Movie Review: Django Unchained: Great Vengeance and Furious Anger By Jordy Cummings

6 January 2013 — Basicsnews.ca

[WARNING: Contains spoilers]

“The <strong class=’StrictlyAutoTagBold’>history of the crime story is a social <strong class=’StrictlyAutoTagBold’>history; for it appears intertwined with the <strong class=’StrictlyAutoTagBold’>history of bourgeois society itself….the <strong class=’StrictlyAutoTagBold’>history of bourgeois society is also that of property and the negation of property, in other words, crime….because bourgeois society is a criminal society” – Ernest Mandel, A Delightful Murder: The Social History of the Detective Story

<img class=”alignleft” style=”margin-left: 10px; margin-right: 10px; border: 0px none;” alt=”Django unchained trailer” src=”https://williambowles.info/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/django-unchained-trailer.jpg&#8221; width=”342″ height=”180″ border=”0″ hspace=”10″ />

Of all the “b-movie” film genres of the 20th century, none was more consistently <strong class=’StrictlyAutoTagBold’>radical than the spaghetti western.  So-named because of its Italian lineage, these films used the setting of the wild west to portray thinly veiled allegories about popular uprisings, class and racial oppression, and armed rebellion against the ruling classes.  Of all of the filmmakers in this genre, the most  consistently <strong class=’StrictlyAutoTagBold’>radical was Sergio Corbucci.  My favorite Corbucci film is The Great Silence, in which a mute gunman named “Silence” (his vocal cords cut out by the bounty-hunting henchmen of the local banker),  avenges oppressed communities and individuals for the crimes committed against them.  The film (in which there are central characters who are people of colour) is as much an adventure story as a stand-in for revolutionary justice enacted by mountain-based communist partisans against counter-revolutionary fascist stormtroopers during World <strong class=’StrictlyAutoTagBold’>War 2. Another one of Corbucci’s best films is Django, in which an enigmatic former soldier fights a two-front struggle against both marauding bandits and the Ku Klux Klan, both of whom prey on the Mexican and indigenous townspeople. It is from this film that Quentin Tarantino has taken the title and some of the plot elements to create his own spaghetti western set in 1858, shortly before the Civil <strong class=’StrictlyAutoTagBold’>War when <strong class=’StrictlyAutoTagBold’>slavery was in economic crisis.

Like all of Quentin Tarantino’s films, <strong class=’StrictlyAutoTagBold’>Django Unchained is a collage work, taking bits and pieces from a wide variety of genre films.  It takes its name, and form from classic Spaghetti Westerns, while also evoking other more explicitly political films, notably Passolini’s Salo and Gilles Pontecervo’s Kapo.  There are obvious political limitations to the type of film that is first and foremost meant as entertainment but contrary to some voices on the Left, Django Unchained, while not without problems, is overall a <strong class=’StrictlyAutoTagBold’>radical film.  Indeed, many of the harshest critics (if they’ve even seen the film) nitpick minor elements, while ignoring the film’s overall focus: showing a side of <strong class=’StrictlyAutoTagBold’>slavery that has rarely been seen in popular American culture and encouraging audience members to feel a sense of satisfaction at the righteous violence visited upon those who would chain and abuse their fellow human being.

<img class=”size-medium wp-image-6192 alignright” style=”margin-top: 0px; margin-right: 0px; margin-bottom: 0px; margin-left: 15px; border-style: solid; border-color: #dddddd; outline-width: 0px; outline-style: initial; outline-color: initial; font-size: 12px; vertical-align: baseline; background-image: initial; background-attachment: initial; background-origin: initial; background-clip: initial; background-color: transparent; float: right; background-position: initial initial; background-repeat: initial initial; border-width: 1px; padding: 3px;” alt=”9561ac0e495dbcbff7752f57c9e7″ src=”http://basicsnews.ca/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/9561ac0e495dbcbff7752f57c9e7-300×200.jpg” width=”300″ height=”200″ />As the film begins, Django (Jamie Foxx) is rescued from bondage by Dr. King Schultz (played by the brilliant Christoph Waltz), a bounty hunter searching for three slave-drivers whose appearance is known to Django.  They become colleagues and the first hour of the film is primarily the adventures of Schultz and Django killing white folks and getting paid for it, as Django describes his new job with satisfaction. “What’s not to like?”

The chemistry between the wiley Schultz and the stoic Django is as memorable as any set of “buddies” in American cinema.  Moreover, the normal dynamic of the interracial bromance found in many popcorn films is more substantively equal, if not reversed.  While Schultz teaches Django to read and use firearms, rather than heroic he appears more as a Mr. Miyagi to Django’s Daniel-san, or a reverse of the “Magic Negro” trope.

It is notable that Dr. Schultz is German.  On one level, this seems to be a tribute to the characters played byKlaus Kinski in some of the classic spaghetti westerns.  But on a historical level, it would seem that the staunch abolitionist Schultz is an “1848er” like Marx and Engels: a German exiled after the failed revolutions in Europe of 1848, perhaps a communist.  Thousands of German exiles ended up in the United States and helped found America’s <strong class=’StrictlyAutoTagBold’>labour and anti-<strong class=’StrictlyAutoTagBold’>slavery abolitionist movements.  During the American Civil <strong class=’StrictlyAutoTagBold’>War some of the most fearless forces were amongst the German immigrant contingents of Lincoln’s Union army.

