Two years before the Civil War, a freed slave named Django becomes a bounty hunter because he can't think of any job more awesome than killing white guys for money. Wearing anachronistic sunglasses, accompanied by his preternaturally anti-racist white partner Schultz, he shoots his way through the South with one burning mission in mind. He wants to rescue his wife from slavery.
Is it alternate history? Pure fantasy? Spaghettisploitation? Just another weird art movie from Quentin Tarantino? In a sense, Django Unchained (released Christmas day) is all of these things. Most of all, it is anything but realism. It's a film that couldn't exist without all the tricks and tropes of speculative storytelling. But is this really the kind of tale that should be told as a genre romp?
If you are looking for a review of Django Unchained, go somewhere else. This is an essay about the movie — which has been in theaters all week — and it contains both analysis and spoilers.
An Alternate History
What separates a liberal reinterpretation of history from alternate history? It really depends on how you define alternate history, but I would argue that Django Unchained fits the bill. A classic alternate history question is, "What if the South won the war?" In Django, the question is, "What if one ex-slave won a battle against a plantation owner?" It's a smaller, more personal alternate history, but nevertheless a powerful and seductive distortion of true events.
Looked at another way, this is a movie about what would happen if a pair of particularly badass men, one black and one white, went back to antebellum America and evaluated everyone there using contemporary sensibilities. (In this way, Django Unchained is a bit like Octavia Butler's time travel novel Kindred). To these men, slavery stands out as stark, almost laughably unbelievable horror. If they'd been realistic men of the era, however, they would have viewed it as an ugly but unsurprising part of everyday life, much the way many Americans regard the disproportionate number of black men in prison today. In other words, these putative historically accurate badasses might have understood slavery as an injustice, but not something surprising. Their shocked revulsion gives them away as twenty-first century people in a nineteenth century world.
Like all alternate histories, Django Unchained is designed to reveal truths about the past. Audiences will no doubt get Tarantino's message about history in his many graphic scenes of whites abusing, torturing, raping, whipping, mutilating, castrating, and murdering slaves. These are not exaggerations of what actually happened under slavery, though it's unlikely that anyone would have witnessed all of them in less than two hours and forty minutes, the way we do during this film.
Beyond the torture, what's most realistic about Django Unchained is the wide range of moral positions occupied by everybody, white and black alike. There is no fake camaraderie between the slaves; often, it's every man for himself. The evil plantation-owner Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) has an equally evil Uncle Tom house slave named Stephen by his side, played with vicious perfidy by Samuel L. Jackson. Stephen's happy to abuse his fellow slaves, as long as he remains his master's right-hand man. As for Candie, he's the kind of white man who is far more dangerous than a mere racist chump like proto-Klansman Big Daddy (Don Johnson). Because Candie understands that black people can be just as smart and capable as whites — indeed, this is why he trusts Stephen implicitly, and falls for Django's impersonation of a black slaver. He knows blacks could be his equals, but he just doesn't care. He loves power, and will use any justification to wield it.
Django Unchained offers a realistically complicated view of white and black identities in antebellum America. Django (played with incredible intensity by Jamie Foxx) does not view all blacks as his "brothers," nor do they treat him that way. Because he's free, Django is privileged compared to other black people he meets. We never forget that there are class distinctions within racial groups as well as between them. And whites do not comprise a uniform sea of vanilla racism, either; there are many kinds of white power (and disempowerment) in Django Unchained, some more deadly than others.
Pseudoscience Is Racism
There are a lot of emotionally scarring scenes in Django Unchained, some of which will rub salt in your wounds by making you laugh. (For a great essay about this effect, read Cord Jefferson's article on humor in Django.) But for me, the most soul-mangling scene took place at Candieland, the plantation from Hell, where Candie throws used-up "mandingo fighters" to the dogs. No, it was not the dog scene that unhinged me. It was when Candie delivered a wrathful speech about phrenology, a popular pseudoscience of the era.
Candie sets a skull on the dinner table where Django and Schultz have just been discovered and disarmed. It's the skull of the slave who raised three generations of Candies, the skull of a man Candie loves. So he saws off the back of the skull, and picks it up to reveal three dimples on the inside of it. Phrenologists believed you could read personality from the skull's shape, and Candie announces that every person from Africa has those three dimples, right in the part of the head devoted to servility. A European genius like Newton would have those dimples in the part of the head devoted to creativity, he yells, but every single black person — even the exceptional Django — is fundamentally built for slavery.
We think of science as a form of enlightenment, but Django Unchained reminds us that it has been used just as often to justify racist totalitarianism of the kind we see at Candieland.
What makes this all-too-historically-accurate speech so powerful is that it closely resembles arguments still used today to justify the high rates of black imprisonment, unemployment, and general disenfranchisement in America. In the 1990s, sociologist Richard Herrnstein and political scientist Charles Murray published The Bell Curve, a book that suggested that blacks had lower IQs on average than other groups. Hence, their achievements were naturally less spectacular than whites. This book was not treated with sarcastic disbelief the way slavery is in Django Unchained. It was widely accepted as fact, and indeed Charles Murray had been and continues to be regarded as an expert on social welfare policies for low income people, especially people of color. Candie may be a fantasy, but his idea of scientific truth is not.
Whose Fantasy Is It?
Django Unchained is movie that is mostly about black people, but make no mistake — it is a white man's fantasy. I'm not saying that is a bad thing, the way Spike Lee did. But writer/director Tarantino is a white guy — albeit one who has long promoted and admired black pop culture — and he grapples with this issue head-on by casting German actor Christoph Waltz as Django's fast-talking mentor Schultz. In conversations between Django and Schultz, you can almost hear Tarantino's internal debates over telling a black American story using the tropes of spaghetti westerns and exploitation film (at one point, Schultz actually tells Django, "I feel guilty").
To a certain extent, Tarantino sidesteps this moral quandary by making it clear that a lot of what Django and Schultz are doing is acting. They are partly social engineers, after all, using trickery to get close to their prey. At several points, Schultz urges Django to amp up the acting — "Give me your best black slaver," he says with a big smile before they go undercover to Candieland. We as an audience are reminded that this is a movie, and these are actors — this movie isn't so much about slavery as it is movies about slavery. Only a white guy would need to bend over backwards to make this point.
Still, Tarantino doesn't fall prey to the Avatar trap, where liberal white people fantasize that only white people can save the innocent natives/slaves from oppression. Schultz acts like an idiot and gets killed, so there is no question that Django saves the day — using both his smarts and his gun. Still, this felt to me (as a white person) like a movie aimed mostly at helping white people come to grips with our history in a cool way, rather than a douchey or condescending one.
Tarantino is struggling with another issue, too, and this goes beyond what white people should feel comfortable saying about black history. He's trying to justify his cinematic bloodlust, and he does it by using his black characters' victim status as a shield. We see this most clearly during Django's first bounty hunter kill, when he's going after the three brothers who whipped and branded him and his wife.
In this scene, Django's lacy, satin blue pantaloons give him the air of innocence — after all, he is like a child; these are the first clothes he's ever picked out for himself. Thus his wrath feels all the more pure and just. He is a furious angel, delivering violence that is the only moral response possible in this fallen, white place. It's testimony to Jamie Foxx's abilities as a performer, and Tarantino's as a director, that the foolishness of Django's outfit is drained away utterly in this scene. You may laugh, but your heart will also be pounding in genuine outraged sympathy for this former slave taking vengeance at last on his oppressors. And this is how Tarantino has, at last, figured out a way to justify his appetite for ethically questionable representations of extreme violence on screen. He's found a black soldier of justice to act out his gore-soaked fantasies and make them palatable.