Trouble Man: ‘Django Unchained’ and the Obliteration of Identity

Quentin Tarantino has always been a director whose work has caused controversy. From the ear-slicing in Reservoir Dogs to the allegedly unserious treatment of the Holocaust in Inglourious Basterds, he’s never quite managed to ditch the enfant terrible tag.

Twenty-odd years down the line from the start of his career however, it’s seemingly this aspect of his reputation which is now generally seen first, rather than the actual substance of his work — work that at times is as fearlessly experimental as ever it was.

The theatrical release of his latest film Django Unchained was greeted, in Metacritic-speak, with universal acclaim. This included Peter Bradshaw comparing it to the thrill of a forbidden cigarette, Roger Ebert likening it to a fairy tale and Mark Kermode enjoying it despite — somewhat inevitably — its length. For all the love however, there was very little suggestion that Django amounted to much more than a finely engineered entertainment, pitched deliberately to both excite and worry liberal sensibilities.

My aim in this piece isn’t to defend Django Unchained — that’s not necessary, given the number of positive notices and subsequent awards. Rather I want to offer a reasonably close examination of the text as a way to question the current meme that sees Tarantino as nothing more than an eternal teenager at play in the video store of his own mind. It is sound and fury, no doubt. But it signifies much more than the nothing that many of its original reviewers have perceived.

Tarantino made his reputation with his first three films — in particular Pulp Fiction, in which he married a distinctly European sensibility with a quintessentially American taste for the lurid. It is here that he positioned himself as the last great American (post)modernist auteur, continually referencing other texts to create living entities where the narrative itself was as real as any of the characters. It is here that we learn what might have happened if Joyce had been born as an ADD-afflicted boomer with a complete — rather than just partial — addiction to trash culture.

Django is, in every sense, good enough to the rival these films. It’s funny, brutal, effortlessly cool and massively entertaining. More than that though, it is, if anything, even more obsessed with the process of signification than its — supposedly more significant — predecessors. However, whereas in Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs, the director played primarily with structure and causality, in Django Unchained, the questions being asked are about the process of characterisation itself.

From the beginning of Django, it’s apparent that a lot of attention is going to be paid to the way characters ‘speak’, and in turn are ‘spoken’ about. This manifests itself in the first instance in the way they are named, as well as in how inappropriate those names often are. Examples of this abound, whether in the shape of Django himself, Broomhilda and D’Artagnan, or even more obliquely in Dr Schultz — the first part of whose double-barrelled surname is of course, King.

In the same way, the film is shot through with riffs around the innumerable uses and misuses of language itself. Broomhilda is fluent in German; Candie is a Francophile who is conspicuously unable to speak French; Tarantino himself even pops up at the end with a ridiculously terrible Australian accent.

In terms of the action of the film, there’s a simple explanation for all this, in that the story bears witness to the clash of two diasporas — one African in origin, one European. However, I would suggest that there is also a subtext here, with the director deliberately drawing attention to the process of naming as being central to the construction of narrative.

Django Unchained is clearly about slavery. However the oppression it seems to really want to address is the way stories limit their own characters — something that’s ironically referenced in its drawing attention to itself in the language games described above. By the end, the main character has indeed lost his chains, literally of course, but also because he has transcended any number of pre-ordained genre — which the film equates with racial — archetypes. Even more audacious though, is that as the final credits roll, Tarantino has done his best to obliterate the inherently controlling notion of an author god altogether.

Ironically enough, this idea of narrative freedom is actually fulfilled not with Django but with a character who couldn’t be any more trapped by his circumstances. By the film’s mid-point, the audience has already come to think of the title character as a composite of Siegfried, Rick Ross, Ulysses, Kunta Kinte, as well as Franco Nero’s original anti-hero. It is actually with Candie’s house slave Stephen however that Tarantino plays his hand, using him to signify chaos itself in the form of an unrepentantly self-hating black Iago.

This isn’t so much shocking as downright abject, falling as it does so far outside of consensual — in this case genre — reality. We literally can’t make sense of it. More importantly though it also demonstrates the endless opportunities available at the level of representation — that is, if one is brave enough to challenge the established narrative context.

