Django Unchained is undoubtedly the most controversial film to come out of Hollywood this year. For starters, it features the “n-word” over 100 times.
It also presents a black avenger who kills white people for money as well as a black house slave whose allegiance to his white master is placed ahead of an allegiance to his race and ahead of a generally-accepted sense of morality. And, of course, the over-the-top violence of the film has not sat well with some audiences given the recent school shooting in Connecticut. But is any of this really a surprise?
At the press screening, the Hollywood crowd was more than amused. Although there were a few gasps when we were told that the film was two hours and forty-plus minutes long, the crowd cheered throughout the film. Clearly, this was an audience whose expectations had been satisfied. The fact that a crowd in Hollywood can be positively moved, yet reviewers show outrage at the film has made me dwell upon an important point when approaching Django Unchained: what exactly should we expect from a film written and directed by Quentin Tarantino?
Tarantino, for better or for worse, is our generation’s equivalent to P.T. Barnum. Just like Barnum, he is a self-made man who has made a career out of exploiting the marginalized. Just like Barnum, he is also an excellent salesman who revels in the controversy his work stirs up rather than meekishly bowing away and apologizing when people express outrage or anger. Unlike Barnum, instead of exploiting the disabled, Tarantino’s films have featured women taking revenge on patriarchal figures, Jews taking revenge on Nazis, and now, a black slave taking revenge on slave owners.
I could make the argument that Tarantino’s work is a reflection of frustration with his own circumstances in life. As Samuel L. Jackson has pointed out, it’s not as though Tarantino is from the hood, yet he has a computer-like knowledge of Blaxploitation films that would make most black people feel less legitimately black. He has seemingly always identified with the culture of the oppressed rather than with the oppressor. He is white. But white culture is boring. So he is white by circumstance, just as some black people associate with white culture or many white collar women associate with patriarchal capitalism and vote Republican. In this capacity, his films reflect real life. Some women and racial groups work for the man and defend the system because of the “protection” and the benefits the system provides them because they’ve “sacrificed” and “worked” for those benefits. Others see the injustice the system is built on and rebel against it once they are personally wronged by it. Over the course of his career, Tarantino presented his audiences with two groups: those inside the system and those outside of it. Or, as Jules puts it to Ringo in Pulp Fiction:
“You’re the weak. And I’m the tyranny of evil men.”
In essence, Tarantino’s work allows those who are part of “the weak” to feel empowered — first, by living vicariously through a marginalized protagonist that bucks the system and ultimately blows it to pieces; second, by featuring allusions to films, actors, and music that belongs to the marginalized culture. Audiences that recognize these allusions, which mainstream audiences can’t, feel a sense of mastery: a masturbatory effect.
This is what we should expect when we see a Tarantino film.
Of course, we should also expect all of this lathered over in explicit violence, explicit language, and homage to nearly every exploitation film Tarantino can think of that may, or may not, relate to the subgenre(s) into which the film could be categorized. Django Unchained does not deviate from the Tarantino mold.
Therefore the polar responses Django Unchained has received from mainstream critics are rather surprising. Immediate critical reactions to Django seem to fall into one of two main categories. Those who watch it with unadulterated affection, and those who fault it for flaws for which it likely shouldn’t be held responsible.
Richard Roeper, as an example of the unadulterated affection crowd, seems to be heaping on the love a little too thick:
“With Django Unchained, Tarantino gives us an American spaghetti Western that’s a bloody good time from start to finish…
…[It] crackles with energy in the final hour, whether it’s in the extended dinner table sequence in which Candie [played by DiCaprio] wheels and deals with Django [Jamie Foxx] and Schultz [Christoph Waltz], or the inevitable orgy of bullets that plays like a Western variation of the classic confrontation in the Tarantino-penned True Romance.
Whether you’re marveling at Tarantino’s musical choices, trying to guess the identity of yet another vaguely familiar face in a supporting role — hello, Ted Neely! — or grimacing while chuckling at the audaciously violent confrontations, it’s thrilling cinema.”
Though I did grimace at several scenes (particularly a mandingo fight and the attack of a slave), and though I did chuckle, the crackling energy that created thrilling cinema for Roeper comes off more as an IMDb review than a level-headed approach to the film. That said, the film did exceed my expectations. I had an idea of what to expect, and I knew the areas of Tarantino’s filmmaking that sometimes irked me in the past.
Prior to seeing the film, I mentioned to a friend that I expected to see a spaghetti western dipped in Tarantino sauce and a foot fetish scene. Twenty-four hours later, I pause at labeling the film a spaghetti western (there’s too much that also alludes to Blaxploitation films to simply call this Tarantino’s spin on the spaghetti western – the house at Candieland, for instance, bears an eerie resemblance to the house in Mandingo). The Tarantino sauce is undoubtedly there, but this time the blend of spices are more to my liking than they have ever been in the past. And though there are several shots of bare feet, including a close-up of Kerry Washington’s little petunias, none of the shots are as blatant as has been the case in other films (refer to Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown, Death Proof, Kill Bill, and Inglorious Basterds).
The negative takes on Django have ranged from faulting the film for its glorification of violence to its insensitive approach towards slavery. Both of which, to me, would appear to be an ignorant approach to Tarantino’s work as there is a clear moral code to each of Tarantino’s films that almost always screams against the “tyranny” of oppressive systems of power. (In other words, there is a consistent moral code to Tarantino’s work that does not mirror the proprieties of those outside of his target audience). One reviewer has suggested that the film is at its most “enlightening…when it challenges the way violence is typically legitimized.” Allegedly, the downfall of the film is when Django goes on a “killing spree” against “the unarmed, and women, and even a slave.”
