Django Unchained is a film about love. Three kinds of love, really.
There’s the romantic love that pulls together two of the main characters: Jamie Foxx’s Django who is willing to travel through hell and risk his life to save his wife, Kerry Washington’s Broomhilda. As he travels toward her, Hildi appears in his daydreams looking luminous and gorgeous. We rarely see Black love portrayed in a Hollywood film in this way – a Black knight in shining armor battling dragons to rescue his radiant queen.
There’s also the bromantic love between Django and his liberator/mentor Dr. King Schultz, played by Christoph Waltz, who leads Django on a physical journey from Texas to Mississippi, and a psychic journey from slave to master of bounty hunting. Schultz abhors slavery, but he comes to care deeply for Django and to love him in a brotherly way.
But the sort of love that is most powerful in the film is the self-love of Django. Foxx applies a sheen of nobility to the character from the second he is freed and begins moving through the air with his shoulders back and his head high, his dignity shining. In a repeated motif, Django rides into towns atop a horse, his body language singing of pride and strength, a sight that causes people to rear back in shock, unused to seeing a Black person cloaked in dignity. In this way Django moves through the film like a single beam of light piercing through the dark.
In a critical moment Leonardo DiCaprio’s slavemaster Calvin Candie points out that there are more Blacks than whites on his plantation and wonders, “Why don’t they kill us?” He explains via phrenology – Black brains are lesser – which is now obviously and hysterically false.
But he is actually close to the truth. The answer isn’t in the brain, it’s in the mind. The colonized mind trapped in a white supremacist world; a world that believes in and is structured around the myth of Black intellectual inferiority.
Even when Candie is outsmarted by one of his slaves who must explain to Candie that he’s being played for a fool, his certainty in white intellectual superiority goes unchallenged. Early on, Django excises white supremacy from his mind and eventually destroys white supremacy in his tiny corner of the world. Yes, white supremacy relates to a national (if not global) matrix that no one man could conquer. There’s no telling what could happen to Django after the screen fades to black. But his self-love propels him through the universe of this film, making him heroic before he even begins killing slavemasters.
Django is heroic not just for rescuing his wife but also for spreading justice by putting slavemasters in the grave. It’s honestly baffling to me that smart people could find Django’s slavemaster killings as anything other than heroic. The moral calculus between slave and master is clear and unambiguous. The slave, cinematic or real, who doesn’t want to kill his master may be psychotic and still in the grip of white supremacy.
Killing a slavemaster does not reduce the slave to the slavemaster’s moral level. Nothing short of becoming a slavemaster could do that. Murder is the only fitting punishment and given the generations-long pain and chaos that slavery had and would cause, for a slavemaster to die only once is to get off easy.
For the descendants of slaves, who live in a world still tangibly doused in slavery’s residue, watching Django kill his oppressors could possibly feel cathartic. If murder can ever be morally justified by the presence of clear, undiluted, sustained evil – and I believe it can – then it is justified when a slave kills a master.
It’s also justified when a Jew kills a Nazi, which of course was at the heart of Tarantino’s previous revisionist revenge fantasy. A smart man in a green room at NBC posited that Kill Bill works in similar fashion as a revenge fantasy where a woman gets back at a patriarchal figure after near death in a scene akin to domestic violence or perhaps an honor killing. So then Django marks the third time Tarantino gives us people from outside the demographic power structure getting deadly revenge on white male oppressors.
There are those who have been anxiously hesitant about seeing Django, or have outright refused to see it, presumably because it was made by a non-Black filmmaker and one who has shown a love of Black culture that for some has been off-putting or raised suspicions about his “true intentions.”
These people may miss out on a delicious scene where Django whips a master in slow-motion or the hilarious scene where Tarantino destroys a Klan forerunner group by reducing them to madcap parody because they literally cannot see through their hoods. They may miss an assault on white supremacy and a beautiful Black love story. To dismiss Tarantino because his aesthetic embraces – in a bearhug – Black culture because he feels Black culture is part of his cultural legacy is, to me, a bit precious.
Many find the worlds of, say, Woody Allen and Wes Anderson, uninteresting because Black people and culture barely enter into them. Tarantino is one of the few major filmmakers whose worldview fully includes Black people and Black culture. I wonder if some of the anger at Tarantino is discomfort with any white person dealing with Black culture. Or anger at Hollywood for not producing more Black films or Black filmmakers, which is definitely a problem and surely not Tarantino’s fault.
From the moment it was announced that Tarantino intended to do a film about slavery, many worried that he would somehow trivialize slavery. Far from that, we’ve gotten an unsparing look at its horrors, from Mandingo fighting to hot boxes to facial branding to brutal whipping to all sorts of frightening headgear. Tarantino applies none of his typical campiness to slavery, never backing away from showing it as a despicable evil and enjoying its destruction.
We also have, in Django, that rare Hollywood thing: a film about Black history where a Black person has agency and is central to shaping his or her destiny rather than playing the foil for a white person who proves they have character by helping a downtrodden Black person. We could arrange a three-day film festival filled with those. Django wouldn’t qualify. Schultz is Django’s liberator and teacher but over time Django becomes the leader of their duo and his journey remains central.
Some bristle at Tarantino’s copious use of the n-word in this film, and in his oeuvre, which is perhaps the least valuable or interesting discussion point for a film of this import.
Slavery is the real obscenity, not this word. Tarantino has made the n-word a significant part of his canon partly because it’s a major part of American history. The view that he (or no one) should ever use it is simplistic and reductive, and attempts to correct a difficult part of history by stuffing it in the ground.
I’m uncomfortable with lazy, colloquial usage. But within the world of art the word cannot be simply erased. It’s part of the American linguistic songbook.
Tarantino has surely taken far more liberties with it than any other filmmaker, but his usage can be broken down into three buckets. Mostly he has used it to further the characterization of a morally bankrupt white person. From the thugs of Reservoir Dogs to the slavemasters of Django, when white people in his movies use the n-word he is generally signaling that they’re racist and thus despicable.
Tarantino has also put the n-word in Black people’s mouths to signify that they’re “supercool.” In this way, he is building on the supposedly badass recontextualization of the word that the hiphop generation has made infamous. The third way Tarantino has used the n-word is a single-serving group: Jimmy from Pulp Fiction, played by the director, who has a Black wife and at least one Black professional gangster friend. He uses the n-word but not to seem morally bankrupt or cool. He is far from either. Is it just for a shocking, subversive laugh? Seems so.
In Django he never does that. He gives us masters dying at the hands of a freed slave on a mission to liberate his wife. I wonder if our ancestors would find that disrespectful.