“It’s a flesh for cash business—just like slavery.” So the German bounty hunter Dr. Schultz describes his profession to the ex-slave title character near the beginning of Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained. It’s an apt introduction to the film’s broader portrait of American slavery — a rendering that emphasizes the tortured flesh, the sordid cash, and the gruesome business of bondage at every turn. In this regard, Django Unchained fits comfortably within the familiar canon of Tarantino crime films, which have nearly always probed the intersection between the brutally physical and the cynically transactional.
The old gang’s all here: the vicious mob boss, the wisecracking assassin, the tight-lipped, vengeance-minded hero. So why should anyone, let alone early American historians, bother to consider the historical perspective of a film that in many ways is just Reservoir Dogs with snazzier waistcoats and more primitive sunglasses?
In part, the answer is because Tarantino’s crime-thriller version of the slave South is surprisingly effective. A gangster universe defined by casual violence, rising and plunging fortunes, and uncertain but brutally enforced hierarchy translates pretty well, after all, to antebellum Mississippi. Moreover, as Adam Serwer argues, Django Unchained is an unflinching, unequivocating exposition of slavery’s horror, in a film industry that remains all too rife with flinches and equivocations (or worse). The film’s depictions of violence against whites may take the spaghetti Western to new heights of silliness, with soup-cauldrons of marinara sauce exploding out of every gunshot wound. But the violence against blacks, and especially enslaved blacks, is both real and raw. Tarantino’s most flamboyant cinematic tricks all hit their marks here — the camera’s insistent attention the paraphernalia of slave torture, from the whip to the branding iron; the grainy, ’70s-pulp camera filter used to depict flashbacks of slave abuse, which hauntingly suggests the lurid, nightmarish quality that such torment must have retained, even in memory.
In this gangland Old South, there is no room for paternalism, or even the fig leaf of paternalist posturing. (Here Tarantino occasionally takes such extreme ground as to make Walter Johnson look like Eugene Genovese). Slavery is all cash, all trade, all business, all the time — bills of sale are brandished, signatures are insisted upon, and slave prices and property values are discharged as frequently as pistol shots. There are of course problems with this perspective (I’ll get to those later), but however limited or crudely drawn, it remains a real attempt at interpretation — and one that is, after all, broadly consistent with the direction of much recent scholarship on the antebellum South, slavery, and capitalism.
The most radical line in Django Unchained comes when the large planter Calvin Candie, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, orders his dogs to be set loose on a disobedient slave. As the hounds tear the man limb from limb, Dr. Schultz winces visibly, but Jamie Foxx’s Django maintains an impassive stare. When the grinning Candie asks Django why he, unlike his German colleague, does not flinch, Django replies: “I guess I’m just more used to Americans than he is.” If in Tarantino’s depiction the plantation is above all a crime scene, then the United States itself can be no more than a vast and vicious underworld. This blurring of the boundaries between the American criminal and the American man of business, is, of course, the great theme of thoughtful gangster films from The Godfather to GoodFellas. But by granting slavery its rightfully central position inside this national panorama of greed, crime, and violence, Django makes a real contribution of its own.
Yet as powerful as some of Django’s scenes may be, its crimeland view of slavery also leads the film into trouble. While the best gangster entertainments of the past decade, especially TV shows like The Sopranos and The Wire, delved deeply into the nitty-gritty details of criminal enterprise, Tarantino has never been interested in procedure. In Django, he is enthralled by the idea of slavery as a “business,” but has no notion of slavery as economics. “You’ve got to understand, I’m runnin’ a business here,” avows Calvin Candie, just before making the highly unbusinesslike decision to murder a slave for his own amusement. (Stringer Bell this dude is not.) Indeed Candie obviously prefers inflicting pain to producing profit, and in this he joins a long line of Tarantino sociopaths from Mr. Blonde to Hans Landa.
