not in our stars, but in ourselves
I don’t mean to double-up on one particular film, but there’s been plenty more ink spilled about Django Unchained (2012) since I first reviewed it, and some of it is worth addressing. While I am not even remotely the best person to address it, I feel that I have a dog in this fight by virtue of my immense affection for the film.
As far as I’ve seen, these are the main critiques (or outright criticisms) of Django:
All but the last are valid concerns, so I don’t want anyone to think that I’m trying to say that I’m right and they’re wrong. Let’s proceed in order, shall we?
First, the n-word. I read somewhere, maybe multiple somewheres, that the Nazis in Inglourious Basterds (2009) never refer to Jews by any of the multitude of antisemitic slur words available – and so it’s proof of Tarantino’s racism that he uses the n-word throughout Django. Or something. I didn’t think I’d ever spend a moment contemplating the differences between Nazi bigotry and American bigotry, but here I am. Now, obviously we’ve got institutionalized racism on both sides. One side was intended to eliminate an entire segment of society; the other was intended to control and de-humanize. Both are reprehensible.
In the public, however, they took different forms – and I think that, actually, Tarantino does a great job of capturing that difference in each film. In Basterds, Col. Landa calmly explains the nightmare logic behind antisemitism: Germans are like hawks, and Jews are like rats. Rats aren’t necessarily that bad, but they live in a hostile world, and they’re cunning little thieves and hiders. Mere slur words are insufficient for that kind of considered, horrific rationality. That is beyond the k-word. Compare to Django, where the plantation owners and good ol’ boys in the American South were racist in a much more direct way. They kept their slaves in line with abusive language, and then with physical abuse if those more psychological abuses didn’t take effect as quickly as they wanted. Logic wasn’t the point: power was. All this is to say that, while it can and does and should sting every time we hear a white person use the n-word, it is in fact to illustrate the pervasive, brutal, insurmountable racism prevalent in the South in the middle of the nineteenth century.
Second, the White Savior accusation. This one makes me scratch my head, and wonder if we saw the same movie. Yes, Schultz takes Django away from a life of slavery to join him in a life of crime. He teaches Django to read and to shoot, and how to strategize. And then – he can’t handle it. He can’t let someone like Candie remain alive, even after Django and Broomhilda are ostensibly free to go. He makes a mess of things, as a matter of fact, but who’s the one who eventually triumphs? Who fights his way out of several impossibly hostile situations, never losing his head for a minute? Who saves himself and the woman he loves? Who does all of that without any help from anyone else, black or white? It’s Django – just Django, not King.
Sure. Schultz found and rescued Django. But after that, they are partners. Where would some of us be if we hadn’t been “discovered” by someone more powerful? Would we have sports teams without talent scouts? Movie stars without studios? Authors without agents? I’m not trying to say the system is without its problems, but there is a system. Someone with a good eye spots someone with great talent. The eye selects the talent, possibly grooms him a bit, and lets him do his thing. In 1858, of course a white man would have been the necessary step to a slave winning his freedom. It sucked. It was the way things worked then. It doesn’t mean that this is another White Savior movie, though, and I have to assume that anyone who sees it as such didn’t sit all the way through to the end.
Third, the question of character arcs. Schultz grows and changes throughout Django; the accusation is that Django himself does not. According to critics of the film, he remains a surly and petulant cuss from start to finish, a man who can watch another man torn apart by dogs without flinching. He seems not to have the rich inner life that Schultz evidently does. He seems to stagnate.
This may be a matter of perception. I thought Django had quite an arc: from a slave who was too scared even to answer Schultz to a badass who stole the suit of the man who’d brutalized his wife (meaning Candie, in case you aren’t keeping up) and wore it to taunt Candie’s loyal house slave, Stephen – after murdering a posse of white men, and before dispatching of Stephen as well as Candieland itself.
Then he rides off with his lovely wife, no worse for wear, grinning from ear to ear. He goes from a life of degradation, horror, and seemingly limitless humiliation – to triumph. Could you do that? Don’t you think you’d have to grow a bit to go from your daily humdrum life to righteous vigilante? Do you think that just happens? We all like to think we’d do anything for those we love most – but how many of us actually do? I’ll tell you one person who does: Django “Siegfried” Freeman.
Maybe some do. Who am I to say. Nevertheless, I thought Django’s arc was impressive in its scope, and so I humbly disagree with that particular criticism. I’m not saying it’s not a problematic film. There’s an excellent, scathing review of it here, and although I don’t share Jesse Williams’s antipathy towards it, I do think that piece is well worth reading and thinking about.
Fourth, and finally, people who just hate Quentin Tarantino. That’s just a matter of preference. You don’t like violent movies? You won’t like this. Sorry. Go watch Step Up or something.