Django May Be Unchained, But America Is Never Unshackled from Its Racist Past

As in most Quentin Tarantino films, Django Unchained’s visuals are often smarter than the narrative that undergirds them. For example, the film provocatively opens on a sun-bleached, craggy desert. The Django theme song from the self-titled 1966 film plays over the still frame. Credits appear in red block letters, conjuring a ‘60s Spaghetti Western aesthetic. The film catapults viewers immediately into the cinematic past through its well-crafted haze of nostalgia.

But before viewers fully relax, the frame pans slowly to the right to reveal a procession of shackled black bodies walking away from the screen. The prominent scars across their backs fill the screen. By opening up the frame, Tarantino problematizes the nostalgia for the Spaghetti Western by revealing what remains notoriously absent throughout most of them: the institution of American slavery. Although most Spaghetti Westerns take place during or immediately after the Civil War, slavery remains only obliquely referenced. The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (1966), for example, occasionally traps its characters within Northern and Southern armies, but no reference to slavery is ever mentioned.

More significantly, however, Django Unchained’s opening shot also links brutalized black bodies with the similarly brutalized landscape, implicitly suggesting that the story of the land, of America itself, remains inextricably bound to the institution of slavery. This is further punctuated as the word “Django” appears on-screen over those black bodies. Immediately following its appearance, we hear the crack of the whip and “Unchained” appears underneath it. The nostalgia for Django, the 1966 film, becomes questioned by the brutality that underlies its silences towards American slavery and African-American experience.

Tarantino’s film is at its strongest when it problematizes the racism of the cinematic past. One scene distinctly references D.W. Griffith’s pro-Klan Birth of a Nation (1915). We watch hooded figures on horseback descend into a valley. The fire from their torches waves violently around them as they ride. Dramatic Wagner-like music triumphantly plays as the camera cuts from a distant majestic shot to a medium tracking shot of them riding, placing us within this racist vortex that is on its way to lynch Django (Jamie Foxx) and Dr. King Schultz (Christop Waltz).

But before becoming too ebullient, the film’s exalted music and imagery immediately cuts to a flashback where the hooded riders discuss the tactics of their lynching. Their conversation quickly descends into complaints about the badly constructed hoods that hinder visibility. As the complaints continue, the husband of the woman who made the hoods, exclaims, “I’m going home. No, I watched my wife work all day gettin’ 30 bags together for you ungrateful sons of bitches, and all I can hear is criticize, criticize , criticize!” The banal conversation undercuts the earlier sequence’s terror and self-inflated importance.

The stupidity of the riders is further stressed as Big Daddy (Don Johnson), the leader of the group, refuses to listen to any of his underlings’ suggestion that they not wear the hoods during their ride. He states, “I didn’t say no bags.” Someone suggests, “But it would be nice if we could see.” He replies, “This is a raid. I can’t see. You can’t see. So what? All that matters is can the fuckin’ horse see. That’s a raid.” Big Daddy’s insistence that he maintain authority in spite of the dictates of common sense reveals the idiotic logic that underlies the entire enterprise and a blind allegiance to authority that makes it all the easier for Dr. Schultz to lure the lynch mob into his trap where he will subsequently destroy them.

But the film becomes decidedly weaker as it gets ensnared by other dated commercial cinematic conventions. On one level, Django Unchained is reminiscent of the black-and-white buddy films of the ’80s like Lethal Weapon and 48 Hours. This becomes apparent during one montage sequence. Jim Croce’s “I Got a Name” plays tranquilly over Django and Schultz riding together through picturesque scenes of snow-covered fields and mountains. Before they start their ride, they turn towards one another, mutually nod, and set out, suggesting the harmony between both of them.

Yet such equality is deceptive. Schultz serves as the mentor for Django in not only the world of bounty hunting, but also in taking control of his environment. This is most clearly seen when Schultz and Django enter an empty saloon. The owner demands that they leave due to Django’s presence. They refuse, and in the process Schultz insists that the owner request the help of the sheriff in dealing with them.

The sheriff lures the two outside and makes a show of his bravado before the surrounding citizens. With rifle slung over his arm, he rhetorically asks: “All right, folks, calm down. These jokers will be gone soon. Now, why y’all wanna’ come into my town and start trouble? And scare all these nice people. You ain’t got nothing better to do than come into Bill Sharp’s town and show your ass.” As he speaks, Schultz approaches him and quickly draws a derringer that shoots him in the heart. He then silently circles around the screaming man to finish him off by shooting him in the head. As the town people flee, he tells the bar owner, “Now you can get the Marshall,” and nods his head in encouragement.

Schultz encourages Django to accompany him inside the saloon. Django asks, “Shouldn’t we just leave?” But Schultz has bigger plans that Django can’t foresee.

