(Spoilers throughout. Don’t read unless you have seen it. Feedback welcome in the comments or on Facebook.)
The thing with Tarantino movies is that they expect you to play along with Quentin Tarantino’s games. His eccentricities make movies interesting and makes his fans love him. I knew this going in, and I wanted to be able to play along with these games. But, about halfway through the movie I realized that I just couldn’t do it anymore.
I’ll start by talking about what I liked about the film. First, the movie is laugh out loud hilarious at points. The scene where the gang of raiders complain about not being able to see out of their sheet masks is one of the funniest movie scenes I’ve seen in a while. It looked more at home in Blazing Saddles than this movie, and I think that is exactly what Tarantino was going for. The movie is expertly made, as Tarantino is one of the best filmmakers alive. Fans of Tarantino will notice his fingerprints all over this movie, and there are plenty of people that would call that a positive.
Now, let’s get the Inglorious Basterds and Django comparisons out of the way. I liked Basterds despite the graphic and brutal violence. Basterds was a lot of fun, it never took itself too seriously, and it was obviously falsified and over the top. There are a million movies about World War II that try to present themselves accurately, and those interested can learn about the war and the atrocities committed upon the Jewish people by the Nazis. Basterds makes no such attempt at being historically accurate, instead it presents a “What if?” view of history. Only the most ignorant person would think that Hitler died in a theater fire.
Django, it could be argued, presents the same “What if?” view without attempting to be historically accurate. However, the problem with that in this movie is the subject matter. Very few movies have been made properly addressing the plight of the slaves in the Antebellum South, especially recently. The wounds from this period are still festering to many in the South, and we as Americans have trouble talking about this period in a level-headed manner. Tarantino, to his credit, decided that it needed to be addressed. In fact, he said himself that he wanted to make this movie because no one addresses it in this fashion. The problem is the triviality with which he addresses it. In my opinion, it was fine for Basterds to trivialize World War II because people know enough of the details to understand what is false. In the case of slavery, the average person knows very little.
Important plot elements, like the idea of “Mandingo fighting” are presented as historical fact, and one that most people would not challenge. According to David Blight, the director of the Yale center for the study of slavery, these fights have no historical basis. The Mandingo fight is one of the most brutal movie scenes I’ve ever seen, up there with the wine bottle face smashing of Pan’s Labyrinth, and the major thing proving the brutality of Leonardo DiCaprio’s villain, Calvin Candie.
What bothers me about using something like these fights as a way of showing the brutality of slavery is that slavery does not need to be made more brutal. Slavery is an abomination, a massive black eye on our country, and certainly not something that is in the past for most of the world. Scenes depicting the whipping and branding of Broomhilda, Django’s wife, were brutal and accurate. They forced the audience to confront the evils of slavery. Those scenes bothered me in the exact way they were supposed to, Tarantino wants you know exactly why these men need to be killed.
But there is my biggest issue with this movie.Yes, the slave traders, owners, and overseers are extremely evil people. Yes, they deserve justice and the only way this justice could be meted out in this time period was by vigilante methods. But Django takes it so far that by the end you end up wondering why it had to be this way. As he walks through the mansion towards the end, stepping over mounds of bloody bodies, with blood splattered all over the walls, and heads blown open, the movie wants you to cheer. It wants you to smile at all the death he causes. It doesn’t turn away as he shoots each victim, buckets of blood spurting out of their bodies. You hear every anguished cry, men go from strong manly men, to blubbering screaming idiots, and Tarantino makes sure you hear each and every pained cry.
The classic Western trope that justice must be done outside the bounds of the law is as old as the genre itself, my complaint isn’t in the idea of vengeance. What bothered me was the idea of extreme vengeance. That we are somehow supposed to expect that Django is right in murdering what seems like hundreds of people in more and more brutal fashions. Yes Django was wronged, and yes his wife was more wronged, but the idea that blood demands more blood is one that is dangerous.
