With Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino has succeeded, like the creator of the “Backup” bedside gun rack, in creating something we could never have imagined we needed, a white-guilt film for the post-racial era. Now that we’ve had an African-American president for a term and re-elected him, the only thing we need is a slavery-themed spaghetti western pastiche, right?
Tarantino has made his career with tongue-in-cheek, affectionate pastiches of his favorite movie genres, from the blaxploitation of Jackie Brown to the grindhouse of, well, Grindhouse, so when Tarantino mentioned in an interview with The Telegraph five years ago that he was planning to make a film about slavery that would “deal with everything that America has never dealt with because it’s ashamed of it”, surely no one was expecting a groundbreaking critique of slavery. But the final result of Tarantino’s quest to “deal” is a disturbingly myopic film which buries its subtle racism under torrents of the n-word and copious bad-assery.
Keyboards have been battered in the last few weeks with critics praising or denigrating the movie, while other like Spike Lee have chosen to actively ignore it. The critics have made good points, mostly, but missed the truly disturbing parts of this film: that Tarantino seems to think that slavery is buried, albeit in a shallow enough grave; that the things to be ashamed about are no longer; in short, that slavery is dead enough for his unique brand of irreverent blood comedy to temporarily re-animate the corpse. For 165 minutes Tarantino portrays slavery as a brutal, dehumanizing institution. He shows us slaves being whipped, being tortured, and in once case, being torn apart by dogs. He shows us arrogant overseers confident in their superiority. He even satires that sense of superiority, effectively, by bringing in bumbling anachronistic Klansmen.
But what Tarantino doesn’t do is give a slave independence and equality. (Please don't object that this isn't possible in the context of 1858, because Tarantino makes it clear throughout that historical accuracy is not his goal.)
Sure, title character Django (Jamie Foxx) gets his freedom, in the form of a sort of gift-contract from Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz, and note that even in the character’s name Tarantino is setting him up as a white saviort, a new Dr. King). Django gets to kill a lot of people, most of them white. He even gets to put on the lavender suit of his former master Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). But what he never gets is independence, the opportunity to be the self-sufficient star of the movie.
What Tarantino asks the audience to do throughout the film is identify not with Django, who after all could be any old pimp-cum-killer from any old B movie, but with Schultz. Schultz gives Django his freedom. He teaches him. When Django wants to find Candie, kill him, and carry his wife to freedom, it is Schultz who hatches a more subtle, knowing plan that will ensure her perpetual freedom. And when things gets messy at the Candie plantation, it is Schultz who makes a strong moral stand and sacrifices his life for a principle. Schultz is the morally complex and compelling core of this film.
Django, meanwhile? Mainly just killing people.
See, what Tarantino doesn’t seem to get is that the reason American film makers don’t deal with slavery, the reason it’s a taboo, is because it has far-reaching tendrils that America is still squirming from. It’s rare, nearly impossible, to find an African-American lead in a major motion picture that doesn’t fit somewhere along the gangster-pimp-bad-ass continuum established by the blaxploitation films Tarantino holds so dear (okay, okay, Morgan Freeman is mainly just wise these days). No matter how post-racial America thinks it is, it still seems to struggle with putting these tired tropes to bed.
What does Tarantino do with these tropes he’s inherited and played with over the years, when he decides to make a film about the greatest atrocity in human history, the atrocity in which these still-damaging tropes found their genesis? Invert them? Shred them? At least make us question them, even in an ironic, oh really kind of way? No, he decides to parade them across the screen with only thin icing of irony to keep off the chill. And for the beating heart of his movie, he deploys the most comforting and frustrating of tropes, that of the good white man, here to save the day and atone for the sins of his people.
Django himself, along with his wife, end the movie as the only major characters still alive (in true Tarantino fashion, they are about the only characters alive, period). This is a triumph a sort, but it’s a victory that provides little room for growth as Django wears Candie’s clothes, smokes Candie’s cigarettes, kills Candie’s sister and valet, and blows up Candieland. This is a striking parallel to the images of Reconstruction-era freedmen “out of place”, drinking champagne and wearing fine suits in Southern capitols, exacting revenge on their former masters. These images – which bore little, if any, resemblance to reality beyond the fact of black legislators wearing suits – helped bring about the end of Reconstruction and the beginning of Jim Crow segregation. And so here's Django, after a movie of killing people and acting like a badass, showing forgiveness, or rising above...no, wait he's blasting a man's kneecaps off with a .45.
Django Unchained is no doubt entertaining, because, well, Tarantino knows how to make two hours of killing and bit-off humor work. But it’s a deeply problematic movie, much more so than anything he has made before. If America is to move into some sort of post-racial era, it will not be through ignorance of our past glazed with sweet irony, bitter pastiche, and badly-worn stereotypes, but through honest confrontation of our collective demons. If we're to have revenge fantasies, let's have them without Dr. King Schultz to smooth the way. The irony of course is that Tarantino set out to address an issue rarely addressed in modern America, a noble mission no doubt; but in doing so he merely perpetuated tired stereotypes and retrenched played-out tropes. Next time Tarantino decides to deal with an issue he feels America is unwilling to confront, he should have enough respect to research and engage with that issue first. Then he might actually confront it, not just make it a gruesome parody. Author bio: Christian Aguiar was born in Worcester, Massachusetts, but currently lives in the mountainous north of South Korea, where he teaches English, writes, and stumbles along rocky river beds. He has been previously published in Pif Magazine and Boston Literary Magazine, and has work forthcoming in Alimentum.