I’m pretty sure John Wayne would hate Django Unchained, but only because Jaimee Fox looks fine-as-hell in those glasses. John Wayne could rock jeans and a bandanna…and that’s pretty much it. Sorry John.
The first image or memory I have of Django Unchained was seeing it opening day, which was Christmas. Apart from the snowstorm that damn near killed me as I drove home in my piss-for-shit 95 Ford Truck that had no heater at the time, I distinctly remember being the only person in the theater, apart from a family of African Americans to my right, who were laughing. I just remember that family laughing because most of the rest of the theater were white people who gave me nasty looks as I was walked out of the theater. I just couldn’t help it. There’s something about watching a group of white men complain about not being able to see through their hoods that’s just pathetic and hilarious.
And because I’m feeling indulgent, why not just quote the scene directly. Big Daddy a plantation owner, and part-time Colonel Sanders impersonator, has tracked Django and Dr. King Schultz with a posse of men to lynch the pair of them. Before they ride in to attack them they plan their attack and the conversation eventually takes place:
Big Daddy: [instructing raiding party] Now unless they start shooting first, nobody shoot ’em. That’s way too simple for these jokers. We’re gonna whoop that nigger lover to death! And I am personally gonna strip and clip that gaboon myself!
[puts on bag]
Big Daddy: Damn! I can’t see fuckin’ shit outta this thing.
Unnamed Baghead: We ready or what?
Big Daddy: Naw, hold on, I’m fuckin’ with my eye holes.
Big Daddy: Oh. Oh, shit.
[takes off bag]
Big Daddy: Ah, I just made it worse.
Unnamed Baghead: Who made this goddamn shit?
Other Unnamed Baghead: Willard’s wife.
Willard: Well, make your own goddamn mask!
Big Daddy: Look. Nobody’s sayin’ they don’t appreciate what Jenny did.
Unnamed Baghead: Well, if all I had to do was cut a hole in a bag, I coulda cut it better than this!
Other Unnamed Baghead: What about you, Robert? Can you see?
Robert: Not too good. I mean, if I don’t move my head I can see you pretty good, more or less. But when I start ridin’, the bag’s movin’ all over, and I – I’m ridin’ blind.
Bag Head #2: [rips bag] Shit. I just made mine worse. Anybody bring any extra bags?
Unnamed Baghead: No! Nobody brought an extra bag!
Unnamed Baghead: [raiding party is discussing their bags] Do we have to wear ’em when we ride?
Big Daddy: Oh, well shitfire! If you don’t wear ’em as you ride up, that just defeats the purpose!
Unnamed Baghead: Well, I can’t see in this fuckin’ thing! [takes bag off] I can’t breathe in this fuckin’ thing, and I can’t ride in this fuckin’ thing!
Willard: Well fuck all y’all! I’m going home! You know, I watched my wife work all day gettin’ thirty bags together for you ungrateful sons of bitches! And all I can hear is criticize, criticize, criticize! From now on, don’t ask me or mine for nothin’!
Big Daddy: Now look. Let’s not forget why we’re here. We gotta kill a nigger over that hill there! And we gotta make a lesson out of him!
Bag Head #2: Okay, I’m confused. Are the bags on or off?
Robert: I think… we all think the bag was a nice idea. But – not pointin’ any fingers – they coulda been done better. So, how ’bout, no bags this time – but next time, we do the bags right, and then we go full regalia.
Big Daddy: Wait a minute! I didn’t say ‘no bags’!
Bag Head #2: But nobody can see.
Big Daddy: So?
Bag Head #2: So, it’d be nice to see.
Big Daddy: Goddammit! 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!
These scene in particular drew the most laughs, and thinking on it later I wondered why the only people laughing was that family of black people and myself. But reflecting on it I suppose I understand. There’s a lot of dialogue which surrounds the film Django Unchained and a lot of it has to do with history.
If the reader has never seen Django Unchained it’s a film about a former slave who is rescued by a mysterious German dentists named Dr. King Schultz who is in fact not a dentist but a bounty hunter. Schultz saves Django because the man used to work on a plantation where three of his bounties used to work as well. The pair of them track the men down, kill them, escape the afore quoted inept posse, and during a conversation they decide to save Django’s wife who’s been sold, as they discover, to one of the largest plantation owners in Mississippi Calvin Candy. The two men draft an elaborate plan to rescue her, which ultimately fails, and costs Schultz his life. Escaping chains once again Django fights through and slaughters everyone in his path and finally saves his wife from Candyland.