Django, although played well by Jamie Foxx, is a shockingly simple character at times. He is a highly talented shooter, a great actor, and is fighting for a noble cause, but his single minded approach is disappointing. Django married Broomhilda despite that not being a common slave practice. This is never explored in depth. Why did they decide to risk this, what made them want to run away together, and why is he so intent on finding her? The movie just expects you to understand why Django loves Broomhilda without explaining it.
There were two moments when I decided that I just couldn’t go along with Tarantino’s game anymore. The first is on the way to “Candieland” when a fighter tries to quit and Candie threatens him with the dogs. This was a testing moment for Django, as he needed to show that he was still a tough black slaver in order to get to see Broomhilda. The poor man is at the mercy of Django, and he allows the dogs to be loosed on the man without so much as blinking an eye. Although brutal and disturbing, audiences are expected to accept the fact that it was necessary in order to get to Broomhilda. However, I couldn’t accept that. Django wasn’t a sympathetic enough character, it is as if he doesn’t really even think about the person’s life he cost so he could save his wife. Now, innocent fellow slaves are dying for his quest and Django doesn’t even bat an eye. This was when I lost all sympathy for Django.
After this atrocity, I figured the only proper way for the movie to end was with the heroic death of Django. The hero with the tragic flaw that would ultimately die in the quest of something unreachable. But Tarantino doesn’t work that way.
The second moment where I literally shook my head in disappointment was the last massacre by Django. He returns to Candieland to finish the job that he wasn’t able to complete earlier. He stands at the top of the stairs and kills the armed men first, of course in a very sadistic way. He then blows away Candie’s sister; she literally flies backward out of the room. Candie’s sister, while presiding over the plantation with her brother is never shown committing serious atrocities with her brother. It could be argued that she is as much trapped in her situation as any of the slaves, her odd and (more than) implied incestuous relationship with her brother reminds me of the relationship between Commodus and his sister in Gladiator. She probably couldn’t get away from her situation without incurring the wrath of her brother, just like any of the slaves.
One of the final acts of our “hero” is blowing away an unarmed, defenseless woman. How does this make him better than the slave overseers who whipped his wife? One of the biggest problems with this whole scene is that many in the theater cracked up at it. Apparently, it was supposed to be funny.
Tarantino is a master at mixing violence, humor, and social commentary. But this subject material may just be too sensitive for something like this. It seems like Tarantino was overcompensating for being a white man making this movie. The only good white man in the movie is Christoph Waltz’s character Dr. King Schultz, a German. The suggestion is that there were absolutely no American white people that were not slave owners, traders, overseers, or at best racists in the South in 1858. We need the European white man to save the black man so the black man can then save himself by killing every white person in the movie. And white audiences eat it up, unsure of what exactly we are allowed to laugh at, but knowing that we are definitely supposed to laugh at the white lady flying out of screen. Deciding when to laugh, when to be serious, and when to close your eyes (often) is tough when you have to do all three of those things at once.
Tarantino, however, deserves credit for opening up the topic of American slavery for discussion again. Django is one of the most talked about movies of the year.
To sum it up, I feel that the topic of slavery is something that absolutely should be addressed. But it is something that needs to be addressed with a cool head. It is amazing that in a movie that almost runs for three hours, the message is so straightforward. Slavery is bad, white people cause slavery, black people are enslaved, therefore white people should die and die brutally.
I wanted to like this movie, I really did. I tried hard to find the positives in it. I told myself that it was just supposed to be fun, a violent satire in the mold of Basterds. But once again I return to the idea that World War II has been addressed in every way but in a “What if?” satire, American slavery hasn’t. We don’t want to talk about it, and now when we do, we talk about it in a cartoonishly violent and simple fashion.
The final scene features Django prancing on his horse as the mansion burns to the ground. I couldn’t help but think that really it is Tarantino prancing, glad that he is burning everything you thought about taboos in movies to the ground. Maybe, Tarantino has re-opened the discussion about slavery and its atrocities and how we can get past these still festering wounds, but I fear that he has driven it deeper into the ground.