The Marshall also makes a great show of his power by encircling the saloon with hundreds of armed men. But they’re no match for Schultz’s verbal dexterity and panache. He explains to the Marshall: “Like yourself, I am a servant of the court. The man lying dead in the dirt, who the good people of Daughtrey saw fit to elect as their sheriff, who went by the name of Bill Sharp, is actually a wanted outlaw by the name of Willard Peck, with a price on his head of $200. Now, that’s $200, dead or alive.” The Marshall responds, “The hell you say.” Schultz continues, “I’m aware this is probably disconcerting news… Three years ago, he was rustling cattle from the B.C. Corrigan Cattle Company of Lubbock, Texas. Now, this is a warrant made out by Circuit Court Judge Henry Allen Laudermilk of Austin, Texas. You’re encouraged to wire him. He’ll back up who I am and who your dear departed sheriff was.”

The surrounding guns uncock and slowly their aim lowers on Schultz and Django. Schultz finally accents, “In other words, Marshall, you owe me $200.” The theme music enters as Django responds in awe, “I’ll be damned.”

An idealized sequence follows of King riding his wagon bronzed under the glow of the setting sun. A female voice from the theme song intones: “His name was King. He had a horse. I saw him ride. I knew him well.” The lyrics suggest a reverie towards King. The female voice stands in for Django’s idealization of King. But this can’t be directly expressed by Django, since it goes against the stoic masculinity that pervades the atmosphere of the Western in general. Another shot follows of the sun flaring behind King’s wagon and Djano on his horse, a stereotypical glorified shot that periodically marks the Spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Corbucci like A Professional Gun (1968), which not coincidentally also features Franco Nero who plays Django in the 1966 film.

In spite of Schultz training Django to become a bounty hunter, Django never becomes his equal. Schultz’s verbal dexterity trumps that of everyone else in the film. He is the only character who is anointed with lengthy Tarantino-esque speech. Whenever he opens his mouth, Schultz takes control of a situation, much more so than through the power of his quick and accurate draw. Although the film takes pains trying to equalize their relationship, Schultz’s flair and distanced observation tends to override Django’s stoicism and immediate desire for revenge.

Furthermore, the film’s reliance upon the racist conventions of the buddy film operates in predictable ways that Manthia Diawara identified back in 1988 in his essay, “Black Spectatorship: Problems of Identification and Resistance”. For example, he claims that its black character is often “deterritorialized from a black milieu and transferred to a predominantly white world” (Film Theory and Criticism, 770). Django reinforces this decontextualization by only briefly showing in flashback Django’s past as a slave suffering under the lash of the overseer or watching his wife Hildy (Kerry Washington) suffering similarly.

We never see his interrelation with his past slave community or the circumstances of his enslavement. All that matters for the film is the suffering inflicted upon him and his wife by the white man’s whip. The solidarity, sense of community, and links to African-American tradition become conveniently irrelevant and perpetuate the film’s reliance upon the racist conventions of commercial cinema.

Although the film might appear to be about slavery and African-American suffering, it is actually more about revenge, a predominant theme not only throughout US commercial cinema, but also US history in general. As Richard Slotkin observes, the practice of regeneration through violence both animates US imperialism and culture. It remains “central to both the historical development of the Frontier and its mythic representation” (Gunfighter Nation, 11). It’s not that the United States is a more violent country than others, but instead that “the mythic significance we have assigned to the kinds of violence we have actually experienced, the forms of symbolic violence we imagine or invent, and the political uses to which we put the symbolism” trumps that of other nations (13). The Western provides a particularly apt vehicle where regeneration through violence can play itself out as both a national allegory and personal narrative, which is what exactly Django Unchained attempts to do through its revenge narrative.

Although the film explicitly concerns Django’s revenge upon the slave masters that have dealt so much physical and emotional pain upon him and Hildy, he also allegorically stands in for African-American resistance in general to the system of slavery. This becomes most apparent near the film’s end, when Django surrenders after having slaughtered most of slave master Calvin Candie’s men. Richie Haven’s “Freedom” plays over the soundtrack, evoking his famous performance of the song at Woodstock in 1969.

We hear the lyrics, “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child,” as Django unarms himself and places himself at the will of his captors. The camera tilts up revealing the blood splattered floor with the dozens of white bodies he shot down, his captors have surrounded him. Django’s desire for revenge extends beyond himself and the 19th century into an unseen future where a similar impulse for freedom and rebellion inhabits Haven’s song. At this moment, the film reveals how the inheritances of slavery plague the present as much the past. Django’s bloodshed, in other words, remains ineffectual in wiping out the various ways in which African-American slavery shaped the nation and its present practices since the desire for racial freedom still persists.

But the narrative of the film wants it otherwise: to contain slavery in the distant past. It wants to assert Django as an ego ideal for other African-American slaves in the film. This is most notoriously represented as Django exacts revenge upon his past overseers on Big Daddy’s plantation, Candyland. Flashbacks of Django and his wife being whipped pepper throughout Django’s approach to his three former overseers. He shoots the first down and subsequently whips the second one. The slaves watch on in disbelief. After whipping the second overseer into the dirt, Django turns to the surrounding slaves and states, “Ya’ll wanna see something?” He cocks the pistol and shoots him numerous times not just to assure his death, but to reenact a bloody revenge not only for himself but all of the other slaves of the plantation.