When the film was released Quentin Tarantino suffered all manner of bad press for the free and prolific use of the word nigger in the film. Spike Lee made his usual appearance on the “Fuck Tarantino” program, and people on Facebook got into really nasty arguments about who’s allowed to use the word “nigger” and when and in what context and then someone said “reverse racism” and everybody who liked their brain left the room before that bullshit polluted their frontal lobes. And when the issue of Slavery and historical accuracy was thrown down, I like most people tuned out. Not because there wasn’t an argument to be made, but because I had already assured myself that this interpretation was the best reason to enjoy the film. I enjoy Tarantino movies period and will regularly defend the man’s work. But since I’ve seen the film around ten times since it came out I’ve realized more and more than this argument can only go so far. Tarantino movies tend to be hyperbolic in terms of violence and persona and sometimes plot structure, and within the film there is another, and I’d argue far more interesting, analysis that few people really discussed.
Django Unchained is a fairy tale about racism.
After Django and Schultz have defeated the Brittle Brothers and Big Daddy’s posse, the two men are having coffee and beans in a rocky valley, and while they talk Django mentions his wife Broomhilda and Schultz tells him the story of Siegfried:
Dr. King Schultz: Well, Broomhilda was a princess. She was a daughter of Wotan, god of all gods. Anyways, Her father is really mad at her.
Django: What she do?
Dr. King Schultz: I can’t exactly remember. She disobeys him in some way. So he puts her on top of the mountain.
Django: Broomhilda’s on a mountain?
Dr. King Schultz: It’s a German legend, there’s always going to be a mountain in there somewhere. And he puts a fire-breathing dragon there to guard the mountain. And he surrounds her in a circle of hellfire. And there, Broomhilda shall remain. Unless a hero arises brave enough to save her.
Django: Does a fella arise?
Dr. King Schultz: Yes, Django, as a matter of fact, he does. A fella named Siegfried.
Django: Does Siegfried save her?
Dr. King Schultz: [Nods] Quiet spectacularly so. He scales the mountain, because he’s not afraid of it. He slays the dragon, because he’s not afraid of him. And he walks through hellfire… because Broomhilda’s worth it.
Django: I know how he feel.
Watching the movie for the first time I failed to see how Tarantino was using this scene. I simply chocked it up to the man’s recent fascination with Christoph Waltz. Inglorious Basterds for me was a bit of a let-down the first time I watched it, but that was only because I was a Tarantino Junkie and had heard his original idea for the film. In place of a quad of black commandoes fighting across Europe I got a two-and-a-half-hour dialogue piece complete with film and lots of subtitles. Still, the redeeming element of the film was Waltz and his performance of Hans Landa. When Waltz returned in Django, it was just a continuation of the German aesthetic.
But like I said before there’s more to this passage because it ultimately reveals the creative goal of Django Unchained, which is to create an American fairy tale about slavery.
I think it’s a mistake to make the argument that Django is “historically accurate” as a film. There are numerous elements which satisfy historical reality (such as the headwear slaves were sometimes manacled with and bullshit eugenist views which I’ll talk about later), however people in the past typically didn’t bleed explosive corn syrup. The regular splash and sploosh of blood erupting in geyser like quality is Tarantino’s usual hyperbolic cinematic style and reveals his love of B-movies. But the main reason I reject this argument as the sole interpretation or defense of the film is that it limits the plot by history which often can be anti-climactic to narrative structure.
The reason Django becomes the character he does is because Tarantino is making
a Western, and as I’ve explored that genre before in numerous other essays, it’s important to understand how Westerns operate. I’ve said it once before, several times, but Jane Tompkin’s book West of Everything: The Inner Life of Westerns is a wonderful book because it lays out the skeleton of the Western genre, how it operates, who established it, why it continues to appeal to audiences, and finally what is the creative goal of it.
In an early passage she explains the general outline of the western:
First of all, in Westerns (which are generally written by men), the main character is always a full-grown adult male, and either outdoors—on the prairie, on the main street—or in public places—the saloon, the sheriff’s office, the barber shop, the livery stable. The action concerns physical struggles between the hero and a rival or rivals, and culminates in a fight to the death with guns. In the course of these struggles the hero frequently forms a bond with another man—sometimes his rival, more often a comrade—a bond that is more important than any relationship he has with a woman and is frequently tinged with homoeroticism. There is very little free expression of the emotions. The hero is a man of few words who expresses himself through physical action—usually fighting. And when death occurs it is never at home in bed but always sudden death, usually murder. (38-9).
Now I can anticipate the reader’s reaction immediately: Django doesn’t exhibit any of these last qualities. In fact he doesn’t even die. This is a fair point, however if you observe the quote in it’s entirety you’ll see that Tarantino’s movie matches this skeleton because ultimately Django is a physical creature who isn’t defined by his introspection. Django Unchained seems to break this structure because he’s principally motivated to save his wife Broomhilda, however Tompkins notes that women typically receive this treatment in westerns when she notes:
Westerns either push women out of the picture completely or assign them roles in which they exist only to serve the needs of men (39-40).
