Sunday, January 20, 2013

"I Couldn't Resist" - Review and Analysis of "Django Unchained"

I am white. I grew up in a very small city with a very small number of people of color.

One of the problems with growing up as privileged as I am was that being confronted with the concept of racism in American history always came off as kind of... surreal. It's hard to imagine racism when you live in a community where the concept of race itself barely exists. "We treated black people as slaves? How horrible. But we don't do that anymore, right? OK, good. Glad to hear it."

When you never really see racism and you're told that on paper all Americans are technically on equal ground these days and all of that is in the past, it feels like you don't have to feel responsible for any of it.

I've certainly seen other movies about American slavery, but one thing I've never really realized until I saw "Django Unchained" is that pretty much all of those movies find ways to let the white audience off the hook.

They usually include some white character who is enlightened and helps the black characters get to freedom or what have you. This character usually exists in order for people like me to breathe a sigh of relief, finally having a character we can relate to so we can appreciate the film without feeling guilty. We're not like those slave-owners. We're like the guy who helped the slaves!

Additionally, pretty much all movies about slavery try to deal with the subject matter both reverently and gingerly. While this is understandable considering how horrible a lot of this stuff gets, it also gives people like me a way out. We go into the movie understanding that it is serious and so we steel ourselves and tell ourselves that we aren't going to enjoy it. We kind of treat it like punishment, and that's kind of what it is, but because we're kind of aware of that, it doesn't really hit us.

"Django Unchained" is a different animal, though. There is literally only one redeemable white character and he's a German immigrant. And even if that weren't enough to make it clear that we as white Americans are not meant to identify with him, he also still has to deal with a very high amount of guilt, and without spoiling anything (yet) that guilt does not exist for him to overcome in some dramatic way that solves problems. His guilt is not a positive thing, at least not all the time.

Additionally, because the movie is very much meant to evoke the style of a Spaghetti Western, this is a fun movie and you generally go in expecting to have fun.

So when white people like me get to the parts in "Django Unchained" that shows a lot of the really horrible things done in the name of slavery, we are not given a way out. A part of us wants to have fun, so when our fun is interrupted by horrible shit and we have no way to deal with that, it makes us uncomfortable.

As a white person, I can't really talk about or really accurate imagine how black people feel about this movie. I just can't. But as a white person, I can pretty accurately say that Quentin Tarantino did not make this movie in order for white people to feel good about slavery, and until now, I didn't really realize how much we needed that.

While I certainly enjoyed this movie and loved it, I'd be lying if I said that certain parts of the film didn't make me feel really fucking awful in a way that pretty much no other movie or TV show about slavery has managed, and that's a little surprising.

If you haven't seen the movie and you can handle some pretty horrible violence and unfiltered racism, you definitely should.go see this movie. Beyond that, I'm going to want to start dropping some spoilers at this point, so go see it if you haven't, then join me over here.


Let's Talk About Dr. Schultz

As I mentioned earlier, Christoph Waltz's character of Dr. King (I see what you did there) Schultz is pretty much THE white character in the film that I as a white person could transfer my white guilt into. As I said earlier, I really wasn't supposed to. That is to say, I had no right to. He was not American (he identifies as German many times, but never once as American to my recollection) and the decision to NOT make him American was probably deliberate. Still, when it comes to the subject of racism, white people don't like to face it head on. We need a guilt shield, and Dr. Schultz was pretty much the only cover available.

And I'm pretty sure Quentin Tarantino knew that.

At the start of the film, Dr. Schultz does the sort of thing the aforementioned "guilt shield" tends to do in this sort of movie. He shows up, he kills a couple of racists, he sets a bunch of slaves free, and he takes Django off on an adventure. He then partners up with Django to take down a trio of other murdering racists that are also responsible for whipping Django's wife Broomhilda (who we'll talk about later, I swear). Then he agrees to take Django under his wing and show him the ropes and then help him save his wife.

However, it's at this point that Quentin decides to remind us that Dr. Schultz, up until that point, is not motivated by altruism. His decision to buy and free Django and then use him to take down the Brittle Brothers was done in order to complete a bounty. And while he offers to help Django in his quest, he only does so if Django agrees to help him through the winter (offering to pay him 30% of the profits rather than 50/50). Additionally, he makes it clear that his motivation is partially fueled by a feeling of guilt and responsibility.

So in the next scene, Schultz has Django kill the next bounty in front of his son. It's at this point we're reminded that at the end of the day, Schultz has done what he's done because it's his job, not because he felt bad about Django. This is the first part we as a white audience start to feel a little uneasy about making Schultz our avatar of white guilt.

Skipping ahead a bit, we get to "Candieland" where Schultz is playing the role of a character who purportedly wants to get into Mandingo fighting, with Django as his "expert". Django initially has misgivings about this, saying that he'd basically be a black slaver, which he says is about as low as you can get. Still, Django plays his part with gusto, acting cold and detached. Jamie Foxx's brilliant and subtle performance conveys his true emotions very clearly through the tiniest of tells, but Django's performance is flawless.

