One of the first adult movies that I remember seeing in a theater was Kevin Costner’s prairie epic Dances with Wolves. Because I was ten years old and a history nerd, and still several years away from my transformation into a cold-eyed, cold-hearted conservative, Costner’s sentimental, PC elegy for the Plains Indians inspired weeks of counterfactual imaginings in which the doom that fell on America’s native peoples was averted by a combination of Sioux military genius and a few noble whites who took the native side.
Quentin Tarantino hasn’t gotten around to making Dances on Custer’s Grave just yet, but his last two movies, Inglourious Basterds and now Django Unchained, have been inspired by the same impulse to save history’s victims — first 1940s Jews, now antebellum slaves — from their fate. But rather than the naïveté of a ten-year-old, Tarantino has the bloody-minded glee of an overgrown adolescent, so his counterfactuals are melodramas in which the liberated victims exact a terrible, blood-soaked revenge.
In Basterds, the revengers were Jewish commandos on a mission to assassinate the Nazi high command. In Django, the revenger is a freed slave (Jamie Foxx) whose wife (Kerry Washington) remains in bondage. The similarities between these stories and the style in which they’re told have earned the movies similar receptions — a mix of frank enthusiasm and furious offense-taking. But I suspect that once we have a little more perspective, Django will look like the bolder film, and also the less successful one.
It’s bolder because it’s actually a movie about slavery, and not just one about making sure the slaveholders get theirs. Apart from a harrowing Gestapo interrogation, Basterds kept the Holocaust itself well offstage. But to free his wife and wreak his revenge, Foxx’s Django has to make his way from the Wild West, where he’s been taken on as a partner by a sympathetic German bounty hunter (Christoph Waltz), to the cotton South, where his bride languishes on the vast Mississippi estate of a planter named Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).
This means that he, and we, are riding into the very heart of slave culture, which places the violence that sustained the peculiar institution front and center on the screen. And this is Tarantino, so the gore is as red as you’d expect. By the time Django gets around to making the slaveowners bleed in their turn, we’ve seen slaves whipped and mutilated, a runaway torn limb from limb by hounds, and a pair of slaves forced to fight each other, barehanded, to the death.
These horrors are probably less familiar to moviegoers than the barbed wire and boxcars of the Holocaust. The days of Hollywood’s sentimentalizing the Confederacy are long past, but for various reasons the movie industry has been less than enthusiastic about dramatizing the lives of slaves and their masters. Tarantino, then, is doing something genuinely audacious: Where Inglourious Basterds merely rewrote a tragic history, Django assumes the responsibility of actually telling it as well.
But this audacity creates a persistent, nagging uncertainty about what kind of movie we’re actually watching. Basterds was clearly a fantasia, start to finish — by turns terrifying, grisly, and gripping, but never self-serious, never Schindler’s List. Indeed, because Schindler’s List already existed, Basterds was free to be something else entirely.
But in Django, the fact that Tarantino is trying something more ambitious inevitably leaves the audience wanting more than his spaghetti-western framework can deliver. Because we so rarely see movies about characters born into slavery, for instance, we want more from Django himself than Foxx’s stoic man-on-a-mission caricature delivers. We want more from DiCaprio than just an amusing caricature of a spoiled young supremacist, and more from Samuel L. Jackson, who shows up as Candie’s sinister house slave — a cruel Uncle Tom who is the real power on the plantation — than just another riff on the profanity-spewing tough guys he’s played in prior Tarantino films. In such uncharted waters, cool is insufficient: This subject cries out for psychology as well.
It also cries out for a little more historical authenticity than he’s willing to offer. Tarantino has always been more drawn to violence than to sex, so it makes sense that he would spend much more time on the aforementioned to-the-death fights between male slaves — so-called Mandingo fighting — than on the threat of sexual violence against black women. But as Tom Carson has pointed out in The New Republic, the motor of the movie’s plot is “Django’s sexual rage that his wife has been forced into concubinage” — and Tarantino is too squeamish to actually show her being violated
And here’s the kicker: Outside of the 1970s blaxploitation film that coined the term, Mandingo fighting didn’t even exist. (Slaves were far too valuable to be sacrificed in a kind of human cockfighting.) So the chief illustration of slavery’s horrors in Django Unchained is actually a complete fiction, and the real-life horror that should have been front and center — sexual violence and exploitation — is only hinted at, because it doesn’t have a place in Tarantino’s presexual pulp aesthetic.
It isn’t Tarantino’s fault that there are too few movies set on antebellum plantations, and he deserves credit for brazenly wading in where filmmakers both black and white have feared to tread. But that doesn’t change the fact that with Django, for all its undeniable entertainment value, he’s in over his head.