Getting to know Django, Schultz takes it upon himself to help Django rescue his wife from the both charmingly dapper and viciously evil plantation owner Candie, played by Leonardo DiCaprio.  Rather than cotton, Candie’s plantation specializes in producing “Mandingo fighters”: gladiators who fight to the death as their owners watch from the comfort of their drawing rooms, drinking sweet iced tea with whiskey.

<img class=”size-medium wp-image-6193 alignleft” style=”margin-top: 0px; margin-right: 15px; margin-bottom: 0px; margin-left: 0px; border-style: solid; border-color: #dddddd; outline-width: 0px; outline-style: initial; outline-color: initial; font-size: 12px; vertical-align: baseline; background-image: initial; background-attachment: initial; background-origin: initial; background-clip: initial; background-color: transparent; float: left; background-position: initial initial; background-repeat: initial initial; border-width: 1px; padding: 3px;” alt=”sam-jackson” src=”http://basicsnews.ca/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/sam-jackson-300×216.jpg” width=”300″ height=”216″ />Candie’s accomplice, the house-slave Stephen (his name a play on “Steppin Fetchit” and played superbly by Samuel L. Jackson), seems inspired by Malcom X’s description of the house slave.  “He ate the same food the master ate…loved the master more than he loved himself”.  Indeed, Stephen seems in many ways a “consigliere”, who catches on to Schultz and Django’s rescue plot, calling his master into a private study and explaining how these “mother-fuckers” (Jackson’s trademark could not go unused) were up to no good, all the while sitting elegantly and sipping from a tumbler of cognac.

In one of the moments of high tension in <strong class=’StrictlyAutoTagBold’>Django Unchained,  Django is hung upside down in a torture device and one of the more sadistic slave handlers is gleefully about to castrate him with a red hot bowie knife.  Moments like this were indeed not uncommon for rebellious slaves, and the scene is not at all played for shock value but rather to drive home the impact of <strong class=’StrictlyAutoTagBold’>slavery as a specific set of social property relations with its own means of keeping the system going: that of brutal violence, dehumanization and divide-and-rule.  Since slaves were “fixed capital” the slave-owners not only owned their <strong class=’StrictlyAutoTagBold’>labour power but also had to maintain them as a modern capitalist maintains machinery.  Therefore, the “destruction of capital” would be to prevent slaves from reproducing.  Indeed, the entire movie is predicated upon a slave-turned freeman attempting to rescue his wife from whom he was separated after truly horrifying torture.  The torture is shown graphically and clinically and is meant to evoke disgust at the pure evil employed by the agents of the social structure of <strong class=’StrictlyAutoTagBold’>slavery.

At the very moment the slave handler is to cut off Django’s balls the loyal house slave Stephen enters the barn and says that the punishment has been changed.  Even worse than castration would be to take Django out of the subset of slaves who are structurally able to have names and identities, and be thrust into a form of <strong class=’StrictlyAutoTagBold’>labour that produces total anonymity.  Thus total dehumanization would transform Django, even after formal abolition, into the lowest strata of the new American proletariat. Django would no longer have a name, he would be a slave labourer with only a number working for a mining company, “turning big rocks into little rocks,” a fate in the film considered worse than torture and death but familiar to countless young black men trapped in the prison-industrial complex in the United States today.

Like any good Western hero, Django is able to narrowly avert this attempt at dehumanization by tricking his captors, aided by dynamite, in a scene similar to a Wiley Coyote cartoon.  And this is precisely what is so jarring, and <strong class=’StrictlyAutoTagBold’>radical about Django – images of the brutality of <strong class=’StrictlyAutoTagBold’>slavery are set alongside moments in which the bad guys are turned into cartoons – they are the ones that lack humanity.   In a memorable scene, a group of Klansmen (including Superbad’s Jonah Hill and pudgy Miami Vice veteran Don Johnson) chase Django and Dr. Schultz but their masks have the eye-holes in the wrong spot and they become bumbling and foolish and are dispatched with gunfire and dynamite to the great cheers of the audience. And indeed this duo get the better of none other than one of the Dukes of Hazard, Luke Duke.   It could not have been accidental that one of the first people with whom the two have dealings is played by Tom Wopat, famous for his redneck TV character.

