Django Unchained at 10: Quentin Tarantino’s Captivating Relationship with History

Movies Features Quentin Tarantino
Django Unchained at 10: Quentin Tarantino’s Captivating Relationship with History

I remember seeing Django Unchained in theaters with my family a decade ago, sitting at the front of a packed theater with rapt attention. Quentin Tarantino had already supplanted George Lucas as my favorite director by that point because of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, but Django Unchained felt singular. Its plot focused on violent retribution for the Antebellum South’s slave economy, in what I now recognize as an act of stylistic reversion. The controversial auteur who so vigorously and explicitly pulls from the Spaghetti Westerns of the ‘60s and exploitation films of the ‘70s was stripping away a bit of his contemporary veneer to make a gunfighting film set in the 19th century. Django Unchained was the first of two “Southerns” he has made; cowboy movies about race in America set around slavery and the Civil War, and in this first outing the divisive writer-director polarized by mining and reinterpreting history for hyperviolent spectacle.

Although the Civil War started in April of 1861, Django Unchained opens with a caption that reads “1858, two years before the Civil War.” Maybe the film is set in the same universe as its immediate predecessor, Inglourious Basterds, where World War II ends with Hitler shot dead in a movie theater rather than killing himself in his bunker—similarly set in a slightly altered history.

Or this slight inaccuracy could be part of the film’s aesthetic tendency toward referencing the shoestring-budget ruggedness of its inspirations. You see this in the opening credits’ blocky, rock-like typeface and the use of mid-20th century-style captions, summarizing the protagonists’ actions to move the plot forward late in the first act. You see it in the intentional slowing of the framerate in some scenes in the third act, as well as the deployment of James Remar in multiple roles. It even finds a minor role for Franco Nero, who played the title character in 1966’s Django.

For an alternate angle of influence, we have film noir: The minor character of Sheba (Nichole Galicia) is nearly set up as a femme fatale, in what amounts more to a visual nod than a plant which fails to pay off. In the scene where we meet her, Django (Jamie Foxx) stands at a bar doing smoke tricks and eyeing his cigarillo the way we’ve seen actors play characters smoking cannabis in other films, revising it from the cowboy movies of the ‘60s and ‘70s into the contemporary moment. Meanwhile, Dr. King Schultz’s (Christoph Waltz) theme song is reminiscent of Blaxploitation films. The Rick Ross song (co-written and co-produced by Foxx) that plays later in the film is at an intersection between an older style of action film theme song and this kind of contemporary recontextualization. Meanwhile, the stylistic regard for the best action films of yesteryear coheres in and contrasts with the wider historical context that Tarantino uses as a storytelling backdrop.

But beyond allusions to its predecessors, Django Unchained’s setting forces it to draw and comment upon history. Leonardo DiCaprio’s Calvin Candie goes beyond the early 20th century notion of a “talented tenth” of African Americans to a special “one in 10,000,” when trying to explain Django’s brilliance within his deeply held belief in a phrenological framework—one underwriting his sense of world order. While Adolph Reed, Jr.’s compelling commentary (a rebuttal to the empty politics of crowning Django Unchained a politically notable achievement for racial equality) argued that the film isn’t concerned about historical accuracy and isn’t an important one for Black audiences, its use of brutality, even embellished brutality, serves an artistic purpose. Tarantino’s artistic intention of showing the brutality of slavery through his trademark style invites, even requires, consideration of his historical influences. Beyond titillation, it is captivation—drawing the audience to think and consider things they would not under other circumstances. In the streets of Chattanooga, as well as when Django is briefly incarcerated, medieval-seeming but period-accurate devices of punishment and exclusion are used: Collars with wrought-iron barbs extending from them to keep people separate; demeaning, painful masks to dehumanize and obscure vision. When we finally meet Django’s wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), she’s being held in a steel box in the ground, soaking in sunlight as a form of punishment. This, too, was a real device.

According to historian David Blight, life-or-death “Mandingo fights” as so called (named after another noteworthy Blaxploitation film) by Django Unchained are not a historically recorded phenomenon—although at least one WPA interview mentions slaveholders betting on enslaved people fighting. Yet, they serve as an illustration. A class of gentry held the power of life and death over other human beings they considered chattel. Even within the context of the film, this violent hobby-obsession demonstrates the embarrassment of riches at the command of a large plantation owner.

At Candyland in Mississippi and at Spencer “Big Daddy” Bennett’s (Don Johnson) ranch in Tennessee, there are constant reminders of the hierarchical pseudo-feudal system at play, up to and including that some of the enslaved have been coerced into helping uphold the system. And the system requires constant maintenance. In pursuit of a bounty on three brutal overseers he knows, Django’s enthusiasm for justice and vengeance takes off his level head: He shoots dead these men employed in the torturous disciplining of Bennett’s enslaved laborers. Bennett, already anxious about how his bondspersons will internalize seeing a free Black man on horseback, conspires to raid Django and Schultz in the middle of the night to stave off any further rebellion.

