And you will know My name is the Lord when I lay My vengeance upon thee.
— Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson), Pulp Fiction
“I spent my life surrounded by black faces,” announces Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), scion of a Mississippi plantation. At the moment, he’s got one at his dinner table, the ex-slave and current bounty hunter Django (Jamie Foxx). The dinner party — which includes Django’s partner Schultz (Christoph Waltz) and Candie’s sister Lara Lee (Laura Cayouette) — pauses to hear Candie’s memory, which he poses in the form of a question: “Why don’t they just rise up and kill the whites?”
At this point in Django Unchained, Django has actually killed a number of the whites, and he’s taken some righteous pleasure in it, seeing as they’ve been loutish slave beaters and raucous Klan members. He’s taken up the trade by dint of Schultz, a dentist by training, who uses him first to identify some white brothers on his bounty list, and indeed, on hearing what Schultz does, Django’s response is as reasonable as Candie’s: “You kill white folks for money: what’s not to like?” as it happens, the two make a great team, both being sure shots and both being as committed to the money as the killing. Along the way, Schultz makes Django another deal, one that has led them to Candie’s place, where Django’s wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) is living as his property. Here they mean to purchase her, but if that doesn’t work out, they’re willing to kill more whites too.
So far, so jaunty. And so like so many other Quentin Tarantino movies, the men on a self-appointed mission repeatedly take one another’s measure, sometimes judging themselves by their opponents, more often assuming their own earnest intelligence and wit will carry the day. Here again, the measure has to do with vengeance, and here, as in Inglorious Basterds that vengeance has been formulated out of historical events. Whereas before, Waltz played the Nazi so deserving of a terrible fate, here he plays the practical-minded German who tells Django the story of his wife’s name (“Every German knows that story”), helping him to understand that those who have been torturing and raping her warrant the worst possible fate.
This is what passes for complexity in Django Unchained, that a man who trades in human bodies, and who talks about trading in human bodies as such, is self-aware enough that he sees both the hypocrisy and the horror of what he calls his “dirty world” and also his part in it. This makes Schultz both like and unlike Candie, a bully and a dandy and trader in mandingos (whom he has fighting to the death in ornamented parlors for entertainment, like cocks). Django remarks this similarity, and for a time sees the moneyed angle as a means for his own revenge, but it’s not long before he’s less interested in the trade than he is in the vengeance flat out, at which point the frequently charming Schultz tilts his head just so, to ask, “What happened to Mr. I want to shoot white folks for money?”
Django’s loss of interest in their exceedingly lucrative enterprise might seem to situate him morally, that is, situate him differently than Schultz or really any of the white folks he encounters, including the buffoonish Big Daddy (Don Johnson) or the trackers (whose players include the endlessly inventive scary-redneck impersonator Walt Goggins and Tarantino too). It also situates him as something of a mythically potent Sweetback figure for the black slaves just waiting for someone to rise up and kill the whites.
Here Candie’s after dinner testimonial is instructive again, for as he poses the question that shaped his childhood (apparently, to no good effect), he also offers an answer, the sort of faux-scientific answer that allows white academics and executives and professional sports leagues to justify their privilege; Candie’s version has it that the black human skull is shaped differently from the white, and he proceeds to cut one open on the table to show how, in his estimation, blacks don’t rise up because they have a greater capacity for civility than whites.
His conclusion is a bit of a punchline here, to be followed by another hour or so of gunfire and explosions and sensational abuses. Not that you haven’t seen a good bit of abuse earlier, as the film makes plain the shocking devices white folks conjured to abuse their property, beginning with whips, shackles, and branding, and extending to masks and bits and horrific uses of dogs, penises, hotboxes, and knives against genitals. These scenes tend to be markers in the film, reasons for Django’s own brutality, but they’re daunting on their own, if you pause over them, slaves marched about before and after auction or as punishment, slaves assaulted and ravaged for trying to escape — ostensibly to teach lessons, but more obviously as routes to amuse those who can so order.
And this is the issue, the issue of order. As much as Candie might imagine one based on skull dimensions or Schultz sees one in economies or Django sees one in vengeance, all the orders have their own logics, their own exacting processes, their own outcomes. That these outcomes might overlap or intersect or coincide only means the orders can accommodate multiple parties’ interests. It doesn’t make them any more sound or any more sustainable as a foundation for civility or dominance either.
Thus, even as Django manages to maintain his cover while witnessing the abject destruction of Candie’s slave D’Artagnon (Ato Essandoh), he earns the hostility of the other slaves watching, who seem him as a collaborator. This aligns him, after a fashion, with the film’s most grotesque collaborator, Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), Candie’s longtime head house Negro (this being a Tarantino film, the other n-word is used elaborately and commonly). Outfitted to resemble Uncle Ben and Tom too, Stephen is an obviously unnerving monster, determined to see Django disciplined for his uppity and remarkably convoluted scheme to fool Candie into selling Broomhilda (the reasoning-by-way-of-plot here is exceptionally knotted, even if regarded as one of those requisite convoluted schemes in Tarantino’s self-multiplying dirty worlds).
Stephen, of course, has his own vengeance in mind, ever swirling, whether he seduces Candie into believing their shared illogic, or whether he intimidates his fellow slaves (“Why is I scaring you?” he mutters to Broomhilda, who has the right answer: “Because you scary.”) This makes Stephen this film’s most frightening, most incoherent, and most important subject. But as typical or archetypal as Stephen may be, he is also and ever alone, for that is his definition, fearful and mean and produced by a fearful and mean system. While he hates Django for good reason, he also sees in him his reflection. They’re not so much opposites as the same, loathed and rewarded, grand and small. Vengeance is not a measure of civility. No matter how just it seems, in hunting Osama bin Laden or arming schoolteachers or delivering hours of bloody entertainment, vengeance is tragic and brutal and futile. Someone in this movie knows that, even if it’s not the movie’s own insight.