Is there a more counter-intuitive — but at the same time more striking — piece of dialogue in recent cinema than Stephen’s description of what’s going to happen to Django in the mine? Could that dialogue have been delivered by a less ‘appropriate’ actor than Samuel L Jackson — one of the post-’80s new wave of African Americans finally offered a little bit more than just slave, gang-banger or pimp roles?

Fittingly, as Stephen moves from sidekick to main villain after Candie’s death, meaning itself starts to collapse across the board. This is a shift marked first by the torture scene referenced above and then by the director having himself blown up following his cameo.

Pleasing as the latter is in and of itself, it also symbolises a moment where the director all but absents himself, thereby offering up his film to the forces of entropy — something that’s necessary if Django is ultimately going to transcend his own story. Tarantino’s self-evisceration signals the beginning of the last portion of the movie, a sequence which has come in for criticism both for its perceived lack of structure and indeed why it even needs to be there at all. However, it’s in Django’s return to Candieland to finish the job that the implied chaos of before becomes explicit. Firstly in the obliteration of Lara, then the torture and death of Stephen and finally the destruction of the old house itself. It’s not subtle, but why should it be? As we learned at the Come and See-referencing climax of Inglourious Basterds, in order to properly put the quietus to a genre, a blood and celluloid sacrifice is always required.

One of the more interesting debates to spring up around Django Unchained is around the countless times its characters say the word ‘nigger’. While Tarantino’s, “infatuation” (Spike Lee) with the N bomb certainly deserves discussion however, to level it as a criticism is ultimately to reveal a misunderstanding of his project.

Here we have a filmmaker that seems to desire to express nothing of the world other than how it might exist on a cinema screen. Is it any wonder then, that in such a hyper-mediated environment as a Tarantino movie, ‘real world’ meaning often has to compete with the endless need to create effect? That whether something sounds cool coming out of an actor’s mouth is of greater concern than the offence caused to an audience?

The irony of course, is that Tarantino is clearly concerned with the social and historical reality portrayed in Django Unchained. It’s just that, obsessed as he is with process of signification, he addresses it in such an oblique way that it often gets missed.

In the movie in question, as suggested, Django ultimately transcends the genre picture that he’s been unfortunate enough to find himself stuck in. This clearly also has implications for questions around identity itself — as referenced in the scenes where he uses the power of dress-up to explore the possibilities of his own character. More importantly though it also informs the central theme of the work, which is ‘destiny’ itself.

Halfway through there is a scene which both represents the movie’s true heart of darkness and reveals its meaning. Following their arrival at Candieland, Leonardo DiCaprio’s character is entertaining Django and Dr King Schultz at dinner. He produces the skull of Stephen’s predecessor, which he subsequently uses to explain that the slaves are where they are due the limitations of their own physiology. The correlative of this of course is that their ‘slavehood’ is pre-ordained; written in the stars just as surely as it is encoded in their DNA.

What Candie fails to recognise however is the far more significant meaning to be found in the fleshless skull — something it has stood for since the beginning of human culture itself. That is — whoever you are, white or black, free man or slave, one day you must die. This is a far greater leveller than any nonsense about racial destiny, and the deployment of its signifier at that moment is arguably Tarantino’s most audacious trick — using chaos and ultimately nihilism to argue for equality.

Post Jackie Brown, Tarantino has by his own admission produced films that the characters in his own work would go to see. Sure enough, Django is every bit as much of an experiment in hyper-reality as Kill Bill, Death Proof and Inglourious Basterds, creating as it does a simulacra no more representative of the American nineteenth century than — say — Back to the Future III.

However, in using the film to argue that (to echo William Burroughs) no matter how hard we try to fix meaning there is always a space between, he reclaims his status as visionary director. No filmmaker is more capable of exploring the perimeters of identity and the freedom that lies beyond them –- a space where even exotic slave names given by pretentious masters end up signifying pluralism itself. And few directors’ characters get to break their chains as spectacularly as his do — whether that’s Pulp Fiction‘s Butch, Jackie Brown crossing 110th Street, or Django, the biggest trouble-maker of them all, riding off into the moonrise.