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Django Unchained


Yesterday I saw it after hearing a defense of its moral seriousness about slavery. The defense was correct.

Moral seriousness and historical seriousness are not the same thing. It’s too bad that Django contains historical inaccuracies, because they expose it to frivolous criticism. Such criticism should not overshadow its success in portraying, with subtlety and sophistication, the whole range of things that could happen if you thought of human beings as property. (It’s easy to grasp that people sometimes destroy their own property in boredom or anger. If you could feel angry at your property, you might be more likely to do it; but then if you feel angry at your property, it isn’t really property.)

Neither should the genre elements overshadow the searing intensity, dramatic and moral, of the main characters’ interactions. To dismiss the movie altogether on the basis of these elements, or of a historical quibble, is to be blinded by a contingent light.

The movie does lose its seriousness in the scenes that celebrate vengeance. That is really too bad. (Vengeance is whose, saith who?)

Nonetheless, I think viewers sense the difference between what is serious and what is not. Where I saw it, the audience laughed during the opening and closing bloodbaths, but was stone silent after the villain was shot. The shooting of this villain is the movie’s one morally serious depiction of vengeance, for the vengeance bounces back on the man who takes it.

What most moved me was when one character asked another to stop playing Beethoven in a slaveholder’s home, then pulled her hands away from a harp. I think Beethoven would have done the same.

Even Beethoven, no less a person than Beethoven, was fooled for a time into celebrating Napoleon. After Pope Pius VII crowned Napoleon emperor, Beethoven changed his mind about dedicating a symphony to him. He seems to have realized that ambition, not the Enlightenment, was Napoleon’s main motivation. Might he also have realized that there is no such thing as a liberal war?

There is no such thing as a liberal war. There are only wars to stop catastrophes and wars that create them. The difference is not always clear or predictable.

Lincoln confronts us with the hard question of what we might not do to stop a staggering evil. The magnitude of the evil he stopped is relevant to our judgment of the choices he made. So too is the fact that he broke the rules in order to reestablish their authority as a system. In this he differs from anyone willing to break some particular rule in order to bring about some particular outcome.

It is part of our system that there are rules for changing the rules. But it is in the nature of rules that their application requires interpretation. This will lead to disputes about whether they are being applied or broken. Some claims will be more plausible than others, but let us interpret one another generously.

I have been listening to Handel’s oratorio Israel in Egypt. The concluding double chorus is a setting of this text: “I will sing unto the Lord, for He hath triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider hath He thrown into the sea.” The music is itself glorious, but I would not want to sing it to the words that follow the semicolon.

Lao Tzu says that “victory too should be conducted like a funeral.” I think Lincoln understood that. I hope Quentin Tarantino will understand it yet.


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