Broomhilda never really manifests much of a personal character other than the fact that she’s Django’s wife. And while this certainly means Django Unchained fails the Bechdel test, it simply follows that it is in fact a Western. Django fights through the power structure and bodies of Candy Land in order to save his wife, literally spraying the white walls red with blood, until he’s overpowered and sent back, temporarily, into slavery. All this death only further Tompkins arguments about westerns:
For the Western is secular, materialist, and anti-feminist; it focuses on conflict in the public space, is obsessed by death, and worships the phallus. Notably, this kind of explanation does not try to account for the most salient fact about the Western—that it is a narrative of male violence—for, having been formed by the Western, that is what such explanations already take for granted (28).
But that just leads me back to my original argument.
Tarantino movie is remaking the genre of the western by blending it with the fairy-tale, myth, of Siegfried. Fairy-tales, much like myth, are stories that are purposefully hyperbolic in order to explain phenomena in the world. Zeus and Thor are non-scientific means explain lightning, and likewise the story of Siegfried is designed to explain the absurd state of being in love. One of the best examples of the fairy-tale is George Orwell’s novel Animal Farm which, when it first published, had the subtitle of “A Modern Fairy Tale.” In Animal Farm Orwell was using the structure of the fairy tale to tell a modern story about the terrors of Stalinism, but also of political corruption in general.
In Django Unchained, the fairy tale is exploring the history of violence and race, but instead of simply reminding the viewer about the travesties of slavery, the story is told so that instead of remaining victims of oppression black people overcome the violence by becoming the hero of a traditionally white genre.
Django becomes a mythic, or fairy-tale hero, charging into the fire that is the Candy Land plantation, pretending to be a black slaver, watching a slave named D’Artagnan being ripped apart my dogs, listening to Calvin Candie’s long lecture about the mental feebleness of blacks, killing dozens of field hands in Candy Land being captured, killing his captors, and returning to kill every last living member of Candy Land before blowing it up. While all of this is the usually Tarantinoesque hyperbole it follows point-by-point the struggles of Siegfried’s struggle.
The Dragon may be a slave owner with bad teeth who believes in eugenics and drinks rum from a coconut, but the hero faces it nonetheless because, as Dr. King Schultz noted before, Broomhilda’s worth it.
And then just a final note about one crucial element of the film. Consistently in Django Unchained, there are shots of white surfaces being sprayed with blood. First it’s the cotton of Big Daddy’s farm being sprayed with Ellis Brittle’s blood, Big Daddy’s white horse being sprayed with blood, and finally the white walls of Candy Lands interior being sprayed with blood of the various field hands who die trying to kill Django. As before I’ve heard arguments about how this is historic symbolism for how “white power” was “stained” by the blood of Africa Americans. I like this argument, and I stand by the idea that in the humanities you can make any argument you want as long as you support it with evidence. However, as I’ve noted before, Django Unchained is not historically accurate the way 12 Years a Slave was. The Tarantino factor has to be accounted for.
There is certainly a gratuitous element to it, but I’d argue that this constant staining imagery is just another way of building the “fairy-tale.” Often myths and fairy-tales pay attention to the body, blood, organs, etc. And so blood being such a precious fluid that it is, it’s being used to demonstrate what the hero is willing to perform and sacrifice in order to get back to his wife.
I didn’t get a chance to use it in the review, but this small exchange between Dr. King Schultz and Calvin Candie remains one of my favorite dialogue pieces simply because it made me realize a fact about an author I’ve loved all my life and never knew:
Calvin Candie: White cake?
Dr. King Schultz: I don’t go in for sweets, thank you.
Calvin Candie: Are you brooding ’bout me getting the best of ya, huh?
Dr. King Schultz: Actually, I was thinking of that poor devil you fed to the dogs today, D’Artagnan. And I was wondering what Dumas would make of all this.
Calvin Candie: Come again?
Dr. King Schultz: Alexander Dumas. He wrote “The Three Musketeers.” I figured you must be an admirer. You named your slave after his novel’s lead character. If Alexander Dumas had been there today, I wonder what he would have made of it?
Calvin Candie: You doubt he’d approve?
Dr. King Schultz: Yes. His approval would be a dubious proposition at best.
Calvin Candie: Soft hearted Frenchy?
Dr. King Schultz: Alexander Dumas is black.
Maybe it’s indulgent on my part, or cathartic, but there’s something about watching Django burst into the house of the slave catcher’s shouting “D’Artagnan, motherfuckers!” And shooting them all.
Although I’ll also note there’s just something about watching a former slave whip the field hands that made him watch as they whipped his wife with their own whip before shooting them that is just…well it’s just fun to watch.
While I was polishing this essay I found a review from The Gaurdian of the film. Enjoy:
Finally I just wanted to leave the reader with some extra material. Here’s an interview with noted African American studies scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr and Quentin Tarantino shortly after Django Unchained was released. Enjoy: