America, Slavery, and McQueen and Tarantino's Two Very Different Movies
12 Years a Slave is every bit as intense as one might imagine, though not completely depressing, whereas Django Unchained aestheticizes its extreme violence.
Django Unchained is a multi-racial, bloody, buddy-western, with an additional goal of, in Tarantino’s words, “to give African American males a Western hero, [to] give them a cool folkloric hero that could actually be empowering and pay back, blood-for-blood.” (Channel 4 News, 2013). It begins with the title character being freed by a German bounty hunter, Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). Schultz is a retired dentist, as evidenced by the oversized tooth bobbing along on a spring on top of his wagon. Schultz has bounties on Django’s former slave masters and he frees Django so that he can help him locate them.
Django then gets Schultz to help him rescue his still enslaved wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), in Mississippi. It turns out that Broomhilda was raised by German slave owners and speaks German, as well. It's an odd plot device, but nonetheless one that could help Django and Schultz in “acquiring” his wife from her owners, who are planning to prostitute her.
Foxx doesn't have a lot of lines in the film, considering he is the star, but he does not necessarily need them, either. He owns the role of a heroic Django, but also a character new to freedom and understandably tentative in many ways. After all, for a slave, everything from a cold beer on tap to riding a horse, let alone speaking to white people, is utterly foreign (and thus he starts out necessarily dependent on the well-traveled Schultz). Yet Foxx still exudes the requisite courage and steely resolve of a man on a rather fantastic mission.
Another Tarantino trademark is his ability to utilize popular music in his films. For Django Unchained, Tarantino uses a mix of existing songs and original scores from no less than spaghetti Western legend, Ennio Morricone, and rap legend, RZA (of Wu Tang Clan fame, among others), who provides rap for the later scenes, along with other songs, some period and some modern. Tarantino thus ties Django Unchained directly in with not only Westerns made in the '60s and '70s, but he connects it forward to modern black and hip hop audiences, as well.
A surprising highlight, and maybe one of Tarantino’s best scenes ever, comes shortly after Django is freed. Django is seen sporting his own slick new clothes and even his own reclaimed name with his initial monogrammed on his saddle. As Django and Schultz begin their quest together, they progress through some brilliant and classic cowboy shots, including snowy mountain passes and river crossings. The soundtrack is Jim Croce’s, “I Got a Name”, an affecting country-ish/soft rock song from the early-'70s. The performer, a folkie singer-songwriter, is all wrong, the timeframe is completely off, and the style of music is a total mismatch for the African American and über-cool Foxx. Yet it completely works. The lyrics reference both having pride in a family name to carry on:
I got a name, I got a name
And I carry it with me like my daddy did
But I’m living the dream that he kept hid
…as well as the freedom and promise of the open road:
Moving me down the highway
Rolling me down the highway
Moving ahead so life won’t pass me by
In the context of centuries of slavery and destroyed families, the song is almost unbearably sad. But the entire sequence also speaks to the reclaiming of an identity and the universal feelings of having pride and hope, even in the face of mind- and soul-numbing adversity. As foreign and distant as slavery may seem to viewers today, and especially to white viewers, here Tarantino creates a very real emotional connection with Django.
Django and Schultz hatch a plan to get Broomhilda back under a guise of looking to purchase male slaves from her slave owner for a (fictitious) sport of “Mandingo” fighting -- essentially human cock fighting. The film’s heavy is plantation owner, Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). To demonstrate Candie’s dark soul, he is shown sicking dogs on a runaway slave, who shred him to pieces, and then staging (and thoroughly enjoying) a particularly gruesome Mandingo fight. Both scenes are about as nasty as they come.
The Mandingo fight is MMA-like, but with no rules, far bloodier, and to the death. The fight ends with one fighter gouging out the eyeballs of the loser, at which time the rules, for whatever reason, require the winner to bash in his opponent’s skull with a hammer. Tarantino spares viewers little and whatever he does not show directly he accentuates through sound effects.
In addition to the violence, there's quite a bit of Tarantino-humor in Django Unchained, as well. Sometimes it's more comic relief and at other times it's pretty incisive. In one of the funniest scenes, Don Johnson and Jonah Hill spoof an early incarnation of the KKK. The gang normally depicted as so menacing and seemingly unstoppable in film are here shown as infinitely human and comically inept, as they squabble about the botched eye holes in their hoods that prevent them from seeing properly.
Tarantino eventually sets up one of his classic climaxes, that is: a sadistic, vengeance-fueled, extended shootout-of-a-bloodbath in Candie’s mansion. Another Tarantino theme at work here is that often bad guys do not simply die, but they are methodically maimed and tortured for maximum suffering. In Django Unchained, bad guys get shot in painful places (e.g., a naked bad guy is seen shot in the groin), but often not immediately lethal places (such as knee caps or other extremities), and they are then left to scream long, agonized screams until the hero decides to finally kill them.
The mansion shootout scene is over-the-top gore and while supremely graphic, it's also intentionally unrealistic. After killing Candie, Django single-handedly shoots down wave-upon-wave of the slave owner’s men, as he is apparently the fastest, most accurate, and luckiest gun in the West, by far (and no doubt acting out the wildest fantasy of many an actual slave). The use of buckets of blood in Django Unchained (yes, another Tarantino trademark) is so over-the-top that the bad guys may as well be walking bags of blood. Django uses the bodies of his white oppressors, whether dead or still alive, as human shields from oncoming fire; as their bodies take bullet after bullet, blood sloshes, splatters, and sprays everything in sight. The slave handlers scream in agony, throughout. “Wet porn” is the term of this kind of art.
Tarantino is clear, however, that his trademark use of this hyper-violence is not actually meant to represent real violence, but it's instead Tarantino’s version of film world violence. This style has been described as an “aestheticization of violence”, with Tarantino being the most well-known purveyor. One writer described the style in another Tarantino film, but just as apropos for Django Unchained, in which Tarantino’s female lead was “using [the over-the-top violence] as a kind of canvas for her expression of revenge...[,]...like an artist who expresses herself through brush and paint, ... [she] ...expresses herself through sword and blood.” (Morales, 2003).
Through this imagery, Tarantino fully utilizes the suspension of disbelief and pure fantasy afforded by movies. That is, when the good guys are killed in Django Unchained, the violence is as vicious and as real as possible, so as to shock and fully impress upon the viewers that this level of cruelty actually took place. When the bad guys die, however, the violence is so highly-stylized and so unnatural that it is obviously fake and it can more clearly be seen as movie stunts and special effects. The stylized carnage is, according to Tarantino, merely a symbolic expression of the deep hatred, rage and vengeance of slaves, and not the depiction of real-world violence. Finally, a crucial underpinning of Tarantino’s film world logic is essentially that both the number of gallons of blood spilled, as well as the length and the intensity of the screams, is meant to directly equate to the amount of revenge being gained back.
Tarantino often overtly signals to viewers when this perspective is shifting. For example, twice sudden bursts of violence from Django are met with comical, wide-eyed looks of shock by slave women, looks more reminiscent of I Love Lucy than Charles Bronson’s Death Wish (1974). Indeed, Tarantino’s extreme and sadistic movie violence is meant to be, in his words, “cathartic”, and even a type of violence “that’s fun and that’s cool, and that’s really enjoyable and kind of what you’re waiting for.” (NPR, 2013) The director has further said that hyper-violence is to his films what Fred Astaire’s dancing is to his; it is just another “color” for his palette as a filmmaker. To Tarantino, such make-believe violence “doesn’t mean anything.” (Hari, 2009) As one approving reviewer wrote of the director’s work: “It’s a fool’s errand to criticize Quentin Tarantino for historical inaccuracy or chronic amorality. Everybody knows his movies are inspired by and respond to other movies, not real life.” (Fox, 2009)
The final act in Django Unchained sees Django confronting all of the remaining plantation crew, including Candie’s top house slave, Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson). Stephen has risen as far as a slave could ever rise in the twisted system, and not merely by sucking up to Candie, but by hating his fellow black people even more than the white folks do.
Django first lets two other house slaves leave the mansion before he brutally guns down the rest of the staff, including Candie’s relatively unassuming, but complicit, sister. Django then confronts Stephen and reads him the riot act for turning on other black people, before shooting him in both kneecaps. Django leaves Stephen screaming in pain but alive in the dynamite-rigged mansion. Stephen yells obscenities at Django, but he is helpless. Django laughs and as he exits the mansion he lights the dynamite with his cigarette. The tone shifts back to comic surreality as the mansion is blown to bits in an exaggerated and almost cartoonish manner. Django coolly walks away from the fiery wreckage behind him as he goes to get his waiting girl; Broomhilda swoons. The couple trade some quips and Django gets on his horse, he does some cute Gene Autry-and-Trigger-type tricks, and he and his wife ride off together.
For a major motion picture to put a former slave in the driver’s seat of this incredibly popular, violent action genre is indeed a landmark. Tarantino created the hero he set out to make.
Tarantino and Catharsis: It’s Only a Movie
The fantasy of Django Unchained, of course, is that slaves were never able to make this story happen in the real world. Indeed, the most heralded slave uprising, the Nat Turner Rebellion, was quashed in less than 48 hours, and was followed by brutal, outsized retribution, as well as the implementation of even more oppressive controls over slaves. (PBS, 2003) The “aestheticization of violence” in Django Unchained is thus meant to be the visual expression of that rage, frustration, and as an outlet of some sort where there was otherwise powerlessness.
To be clear, Django Unchained is at its heart a pure, sadistic revenge fantasy. Django is certainly motivated by his love for his wife, and at times that storyline is moving, but the bloodlust and pure hate, eclipses all else. After all, there is non-stop bloodletting but for all but a couple of quick flashbacks to Django and Broomhilda when they were together, and even then few lines were exchanged between the two.
One argument is that such sadistic tendencies are justified in the case of slavery where there can never be enough justice to make-up for the scope and magnitude of the injustice. During press for Django Unchained, Tarantino stopped answering questions challenging his use of violence, although he did answer similar questions for his previous film, Inglorious Basterds (2009). That film completely parallels Django Unchained as a sadistic revenge fantasy, but it is set in World War II and in the context of Jews and Nazis. One highlight is a Jewish soldier whose special talent is savagely and graphically beating Nazi prisoners to death with a baseball bat. The climax has the good guy American G.I.s vividly scalping a Nazi, and then slowly carving a swastika into another screaming Nazi’s forehead. When Tarantino was asked whether he was worried about backlash for depicting Jews acting not with the solemn dignity of, "Never again", but animalistic retaliation, Tarantino responded, ‘“Why would they condemn me? I was too brutal to the Nazis?” (Bernstein, 2009).
So what harm then in some fantasy-sadism when it is, ostensibly, justified or done in the name of catharsis? How else to deal with and accept a history that is utterly unacceptable? There is no easy answer to any of it, of course. Still, the ultimate purpose of fantasy/fiction is to help bring clarity or otherwise increase appreciation of our own non-fiction, real lives. Yet Tarantino is more concerned with vengeance and inflicting extreme suffering than in obtaining mere justice, nor does he offer any other alternative. The message in Django Unchained seems to be, Yes, sadistic violence is really, really ugly but, hey, that’s just life, and if that lack of morality doesn’t work for you, then, well, It’s just a movie.
This is intellectually and morally inconsistent, however. You cannot claim that this sadism is your fantasy, but then disclaim it in the same breath, because you don’t really mean it, because it is just a movie. Which is it? If there is no difference in relishing sadistic revenge, versus relishing the fantasy of sadistic revenge, either way, these are both dark and nihilistic places to be. As Anthony Lane wrote in The New Yorker, the problem is that: “Tarantino is dangerously in love with the look of evil, and all he can counter it with is cool—not strength of purpose, let alone goodness of heart, but simple comeuppance, issued with merciless panache.” (Lane, 2013)
There is no moving on from the past through the depiction of sadism and torture in film. Martin Luther King, Jr. referred to a process where “hate destructs the personality of the hater.” (King, 1957) Real closure is often a long process of soul-searching, grieving -- and finding productive and sane outlets for pent-up rage. There is nothing fair12 Years a Slave, had their own roads to hoe. Recall that Epps was a truly miserable man with no peace within himself, whatsoever, and certainly he had no peace with his own conception of a Christian God.
There may be some vicarious thrill in seeing the good guys wiping out deeply-rooted, complex problems with some swift brute force, as if that were possible. Still, even that is not the same as cheering sadistic behavior, and for much the same reason that the Gettysburg Address is a hallowed moment in American history, while Sherman’s March is not.
A flashier and tidier ending can offer some thrills and may well do better at the box office, but it is not the truth. Given the enormous legacy of slavery in America, being truthful seems awfully important. After all, films matter. They impact people and that is why people love them. Moving forward, hopefully filmmakers and audiences will continue to draw from the very best aspects of both of these bold and overdue films.
Bernstein, Richard (2009). “Sadism Gets a Pass at the Movies”. The New York Times, September 9, 2009. Retrieved 1/16/2014. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/10/us/10iht-letter.html?_r=0
Channel 4 News (n.d.). “Quentin Tarantino: ‘I’m shutting your butt down!’”. Published 1/10/2013. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GrsJDy8VjZk&list=UUTrQ7HXWRRxr7OsOtodr2_w&index=8
Fox, Michael (2009, August 21). “Shockingly Superficial”. Chicago Jewish Star. Retrieved 1/16/2014. https://mail.google.com/mail/mu/mp/22/
Goldberg, Jeffrey, The Atlantic, QT interview on IB. Morales, Xavier (2003-10-16). "Beauty and violence”. The Record (Harvard Law School RECORD Corporation) Retrieved 2007-06-08. http://media.www.hlrecord.org/media/storage/paper609/news/2003/10/16/Etc/Kill-Bill.Beauty.And.Violence-530854.shtml“violence”
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Lane, Anthony (2013, January 7), “Les Misérables,” “Django Unchained,” and “Amour.” The New Yorker. Retrieved 1/16/2014. Http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/cinema/2013/01/07/130107crci_cinema_lane
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PBS (n.d.). “Nat Turner’s Rebellion,” Africans in America. Retrieved 1/16/2014. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part3/3p1518.html
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