You’ve got to wonder where the line is for Quentin Tarantino. There’s been some messed up stuff in his movies, and he’s written every scene. He wrote Ving Rhames a scene in Pulp Fiction where he’s raped by a hillbilly. Then Ving Rhames gets to cut the hillbilly in half with a katana. In Kill Bill, Vol. 1, Uma Thurman is raped (offscreen) while she’s in a coma. And now, in Django Unchained we get to watch as one slave kills another, violently. I won’t go into detail. You don’t quite get to see everything that happens, but even Tarantino’s suggested violence appears to cross the line, because he edits it in a way that makes you think you saw what he suggested*.
We can all agree that all of the above is morally reprehensible, but you might disagree with me on whether or not it’s morally reprehensible to include it in a movie. I’d argue it’s not, but I understand if you disagree. If you think rape and murder for sport shouldn’t be put on film, that sounds to me like you have a perspective worthy of respect, so respect to you. But my argument is that sin portrayed in art isn’t sinful as long as the portrayal is used to convey a higher truth that is not in support of sin**. And this is why I loved Django Unchained.
Jamie Foxx is the titular Django, and the movie follows him as he’s liberated from a chain gang on its way to an auction by Christoph Waltz’s Dr. King Schultz. Schultz wants Django’s help finding three brothers, because there’s a bounty on their heads, and Schultz just happens to be a bounty hunter. And would you know it, Django, as he assists Schultz, just happens to be a crack shot. “The best shot in the South,” says Schultz. Eventually, Schultz returns the favor and helps Django find his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), who is enslaved on a big plantation owned by Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).
There’s a whole lot of controversy surrounding Django: the abundant use of the n-word in a derogatory context, the vengeance aspect, the opportunities for black people to laugh at the deaths of white people, the opportunities for white people to laugh at the deaths of black people, and so on. Tarantino seems to relish toeing or even crossing the line, inviting people to deride his movies or boycott them. The man grew up loving B-movies that don’t care about the line, some that perhaps even glorify the other side of the line. Those B-movies tended to have simple values; the prostitute was usually a good person, but the sexual predators or bullies usually got their just desserts. But the difference between Tarantino’s films and those old B-movies, the ones that seem to glorify sex and violence, is that Tarantino is always using the violence to uphold higher values or to make us question our preconceptions.
He’s done this in other movies, but Django Unchained is probably the best tightrope walk he’s every performed. It was somehow better to us that Jews were taking revenge on Nazis in Inglourious Basterds. Interestingly, that was less offensive. But Tarantino moved his focus to a far more volatile subject in race and America’s enslavement of African-Americans***, and he ended up handling it more delicately than any other movie he’s made yet.
“Delicate” might be a strange word for a movie in which at least 50 people are gunned down in graphic fashion, but it’s the right word. Instead of derailing the movie with a cheap revenge story, he centers the crux of the plot on a hero’s journey to rescue the love of his life from monsters. In the middle of the movie, Schultz tells Django a German fable about a hero rescuing a princess from a dragon. Django immediately identifies, and Tarantino, for the remainder of the movie, builds to the rescue of Django’s princess. We identify with Django with the rest of the movie, understanding why he makes his decisions in the context of this fable. It helps that Leonardo DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson make such a convincing dragons to defeat; DiCaprio gives one of his best performances ever as Candie, and Jackson is sickeningly sycophantic as Candie’s right-hand man, a black man who is racist against other black men.
If you don’t want to see Django Unchained because it’s violent and seems immoral to you, that’s okay. But I don’t see the difference as clearly as some do between Tarantino movies and, say, a war movie. The war movie uses violence to bring the reality of war to you; Tarantino uses the violence in Django to bring the reality of the American South in the Civil War to you. You say bounty hunters killing masses of people isn’t realistic, or that slaves were never made to kill other slaves for sport? Well, that may be true. But the point is that similar violence did happen, and that just because mandingo fighting wasn’t real, that doesn’t make owning people any less despicable. The reason Tarantino plays with that line so much is to get your attention. He got mine.
Please agree or disagree in the comments below.
And please read my friend’s very different and very well-written blog post about the same movie.
*This was the genius of Gary Ross’s directing in The Hunger Games. You felt each death, but none of them were shown.
**Unless the portrayal tempts us to sin, which is why sex and nudity in movies bothers me, and violence does not.
***I’m not really qualified to write about this subject from an educated viewpoint. I’m white, the majority of my life has been spent in the 21st century, and I’ve done little to no research on the subject apart from my required history courses, which, let’s be honest, didn’t paint the full picture.