It was with a great deal of trepidation that I went to see Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained late last night. The controversies surrounding the film have been especially tiresome and unedifying, even as pop-culture controversies go (is he encouraging people to kill Whitey?; is it okay to say the N-word now?; etc., etc.); and I have some broader problems with Tarantino’s world view (specifically, I think he comes close to glorifying violence for its own sake). So, despite my immense respect for his talent as a filmmaker, I was leaning toward skipping Django. But when I got an e-mail from a conservative-writer friend yesterday saying this film was second only to Pulp Fiction in the list of Tarantino’s best, I decided I had to see it.
Every Tarantino film works on two separate levels: It is a movie about its ostensible subject, and it is a Movie about Movies. Django succeeds, in rather different ways, on both counts. It is on its surface a movie about antebellum slavery, and presents the plight of southern slaves in a compelling way: It shows us not just the grossest human-rights abuses, such as beatings and killings, but the petty daily humiliations that enforce the rule of the powerful in a slave society. It is also a movie about spaghetti Westerns, a nearly-three-hour tribute to that genre, and the homage is both exact and flattering. Tarantino understands what makes a spaghetti Western tick, and he has created a great example of the genre.
He understands that cinema is our culture’s chief avenue for the creation of Myth (I use the word myth here in the Joseph Campbell sense, of an important reality shown creatively, not in the more usual sense of “a falsehood needing debunking”). The plot, reduced to its essentials, is that a man is on a quest to liberate his wife, who is being held in captivity by villains. In the first half of the film, a bounty hunter who befriends the hero tells him the medieval-German story of Brünnhilde, and remarks upon its similarity to the plight of the hero’s wife. (The enslaved wife in Django speaks German and is named Broomhilda. Subtlety is hardly at home in a spaghetti Western, but Tarantino has gone quite far in putting the “opera” in this horse opera; if one were to accuse him to his face of lacking subtlety, I imagine he would grin broadly and say “Ya think?”)
So at the heart of this film is a hero who will risk all to save his wife. He is defined by marital love, and his character is made even more likable by his friendship with the bounty hunter. Even though, in the film’s period and setting, the white bounty hunter (amiably played by Christoph Waltz) is the more socially powerful of the two, the bounty hunter ends up being the Sancho Panza to Django’s Quixote. As a result, much of this film works as a pretty solid entry in the “odd-couple buddy movie” genre too.
Of all the genres this movie inhabits, the most controversial is the Elizabethan/Jacobean revenge drama, as practiced by Thomas Kyd, Cyril Tourneur, and other luminaries. (If, in today’s context, Spielberg is the groundlings’ Shakespeare, Tarantino is their Kyd.) Given star Jamie Foxx’s notorious joke, I trust I am giving little away when I say that the bad guys in Django are indeed punished — with the full multi-gallon quotient of Elizabethan bloodiness — for their wicked deeds. It’s undeniable that this meting out of justice is greatly cathartic; I thought of Lincoln’s great line about the possibility that “every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword.”
But it’s important to remember that Lincoln didn’t stop the speech there; he went on to mention “malice toward none” and “charity for all.” Revenge can be just, but a good society can’t be built on that foundation. It needs more than the requital of violence with violence. Tarantino has proven his ability to work in many genres with great excellence; maybe there is new territory for him to explore, stories in which guns, knives, and dynamite are not the final answer?
Django is, finally, an overblown, operatic morality tale, and a work of great beauty. But — and I can’t stress this enough — I strongly caution anyone who has a low tolerance for the depiction of bloody violence, and great cruelty, in movies not to see this one. Also: The word “n*****” is indeed used many times in the film; while the word is not more offensive than slavery itself, if you don’t want to hear it — even in the context of an anti-slavery film — you should skip this movie.