<div class=”wp-caption alignright” id=”attachment_6194″ style=”margin-top: 0px; margin-right: 0px; margin-bottom: 0px; margin-left: 15px; border-style: solid; border-color: #b0b5b7; outline-width: 0px; outline-style: initial; outline-color: initial; font-size: 12px; vertical-align: baseline; background-image: initial; background-attachment: initial; background-origin: initial; background-clip: initial; background-color: #f4f4f4; float: right; color: #666666; border-top-left-radius: 4px; border-top-right-radius: 4px; border-bottom-right-radius: 4px; border-bottom-left-radius: 4px; width: 310px; background-position: initial initial; background-repeat: initial initial; border-width: 1px; padding: 0px;”><img class=”size-medium wp-image-6194″ style=”margin-top: 5px; margin-right: 5px; margin-bottom: 0px; margin-left: 5px; border-style: solid; border-color: #dddddd; outline-width: 0px; outline-style: initial; outline-color: initial; font-size: 12px; vertical-align: baseline; background-image: initial; background-attachment: initial; background-origin: initial; background-clip: initial; background-color: transparent; border-width: 1px; background-position: initial initial; background-repeat: initial initial; padding: 3px;” alt=”django-unchained” src=”http://basicsnews.ca/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/django-unchained-300×197.jpg” width=”300″ height=”197″ />
<p class=”wp-caption-text” style=”margin-top: 0px; margin-right: 5px; margin-bottom: 5px; margin-left: 5px; border-style: initial; border-color: initial; outline-width: 0px; outline-style: initial; outline-color: initial; font-size: 12px; vertical-align: baseline; background-image: initial; background-attachment: initial; background-origin: initial; background-clip: initial; background-color: transparent; text-align: center; font-style: italic; background-position: initial initial; background-repeat: initial initial; border-width: 0px; padding: 0px;”>“I like the way you die, boy.”

With perhaps a single exception, every character killed by Django’s “great vengeance and furious anger towards those who may destroy my brothers” (to quote Jackson’sfamous monologue in Pulp Fiction) has it coming.  And, goddamn, it is a satisfying experience to see these motherfuckers, these slavers, enforcers, and yes, even some of the house slaves, get their just desserts in explosions of blood splatter.

Tarantino has always had a knack for creating complex characters for people of colour, characters that go beyond the archetypes used by liberal Hollywood.  Whether Jackson as the morally tortured hit-man Julius in Pulp Fiction, or Pam Grier as the title character in the brilliant Jackie Brown, Tarantino is not a filmmaker who traffics in stereotypes.  Indeed, one of his primary critics, Spike Lee, often traffics in stereotypes, not to mention anti-immigrant sentiment, social conservatism around interracial relationships and open anti-Semitism.  Hence, some of the accusations made against this film, including by many who refuse to even see it, ring hollow.  Tarantino has made the claim that, like with his Holocaust revenge fantasy Inglourious Basterds, he wanted to shake up the liberal, turn-the-other-cheek “unity” narrative that is often spoken of about <strong class=’StrictlyAutoTagBold’>slavery and the ongoing structural power of white supremacy. While there is a dire need for more stories told by people of colour, it has been pointed out, correctly, that a person of colour may not have gotten the backing to make this film at all.

Others have pointed at historical errors – for example, the Klan did not exist until after the Civil <strong class=’StrictlyAutoTagBold’>War as it was primarily a force created by former slave-owners to defeat the slave/working class alliance that propped up Reconstruction.  Others have pointed out that the film relies on individual violence against the social structure of <strong class=’StrictlyAutoTagBold’>slavery, as opposed to a collective revolt.  This is all true, but Tarantino is not here to give us historical accuracy – this is the filmmaker who portrays a group of Jewish-American soldiers killing the entire Nazi high command and machine gunning Hitler in the face. The form of the Spaghetti Western is reliant upon this individual revenge against a social structure, but it is not as if the film doesn’t leave open the possibility of collective revolt and even revolution against the slave-masters.  In a number of scenes, Django and his comrade kill slave-masters and, in so doing, free slaves.  Those who criticize the film, then, for not portraying real historical events – say Nat Turner or the Haitian Revolution, must admit that Tarantino, by cracking open the door towards critically engaging the slave era, has demonstrated the viability of making these kinds of films.

With all of this said, this is not – nor could it be – a film that is directly revolutionary.   Nevertheless there is always a utopian core to even the most degraded, commercialized expressions of the culture industry, and there is an insidiously ideological dimension to even its most powerful, autonomous artistic works.  The utopian dimension of art is entwined with its ideological function, and you can’t grasp the former without analyzing the latter.# Of course there are numerous tropes of white, patriarchal, capitalist society that are inscribed in this film – the film is far more problematic on the issue of gender than race.  As well, the film could just as much be taken as an allegory of President Obama, who, like Django, is often asked to produce documents (Obama’s birth certificate) to prove his own authenticity.  All of this aside, the reason that audiences have been cheering this film on is not due to the reinforcement of the American ideology.  Rather it is turning that American ideology, that so-called “culture of violence” right side up.  In <strong class=’StrictlyAutoTagBold’>Django Unchained, like in all of Tarantino’s films, it is the least morally compromised characters that win, and the most morally compromised characters that end up dead on the ground.  There is no unity with the enemy and his comprador lackeys.  There is only vengeance.  Quoting Jackson’s monologue from Pulp Fiction again, “you know my name is the Lord, when I lay my vengeance upon thee.”

1. Thanks to Jude Wellburn for the sentence, which originally appeared as a comment on a Facebook thread and to JD Benjamin for editorial input.