When Django and Schultz first arrived on Bennett’s ranch, Bennett refers to “that peckerwood boy from town that works with the glass” to distinguish to one of his enslaved hostesses that Django ought to be treated not like an enslaved Black person or the well-to-do white people they would commonly see, but approximately equivalent to a lower-class white worker. Here the film lays out for anyone to hear the intertwined nature of race and class, and how those at the top divide or combine those groups at the bottom depending on convenience and expedience. While some of these moments are played for bittersweet laughs, it doesn’t break the atmosphere so much as underline how absurd the system is—how it wasn’t the natural inevitability that its racist proponents proclaimed, but a result of policy decisions and individual choices defining a culture and a country for decades. Immoral actions were necessary to ensure its survival, and irrational ones might come about from engendered callousness. At the heart of it was greed, arrogance and self-interest, as Candie exemplifies. DiCaprio’s astounding, mustache-twirling portrayal fits both angles of Tarantino’s attempt: He’s a cartoonish exploitation villain based on the historical material circumstances of the slave regime in the 19th century southern U.S.

Tarantino’s attempt to channel this history was controversial for a lot of the same reasons that the rest of his films are controversial: He borrows generously from the films that influenced him, his movies are hyperviolent and, most notably here, he likes to use the N-word a lot. Historically, these haven’t bothered me, because he has a lot of movies about brutal criminals, and it doesn’t stretch my imagination or seem inauthentic that white murderers would refer to Black people with slurs; it especially makes sense in a movie about slavery. Then the question can become, for those inclined to ask, “Should he have been the person to make this movie?” or “Should this movie have been made?”

Django Unchained was a financial and critical success, and it retains entertainment value. The problem remains the question of whether that is sufficient grounds for turning a historical tragedy into entertainment. What is the work doing and what is it intended to do? Tarantino wanted to make people engage with the brutality of slavery, but his existing reputation let people discount it as easily as they’d fawn over it. Eight months later, Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave premiered at Telluride before a November theatrical release. The first theatrical adaptation of Solomon Northup’s memoir of being kidnapped into slavery (after a PBS TV movie in 1984) opened to more prestigious acclaim as a more serious film, though it still had its detractors. In the years since, there’s been a Roots remake, a movie about Nat Turner using the title of a legendary D.W. Griffith Lost Cause film (The Birth of a Nation), a controversial movie about Harriet Tubman, a movie about a woman who time travels back to a plantation, a fascinating story about disenchanted Confederate soldiers and runaway slaves forming a town that came and went quietly (Free State of Jones) and now Will Smith in a movie inspired by a real-life runaway (Emancipation). All of these movies get judged at least twice: Once on their effectiveness as art, and again in their treatment of delicate subject matter—intertwined criteria that often invoke conversations about who gets to play these roles and who gets to make these films. Naturally, Tarantino profiting off of a legacy of Black slavery, and, arguably, the Black marginalization in film which created the Blaxploitation genre, invites criticism.

Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight is so blatantly about discrimination in a post-Civil War U.S. that Samuel L. Jackson says as much in the movie. Part of what Adolph Reed, Jr. was responding to in critiquing the excitement surrounding Django Unchained was an overwrought consequence of so much of American personal politics being interpreted through acts of consumption rather than real acts of political action. In our capitalist-consumerist society, much of our identity (and therefore our social conception of morality) is defined along the lines of where our money comes from and where it goes. It’s the same impulse that entices us to judge a film’s importance based on its premise. While there is merit to minimizing the negative consequences of our consumption and our labor, and the art we intake can affect our worldview, just watching the right movies doesn’t improve the material conditions of marginalized groups or individuals. In short, the release and financial success of Django Unchained did not substantially improve socioeconomic conditions for Black people in this country, but it’s still a good movie. The core contradiction is that Tarantino’s style, while enticing some and highlighting the cruelty of the slave economy here, can also come across as vulgar and therefore unworthy or incapable of contributing to the canon of allegedly important fictionalized recreations of America’s slaveholding past. Yet the film is well-crafted and entertaining, while maintaining relationships to 20th century film history and 19th century American history. Assessing the net moral weight of its existence feels impossible, and is certainly futile. Its value lies not in the unavoidable baggage of its context, but in its masterful execution.

Kevin Fox, Jr. is a freelance writer with an MA in history, who loves videogames, film, TV, and sports, and dreams of liberation. He can be found on Twitter @kevinfoxjr.

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