino has every right to go for comic relief instead, but in doing so here he creates a ridiculous and implausible situation.
The Mandingo Fighting
Easily the most disgusting scene in the movie. As it played, I sat in the theater and asked myself, "was this a real thing?"
Anyone who has seen Django Unchained knows what I'm referring to. "was mandingo fighting a real thing?" was the first thing I googled when I came home from watching the movie. While it's impossible to say that this never happened even once in American history, there is no documented evidence according to serious historians of the period.
In that case, what was the slave sport of choice in antebellum America?
Boxing perhaps. Though it certainly wasn't the sport it became in the early 1900s, at least there are some recorded instances of fights in the South. A few slaves even won their freedom after successful careers in the ring, such as Tom Molineaux, who reputedly won his master $100,000 in a single fight. Boxing was easily wagered on, fun to watch, and had the added advantage of not killing off the participants who were needed for other valuable labor.
Even though the mandingo fighting scene was more physically nauseating than boxing could ever be, I would argue that a portrayal of slave boxing might have more disturbing implications psychologically, insofar as it might indicate an uncomfortable symmetry with the modern American sporting world.
As an added bonus the use of boxing would be more accurate historically, which is what Tarantino cares about, right?
The Other Inaccuracies
Briefly, a non-inclusive list of other dubious points:
- People would have done a lot more than casually ask why Django was riding a horse. The idea that a black man in 1858 could ride a horse from Texas to the Tennesee-North Carolina border, back to Texas, and then over to the Mississippi Delta country without finding himself dead or re-enslaved is a farce.
- After killing three overseers on the first plantation, there would have been no chance for explaining (King Schultz spins his tale about being a federal bounty hunter and gets them both off of the plantation). A black man could never get away with killing two white men in 1858 Tennessee -- white accomplice or no accomplice.
- Django would have never been invited to sit at Calvin Candie's table in that fateful dinner scene.
- Dynamite was not invented until 1863, and could not have been used in this movie if it were faithful to history.
- The ending is presented as a triumphant one, even though Django and Broomhilda will be lucky to make it five miles before they are caught by bounty hunters and/or slave patrols with dogs and executed.
The word "nigger" is used in this movie. A lot.
So much, in fact, that the main source of contention with the movie from some quarters centers upon the use of that word. But it can be justly said that this is how people talked in Mississippi in 1858, and that it wouldn't be a faithful representation of the times if people didn't talk like this in Django Unchained.
If Tarantino is a historical purist on this point though, what about all of the other points mentioned above where he does deviate from history in substantial ways?
He is playing a very dangerous game with Django Unchained and I wish that more critics realized it and called him out on it. When it suits Tarantino's purposes, when it lets him have a black man say "nigger" repeatedly or when it lets a white man ask, "Why is that nigger on a horse?" or basically whenever he can work out any excuse to include that detestable word into Django Unchained, then he claims that he does so because that is how people talked in 1858.
But how does Tarantino explain the rest of Django Unchained being filled with pseudo-historical gibberish and outright inaccuracies?
And if Tarantino is only true to life when it suits him, why does it suit him to be so true to life when he has a chance to include that certain word? Is he shedding light on slavery or exploiting it?
p.s. Certainly some people will assert that even if it's not historically accurate, Django Unchained still redeems itself with entertainment value. I disagree. I found the last third of the movie to be bombastically campy while failing to exploit the dynamic tension that Tarantino established early on. Django Unchained stands out as one of Quentin Tarantino's two worst movies (see also, Death Proof) to this writer.