Schultz, on the other hand, doesn't fare so well. When Calvin Candie has him watch a Mandingo fight (to the death) Schultz is visibly uncomfortable and trying very hard to act like he's enjoying himself, and it shows. Django, on the other hand, simply sits at bar, has a drink, and smokes a cigarette.

This all culminates during a scene where Candie is berating a character named D'Artagnan. As a white audience, we are hoping for Schultz or Django to stop it before Candie kills D'Artagnan. And in fact, Schultz does. Schultz offers to buy D'Artagnan. Django, knowing it appears out of character for an aspiring Mandingo fighter manager to not want to see an innocent slave subject to violence and cruelty, steps in and makes Schultz retract the offer. And then Candie has dogs rip D'Artagnan apart.

We learn later in the film that this scene really takes its toll on Schultz. Eventually, after he and Django are discovered and Candie extorts the pair into giving up a great deal of money for Broomhilda, they essentially have gotten what they were after and are more or less free to go. All Schultz has to do is shake Candie's hand.

This is what I was talking about earlier when it came to Schultz's guilt not always being a positive thing. In this scene, Schultz is disgusted with himself for acting complacent while surrounded by horrific acts of bigotry and violence and we can tell that it's not what he expected to get into.

Similarly, I went into this movie expecting to have a good time. I'm not an idiot, I knew that the stuff about slavery would be violent and horrible, but I've seen that stuff before.

But like Schultz, I felt guilty, and for the first time, I wasn't let off the hook. I wanted D'Artagnan to live, not just because I didn't want to see him die, but because I didn't want Schultz (my white guilt avatar) to let him die. I had a hard time sitting through the Mandingo fight not just because it was horrible and disgustingly violent, but because I knew Schultz couldn't do anything about it. He had to act like he was enjoying it, and similarly, this is supposed to be a fun movie, so I felt like I wasn't allowed to feel bad about it either. This isn't "Schindler's List". I wasn't given time to ponder it and digest the difficult feelings.

So when this all bubbles back up for Schultz, those feelings are just as raw for me. When Candie tells him to shake his hand, I know exactly what Schultz is going to do, and it hurts me.

On the one hand, I want him to just walk away. They have Broomhilda. They got what they came for.

But on the other hand, what price did they pay for that? They allowed Candie to get the better of them, they had to act like they supported Candie's disgusting ways of life, and they were asked to ride off with their tails between their legs.

So Schultz shoots Candie knowing full well that it will begin a massive gun fight. He believes that Django will be able to hold his own, but he knows that lacking a real weapon, killing Candie will get him dead pretty much instantly. If he wanted to take down Candie, he could have shook his hand, gotten out, formed a plan, and took them all down like Django does at the end of the film. But this isn't about stopping Candie. It's about his guilt. He makes it about him and he realizes that, but he refuses to concede another inch of dignity to that monster. He literally would rather die (and subsequently make things a LOT harder for Django) than shake his hand. And all he has to say is, "I couldn't resist."

While this is certainly an heroic moment, the gunfight that results from it doesn't really end well for Django. He ends up losing and almost gets his balls chopped off. It's only because of the awesomeness that is Django that he manages to get out of it and finish what they started.

In this respect, "Django Unchained" is pretty much the exact opposite of "The Help". Rather than be a toothless and utterly safe film about how white guilt makes people better and solves racism, this is a violent and unflinching movie that shows white guilt as a liability and pretty much completely useless when it comes to actually making a difference in regards to racism. Schultz feeling bad about the treatment of the slaves doesn't mean jack shit and his guilt isn't enough to stop it. At the end of the day, white guilt exists because racism still exists and we feel responsible by being complacent, and movies like "The Help" exist to make us feel better about it. To relieve us of our white guilt or at least to show us that it can be used for good.

"Django Unchained" doesn't want to be that kind of a movie, and thank goodness. Quentin knew precisely what he didn't want to say, and he made it abundantly clear throughout the film. This movie makes white people deal with our shit.

Dr. Schultz, out of guilt, kills Candie, gets himself killed, and basically forced Django to deal with the consequences. Only then, without any help, does Django manage to manipulate his way back into his freedom and successfully take vengeance on the entire plantation. He ultimately respects Schultz and never has an unkind word to say for him, but I think it's significant that in the end, while white guilt may have been necessary in instigating the conflict, it took Django to see it through and make it happen.

As Schultz implied early on, in order to save Broomhilda, they would have to walk through hellfire. In the end, Schultz was consumed by it, but Django was able to get through it.

Now Let's Talk About Django and Broomhilda

Like I said, I can't really say whether or not black audiences will generally agree, but it's pretty clear what Quentin Tarantino was intending. By making Schultz essentially commit murder-suicide, the final act of the movie is essentially Django getting himself out of the mess Schultz put him in. He is literally stripped naked and thrown back into bondage and has to completely build himself back up in order to rescue Broomhilda and get his revenge.

