Quentin Tarantino has always been known as the premiere “shock jock” of cinema, and that reputation does not falter in Django Unchained. The slave-era journey of a freeman-turned-hitman (Jamie Foxx as Django) and his white owner/partner (Christoph Waltz) on a mission to save Django’s enslaved wife (Kerri Washington) had about as much blood as it would take to sustain a small town emergency room for the weekend, and enough guns to make my trigger finger twitch on the way out of the theater, even though I’m not much of a shooter. So in a way, it was everything we could have expected from Tarantino.
And, as with most of Tarantino’s other movies, Django was met with a spectrum of responses that ran the gamut from “racist” to “empowering” and everywhere in between. I won’t attempt to hash out every argument here, although most are worth reading in their own right. Some accused the movie of playing into harmful gender stereotypes by pigeonholing its female characters either as damsels in distress or unthinking sexual instruments. Others pointed out the rather striking historical inaccuracies in the film: although Tarantino has said otherwise in interviews, so-called “Mandingo Fighting,” in which slaves of two different owners fought to the death, never existed. And it’s hard to find evidence of “pre-KKK” gangs terrorizing the South (there wasn’t much of an environment for such groups until after the war, when social dynamics changed radically as a result of the Emancipation Proclamation).
Spike Lee, often a critic of Tarantino, brought up an especially poignant aspect of Django. In pledging to boycott the film, Lee tweeted, “American Slavery Was Not A Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western. It Was A Holocaust. My Ancestors Are Slaves. Stolen From Africa. I Will Honor Them”. He brings up what many feel about Tarantino movies in general: when we see slave owners as bumbling idiots and freedmen as superheroes, do we run the risk of misrepresenting the true evils of slavery? We look back at the institution of slavery with horror not because there weren’t any Djangos, but because no matter how many there were, they could not defeat the behemoth institution itself with a few revolvers and a badass soundtrack. For every Harriet Tubman, there was an army of James Cooks (her childhood owner). For every Frederick Douglas, there were a thousand Thomas Aulds.
I can relate to the African American experience about as much as I can relate to colonizing Mars, for better or worse, but I understood Lee’s point perfectly. When Inglorious Basterds came out a few years ago (same idea as Django, really, but replace “American South” with “Nazi Germany” and “bounty hunters” with “American soldiers”), I snuck out late on a school night to see it with friends. The movie was, in a word, satisfying. So, so satisfying. My family fled anti-Semitism in Russia and Lithuania, and my grandfather liberated Nazi camps in World War II. To see Jews literally beating Nazism into the ashtray of history warmed my blood with the glowing feeling I supposed at the time was usually reserved for heroin use. Eventually, I felt guilty. I realized that satisfying whatever Nazi bloodlust I may have been harboring blinded me from remembering the millions that died, starving, in camps. It seemed odd that I was satisfied in commemorating the death and violence with still more death and violence. I felt like I had sunk to “their” level.
And yet, Tarantino made Django Unchained and I happily bought a ticket. Did I feel guilty about laughing at slaughter? Not really, nor, it seemed, did anyone else in the theater. Should I (we) have? I don’t know. Quentin Tarantino’s movies don’t judge us for relishing them. In fact, they seem to gleefully giggle right alongside us. Tarantino calls it “contraband laughing,” and in an interview, supporting actor Samuel L. Jackson said that the movie was entertainment, nothing more.
I can agree with that – Django Unchained is entertaining in ways that only a Quentin Tarantino movie can be. And while I may join the chorus of voices faulting its director with sugarcoating history or twisting the truth, you can bet I’ll be in line to see the next one.