The scene suggests a direct correlation between the original crime and the revenge enacted as if one can be made whole by simply causing similar suffering and/or death on the tormentor. In other words, the scene and the narrative as a whole idealizes regeneration through violence as each blood-soaked revenge enacted by Django brings him closer to reuniting with his wife.

Other film critics have complained that Django, unlike Schultz, remains a one-dimensional character. But this is less a flaw of Tarantino’s film than the revenge narrative as a whole that he relies upon. Since revenge guides Django’s mission, his character becomes defined by it. Similarly, Hildy serves less as a fully-developed character than as a prize to be captured by Django by film’s end.

Only early on does the film suggest that there might be more to Django than revenge. This happens when he chooses his first outfit: an aristocratic, bright blue, French-styled suit with a frilly frock. Out of character from the Western archetypal image, the outfit implies Django’s own assertion of nobility that transcends mere revenge to assert his own sense of humanity and style that the Western genre in general cannot adequately articulate. His outfit visually suggests a desire to move beyond the Western form while the narrative keeps locking Django back into its trajectory of revenge.

The only way the narrative suggests a more complicated understanding of slavery and racism in general is with the introduction of Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), the servant of Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). At first, Stephen seems indicative of the servile slave that grovels at the feet of his master while providing harmless backtalk. But a key sequence challenges this simplistic relation when Stephen confronts Candie in his study. Stephen sits in a chair, legs crossed, warming a glass of brandy in his hand. Although Calvin thinks Django and Schultz visit him to buy some of his mandingos, Stephen sees through the ruse: “These mother fuckers ain’t here to buy a mandingo. They’re here for that girl.” After a bit of convincing, Calvin finally understands Stephen’s point.

The sequence reveals not only the dependence upon the master upon the slave, but also Stephen’s intelligence in using misdirection in asserting his power and intelligence. Furthermore, it exposes the emotional connection between the two men, which is fully revealed at the film’s end as Stephen wails over Calvin’s dead body. Racism, in other words, operates in convoluted and unpredictable ways with equally complicated psychic dynamics at work.

Stephen’s playing a servile role reveals itself at film’s end as he confronts Django. He throws down his cane revealing that his limp and his hunch back, as well as his dialect — were mere stylistic devices. On one level, the film suggests that Stephen is the real brains of the plantation. But at the same time, there’s something deeply unsatisfying with this final showdown between Django and Stephen.

First of all, the sequence seems to play into Manthia Diawara’s observation that similar to female characters in commercial narrative cinema, black characters must also be made to excessively suffer whenever they show too much independence. Although Django’s independence remains unimpeded, it makes Stephen suffer unduly for his own. The most drawn-out death of the film is visited upon Stephen as Django shoots his one knee and then blows out another. Django accuses him: “Seventy-six years, Stephen. How many niggers you think you see come and go, huh? Seven thousand? Eight thousand? Nine thousand? Nine-thousand nine-hundred and ninety nine. Every single word that came out of Calvin Candie’s mouth was nothing but horseshit.” Candie’s death, on the other hand, the death of the main person responsible for the control of Candyland, happens rather quickly.

But Stephen must be made to suffer excessively since during this penultimate scene he is made to perversely symbolize the incarnation of the racist practices of Candyland itself. He yells at Django, “You can run nigger. They’re going to find your ass. You done fucked up. You can’t destroy Candyland They’re always will be Candyland,” as Django lights the fuse for the dynamite placed throughout the mansion.

Ultimately, Stephen is correct. Django became the outlaw that Schultz attempted to prevent him from becoming by working within the limits of legality. By stepping outside these limits through his thirst for revenge, Django now must operate in a parallel world of outlaws. Similarly, Candyland as representative of the larger institution of slavery and US racism cannot be destroyed. It pervades people’s practices, the cultural landscape, and the circuits of power. It would be naïve to think the destruction of one plantation would solve any problem this systemic.

But this is where the film’s allegorical appeals towards slavery withers into a personalized narrative for revenge. The film no longer wants to be about slavery or racism in general, but instead, it wants to be about Django’s own desire to reunite with his wife and make those suffer who caused him and her suffering. Yet since the film made occasional gestures towards these larger issues, it still implicitly conflates Candyland with the institution of slavery, too. So the destruction of Candyland not only vindicates Django’s revenge-fuelled quest, but also implies that slavery itself has been wiped off the face of the earth.

On one level, the film speaks to a utopian desire: what if we could simply identify and quarantine racism in a particular place? What if we could eliminate slavery and racism as a whole with the simple destruction of place? But through this simplification, the film rids the more complex ways in which slavery and racism extend beyond its narrative into its mise-en-scene and briefly through the character of Stephen. The revenge narrative and the concept of regeneration through violence simply jettison the more complicated ways racism is momentarily identified within the film. (The DVD, by the way, offers only one ten-minute extra of the production design of the film. It doesn’t even provide a director’s commentary, which would have been useful in understanding some of the logic or lack thereof behind the film’s sequences.)

Ultimately, Django might be unchained, but America still remains shackled to its racist past.