Quentin understood that having Schultz as the mentor character was problematic because no matter how cool Django would be, if his accomplishments were shared with Schultz, they wouldn't feel like they were his accomplishments. Thus by having Django fight tooth and nail in the end, his accomplishments belong to him and him alone.

Quentin's intent is clearly to give black audiences a character they can unabashedly identify with and take some amount of pride in.

Whether or not he accomplishes this (again, I can't know if he does, and generally, there's going to be a variety of reactions from all audiences of all backgrounds and colors), the decision to have Django fight alone (in true Western fashion) also causes... problems.

This brings me to Broomhilda, and to an extension, many of the other slaves in the film.

It's understandable that most of the slaves in the movie aren't going to aid Django in his quest. After all, they just want to survive, and really, one shouldn't belittle an individual for not fighting back against tyranny. We don't get upset with the Jewish people who were victims of the Nazis.

Still... it bothered me that Broomhilda never got to move beyond being the damsel in distress. Quentin Tarantino has given us badass women characters before, and given that Broomhilda and Django are purportedly meant to be the ancestors of Shaft, it wouldn't be that much of a stretch for Broomhilda to be a little bit of a bad-ass.

Quentin goes through a lot of trouble to make sure Django ends up being a master of his own destiny, but it disappointed me that he didn't really bother to do the same for Broomhilda. She never gets to be more than an object for Django to rescue.

That's not to say Broomhilda is a bad character or that Kerry Washington does a bad job. Far from it. But the sad fact is that the only major reason we as an audience care about Broomhilda is because Django loves her and because she goes through a lot of horrible shit. Rape, torture, beating, you know the drill, and honestly, this is the part of the movie that truly didn't sit well with me.

I'm not going to rant about this too hard simply because no film or whatever about discrimination is going to be perfect. I've never seen a film that dealt with racism or sexism or any other form of bigotry and managed to get through without unintentionally dipping into some degree of hypocrisy, and this movie is no exception. While this movie certainly doesn't do anything to Broomhilda that it doesn't do to Django, it never gives Broomhilda the chance to control her own destiny like it does for Django.

What really disappoints me about this aspect is that Quentin Tarantino is usually pretty good about this. I mean, "Kill Bill" is 2/3 badass women. The epitome of vengeance in "Inglourious Basterds" comes from Shosanna at the end. "Jackie Brown" is all about a badass woman taking control over her life. So I guess I just have a hard time understanding why Quentin decided to give Broomhilda absolutely no power at any point in the film.

But again, it's probably the same reason Django is pretty much on his own at the end. Even if the slaves are given the opportunity to rise up and fight back, their entire lives have been about accepting horror in order to survive. They aren't going to just jump at the chance to kill their oppressors, and really, what kind of a message is that? That would basically just be using the black slaves as a tool for vengeance to make the white audience feel better. But when it comes to Broomhilda herself, she more than anyone had reason to fight back. She had been shown to have tried to run off before. She knew that her husband was out there. If she had been given a chance in the final act to help Django succeed, it might not have been much, but it would have been something.

Still, I'm not going to spew a lot of bile about this. Not every woman character should have to be a badass or a sexy bombshell in order for them to be engaging and worthy of respect. It's just disappointing to me that a movie that tries so hard to give black audiences a hero they can fully identify with doesn't extend the same courtesy to women audiences. Ah well.


I've spent a long time talking about the subtext and context of the movie, but I haven't done much to talk about the movie itself. That's largely because the fact that this movie is really entertaining and technically well-executed doesn't really surprise anyone. No one is surprised that Quentin Tarantino can make a good epic Western film. What's surprising, or at least impressive, is that he managed to pull it off with the subject of slavery as the backdrop without feeling exploitative about it.

A lot of people have gotten up in arms about the fact that he compared his film to "Roots" and talked about how "Roots" is the kind of movie he didn't want to make.

While I definitely think that's a super arrogant thing to say and that "Roots" is pretty much THE authority on the exploration of American slavery in a visual medium, I agree with his sentiment. There ought to be more movies like "Django Unchained" that are willing to deal with heavy material in a context other than serious historical perspective. It forces audiences to understand that these are things that actually happened and that actually affect our culture in significant ways. By isolating them within very specific kinds of artistic interpretation, we allow people like me to escape from dealing with this shit. In addition, discussing these things in a more traditional film narrative also gives us different ways of exploring them and unearthing different elements of the complex and problematic subjects that we often would rather not talk about.

All in all, I really loved "Django Unchained" and part of the reason I love it (in spite of some of its flaws) is because it makes me uncomfortable, knows that's what it's doing, and knows exactly how to address it without undermining the characters or detracting from the central conflict of the film.