Slavery, for Tarantino, is just sadism writ large; and sadism, as ever, remains his chief subject. (Remember, his original exploration of slavery came in the basement of Zed’s Pawn Shop.) Thus we learn nothing about Candie’s plantation activities other than his interest in “Mandingo fighting,” which pits slaves against each other in a savage combat to the death, and borrows more from ’70s blaxploitation cinema than anything we know about actual slave fighting contests. “Mandingo fighting” is a baroque parody of slavery, rather than an attempt to depict slavery itself, and in this it suits Tarantino’s purposes perfectly. His film is almost entirely uninterested in the actual experience of enslavement. Aside from a brief shot of a splattered marinara in a cotton field, Django barely shows slaves doing any actual field work. When Django and Dr. Schultz arrive at one Tennessee plantation, slave women are strolling the grounds as aimlessly as croquet players without mallets. Bondage, like war or street crime, seems to involve an uneven admixture of tedium and terror. Neither drudgery nor exploitation has much to do with it. These black bodies are being abused for pleasure and for leisure, not for their labor.
If Tarantino is largely innocent of economics, he is even less interested in politics. All of slavery’s violence, Django implies, is personal and private, the product of debauched souls looking to expel their own surplus cruelty. At one point, Calvin Candie brandishes the skull of a dead slave, and begins a “phrenological” discourse on the inferiority of black brains to white — but by the end of the lecture, it is clear that his racism is grounded in individual malice rather than social ideology. Slaveholders are corrupt, they are barbaric, they are incestuous, but as gangsters, they don’t seem to believe in anything, except perhaps their own power.
The slaves, too, lack politics — for how can you have politics if you can barely speak? Django himself included, the film’s slaves remain bizarrely uncommunicative with each other throughout the entire film, despite finding themselves in a wide variety of situations that would seem to call urgently for communication. Nor do they act — mostly, their job is to look on in a kind of stunned, vaguely grateful paralysis while Django and Dr. Schultz get up to their latest caper. (Slave women, including Django’s wife Hildy, are especially paralytic; it’s telling that Hildy’s most striking action in the entire film is a sudden faint.) If there is no paternalism here, neither is there slave solidarity or community, despite all we know about the connection between community and rebellion.
But maybe that’s appropriate, because as Jacobin’s Remeike Forbes points out, there is no slave rebellion in Django Unchained. There’s no black mobilization at all: the only organized actions of any kind are managed by whites, largely for the purpose of getting themselves swiftly cut down by Django and Dr. Schultz. What kind of gangster needs to mobilize? Ultimately, Django Unchained is no more a film about black liberation than Kill Bill was a film about women’s liberation — identity politics might give the violence a certain kind of aesthetic definition, but that’s about it. Django, like Beatrix Kiddo, or Calvin Candie, for that matter, remains entrapped in the gangster world of strictly personal hate and strictly personal desire. His “resistance” carries so little whiff of revolution, in fact, that even after murdering a dozen whites at Mississippi’s fourth largest plantation, the local authorities elect to punish him in the fashion that is most personally painful — without even considering any need to restore social order, or to intimidate other possible renegades. Nat Turner, at any rate, would never have been sold to an Australian mining company.
An incomplete account of further historically-informed reading on Django Unchained (feel free to add your own in the comments):
At Not Even Past, Daina Ramey Berry argues that Django‘s “absurdities trivialize the real violence of the slave system.”
At the New Yorker‘s Culture Desk, Jelani Cobb criticizes Tarantino for depicting blacks “as ciphers passively awaiting freedom.”
In the Civil War Monitor, Megan Kate Nelson tries to make sense of Django as a slave Western.
At ThinkProgress, Alyssa Rosenberg compares Dr. Schultz, Thaddeus Stevens, and the politics of white solidarity in Lincoln and Django.
At People’s World, Chris Elliott praises Django for offering a literal visualization of Lincoln’s second inaugural address: “…until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn by the sword.”
Movieline posts its interview with Samuel L. Jackson, who calls his character Steven “the most reprehensible negro in cinema history.”