The current Quentin Tarantino film “Django Unchained,” which opened Christmas Day, is a deeply flawed and morally offensive production. Characteristic of Tarantino’s works, it employs graphic, egregious violence, with exaggerated displays of blood and gore punctuating the film throughout.
Also common in this writer/director’s works is his character’s fulsome use of the “n word” in reference to other characters in the film. Despite vociferous criticism from a variety of quarters, Tarantino is unapologetic for the use of both of these cinematic devices, and he has achieved a string of box office successes, from “Pulp Fiction,” to “Kill Bill,” to “Inglorious Basterds,” and more.
“Django Unchained” is the story of an enslaved man, “Django,” played by Jamie Foxx, who taken over by a bounty hunter to help locate his human prey, then taken on as a temporary partner and sidekick in subsequent hunts.
Django’s consent to this arrangement is due to the offer of this bounty hunter, a Dr. Schultz, supposedly a traveling dentist, to help him find and free his wife, who was branded and sold as a result of an attempt by her and Django to escape from their owners. Schultz’s supposed distaste for slavery is given as the reason for his willingness to trade Django’s temporary agreement to a partnership for help in freeing his wife.
The problems with the film are many. First, there are multiple aspects of it that defy credibility, to say nothing of historical accuracy. “Django Unchained” is not interpretive historical re-presentation, as is the currently acclaimed “Lincoln.”
“Django” is unabashedly Hollywood, an unveiled effort to produce a film in the genre of the US Westerns of the 1950’s, the Italian Westerns of the 1960s, and the blaxploitation films of the 1970s.
Thus Mr. Tarantino apparently does not feel bound to honor credibility or historicity. The viewer, therefore, has to be willing to accept that a formerly enslaved black man, Django, at a time when the film’s characters tell us that both local custom and law had forbidden the enslaved to be allowed to ride a horse, now suddenly, being granted a horse by the sympathetic Dr. Schultz and upon his first mounting, is able to ride with the competence and skill of a seasoned equestrian.
One is asked to accept that Django, never having held a firearm in his life, can, upon first effort, hit his galloping human mark from a distant hillside, with a highly specialized, long-distance rifle, like a veteran sharpshooter. The viewer is called upon to believe that Django found a barber in a small Southern white town who could clip his long “natural” locks and give him the close-cropped, sculptured, late twentieth century hairdo that Foxx actually wears in real life.
The filmgoer is asked to accept that Django, without hesitation or any hint of trepidation or jeopardy, would kill Southern white plantation employees and expect to get by with impunity. Or that the enslaved on this large plantation would affectionately refer to their owner as “Big Daddy.” These are but a few of the train of reason- and context-challenging inclusions with which the film asks the viewer to go along.
Yet all of these might be tolerable if Mr. Tarantino had not made them a part of a film that chose the still very raw, socially sensitive subject of US slavery as simply the foil for a pop box office tale. In a societal context that never forthrightly addressed the horrific reality of southern trees bearing “strange fruit,” “Django Unchained” pictures a Ku Klux Klan- type gang of forty or fifty persons riding out to lynch Django and Schultz and then, in a scene of supposedly comic buffoonery, fall into disarray because the eyeholes in their hoods, made by one of their wives, are too small.
It can be granted that this film serves the viewer by displaying in full effect some of the harsh assaults on black bodies and black being that were a recurrent part of slavery, such as the imposition of metal face muzzles and hooked neck collars, or the permanently scarring, bare-back whippings of women and men and face branding as punishments for even minor infractions of their owners’ rules.
But the more troubling, offensive aspects of Django emerge from another dimension, the roles assigned to the actors and actresses. The black women are cast as excessively fawning and obsequious or as having sold out themselves, body and spirit, to the licentious wills of their owner.
Dr. Schultz is, at best, an amoral character, who, in pursuit of his profession of bringing in lawbreakers “dead or alive,” always opted for the former, with no qualms or compunctions. The antagonists in the film are consistently portrayed as cruel, sadistic, self-absorbed haters, with no conscience or ethical fiber.
The problem for this writer is that Django, the titular protagonist, descends in the film from a sympathetic, potentially heroic type to one who becomes as cruel and ethically degraded as the worst of those around him. He is so singularly focused on achieving his aim of reclaiming his wife that he is willing to do anything, sacrifice anyone, to do so, even to the point of posing as a black enslaver.
He plays out that ruse in ways that leave the viewer wondering if, in fact, he was genuinely comfortable with it and, in one devastatingly cruel act, essentially remanded a pleading, innocent enslaved man to a vicious, mutilating death. Indeed, throughout the film Django was never shown to feel or express any empathy or care for the enslaved, except for his self-serving desire to retrieve his wife from whatever difficult life into which she had been sold.
“Django Unchained” is a troubling film. Quentin Tarantino, its writer/director, has rejected the condemnatory association some have been made in the media between the violence in his type of films and the recent violent slaughter of school children and staff by a gunman in Sandy Hook, CT.
Yet, we are offered here a would-be hero who is driven by a vengeance-laden search for a lost relationship, brought about by the injustice of slavery. And what Tarantino seems to affirm, here and in other films, is, as one reviewer phrased it, “ homicidal vengeance as the highest — if not the only — form of justice.”
Further, he has taken the license to re-position the historical moral/ ethical compass by identifying with black people, in Django and other characters in the film, “the sanctification and romanticization of revenge [that] have been central to the ideology of white supremacy.”
It is illegitimate and offensive for Mr. Tarantino to project, without documentation, the ethical degradation of white supremacist values onto African Americans - or, for that matter, onto any of the other groups that have historically been subjected to social marginalization and abuse. They have not so acted, inspite of lingering white fear that their historical treatment would engender such behaviors.
Furthermore, while some indirect Sandy Hook association may or may not be borne out, images are powerful; they take up residence in one’s psyche and become part of the formational matrix of societal perspectives and of one one’s personal being. They contribute to how we view and thus relate to one another.
No black person portrayed in “Django Unchained” exhibits the internal moral fortitude that has sustained so many through the challenges of history. None are projected as persons whose lives could inspire the song writer to have penned the line sung across black America about “the faith that the dark past has taught us . . . the hope that the present has brought us.” No viewer of films ought to by fed the false images of African Americans as so stolid and degenerated by the dispossession and brutalization infused through so much of their history that African Americans emerged as devoid of ethical fiber, so bereft of the resources of positive agency that they could not and did not embrace the values that undergird our common life as a nation and commit themselves to living out those ideals, no matter how counterintuitive that may seem.
“Django Unchained” is not just another western, no matter what Mr. Tarantino may have intended. And movies are not just movies. They leave an imprint on audiences. This is a problematic film, as far as filmmaking, itself, goes. But more, it violates history and offends social and moral sensitivities in ways that make it unworthy of filmgoers dollars and is potentially deleterious to our social fabric.