Essentially, critics that are criticizing Django Unchained on grounds of impropriety expect more from a Tarantino film than what a Tarantino film is willing to give. That said, these criticisms do force us to reconsider his work. I have to admit that, prior to these reviews, there has not been a single moment in all of Tarantino’s films where I paused and thought, “Man, that was an enlightening insight towards the morality of violence. I can see how the revenge about to be taken upon Zed is justified while the tragedy of Mr. Orange and Mr. White is that they were loyal to systems that didn’t care about them as individuals.” However, the reviews that challenge his work on the grounds that his work doesn’t step up to a higher standard that they’d like it to do force us to recognize the common ground that his films do stand upon.
Jackie Brown was hammered by critics and audiences, and remains Tarantino’s least popular film to this day. So, Tarantino has made the “smart” decision to stick to what he does best (as defined by critics and box office receipts). In fact, he’s arguably polished off his style. No longer does every character sound like their dialogue is interchangeable, as seemed to be the case with his first three films (one could also easily lump True Romance onto the pile of early Tarantino monochromatic dialogue). One could even make the argument that the acting, cinematography, and editing technique has improved in his work over the years. (In fact, Jamie Foxx’s performance as Django is arguably the best of his career, and it shines all the more bright in light of the fact that Waltz, Jackson, and DiCaprio are as engaging as ever.) However, the smart-ass cleverness and adolescent sensibility has remained.
In spite of their deepest desires, Tarantino does not fulfill the wishes of critics with Django by being something other than a Tarantino film. Django is not a period piece set out to accurately portray the evils of slave trade, the film is littered with anachronisms, spanning across dress, behavior, and dialogue. Django is not a spaghetti western that explores the morality of violence in antebellum United States. There are clear good guys and clear bad guys. The good white guy holds ideals that are moral, although he (usually) is driven by greed. The good black guy is seemingly only driven by love, and anyone who gets in his way will likely face death. Django is not a Blaxploitation film. Yes, there are black actors. Yes, the “n-word” is repeatedly used. Yes, there is a black protagonist who kills evil white people. But to compare it to Shaft or Blacula would be ill-advised.
Django Unchained is a Tarantino film. And if you want Tarantino to do something he doesn’t do, then don’t set foot in his theater. In fact, rather than place emphasis on the film’s violence or the film’s use of the “n-word”, allow me to make a humble suggestion that we, as viewers, place emphasis on the film’s running theme of “the contract.” Throughout the film, Dr. King Schultz (played by Waltz) continually reminds us that he is a bounty hunter who kills legally. He also makes a point to buy Django legally and eventually buys Django’s wife legally. When he “purchases” Django, he offers a contract with Django promising his freedom if he assists him to find three criminals he is searching for. Once they are found, Schultz offers a second contract with Django promising one-third of every bounty they collect, and in exchange, Schultz will help purchase Django’s wife’s freedom. With each transaction, with each murder, emphasis on the law is continually placed. If a man is killed, he is killed within the confines of the law (either by way of bounty or self-defense). The one time the law is transgressed by the film’s protagonists is when all hell breaks loose (a moment in which Django is truly unchained), and we drastically shift from Blaxploitation spaghetti western to a video game bloodbath.
All the while that this is occurring, another contract is taking place outside of the film: the contract between filmmaker and audience. As film scholar Rick Altman has pointed out, genre can be perceived as a contract. It is a contract that Tarantino appears to be highly aware of as he has repeatedly noted in interviews that while he does like to follow Hitchcock’s well-known phrase of taking joy in torturing his audiences, he also takes great joy in “getting them off.” Furthermore, Tarantino, like Woody Allen or Spike Lee, has never shied away from the type of filmmaker he is. In doing so, he has become, like many auteurs before him, a genre to himself. No one enters a Woody Allen film expecting a Michael Bay action film, or vice versa. By the same token, no one should ever enter a Tarantino film expecting Alex Haley’s Roots. If you expect his films to suddenly shy away from the “n-word” because it’s taboo and Spike Lee and Denzel Washington have called him out on it or to suddenly tone down the violence because people complain about it, then you’re entering into the contract with bad faith. Telling Tarantino to tone it down is like telling Sid Vicious to get a haircut. Expect a prompt “fuck you.” And so long as he sells tickets, Hollywood will love him for it.
In fact, what Tarantino has accomplished, that many others are unable to do, is to have simultaneously played both insider and outsider. He is at once both the darling of Hollywood and an outsider to the studio system. He can claim that he used his job at a video store as his “training,” yet also quietly paid his dues as a production assistant and struggling writer long before his meteoric rise to stardom. He specializes in laboring over the creation of films that tickle the pleasure centers of both the 15-year-old boy and the 50-year-old film buff. In essence, he is an institutionalized (or institutionally-approved) “rebel.” Much like his protagonists, Tarantino has mastered the skills of the studio system and uses those skills to make the films that studio systems generally do not want to make (unless, of course, the name “Quentin Tarantino” is attached to them). And Django Unchained, in all its irreverence towards social sensitivities over racial epithets and (perceived) senseless violence, revels in Tarantinian irreverence no different than Inglorious Bastards did when it featured Adolf Hitler getting serrated by bullets and blown up by a character affectionately named “The Bear Jew.”
In approaching Tarantino’s work, it might be worth recalling that when the Coen brothers won the Academy Award they thanked Hollywood for allowing them to play in their own corner of the sandbox. In the same vein, Tarantino also plays in his own corner of the sandbox. I have to believe that most of us know this by now. And not since Jackie Brown has he deviated from the genre he has molded. Since that film, he has entered into the genre contract with good faith promising viewers what they want of him and guaranteeing his investors a hefty reward. The question is whether or not the audience will also enter into this contract with good faith this time around, but if they feel he’s pushed the boundaries of the contract.