Hey! What could possibly go wrong with a white guy from Britain pondering the racial implications and ideas going on in Quentin Tarantino’s latest revenge film? Spoilers below. Flee! Flee the spoilers!
So, Django Unchained is a pretty good film. It also has a structure which has been carefully thought out, even if that also hinders it a little.
I’m talking about everything that happens after the pivotal moment when Christopher Waltz’s character shoots Leonardo DiCaprio’s slaver, forcing Django to try and shoot his way to safety, and setting up the final act of the movie. Now, this seems to happen for two narrative reasons: for one thing, Django has to have the final act as a lone hero, in order to deliver on the ‘unchained’ aspect. For another, Waltz surviving the film would have meant that, really, he’d probably have had to take top billing for the film.
But the fact that Waltz’s character shoots DiCaprio also speaks to the approach to racism in the film. While one of the main white characters shoots the other, Jamie Foxx’s Django is left to deal with Samuel L. Jackson’s antagonist. In essence, the white character speaks to white guilt, whilst the black character speaks to black pride and solidarity.
Waltz is unable to deal with the world which white privilege has built for itself, in which slaves can be whipped, treated as sport, and brutally murdered without a second thought. From the moment he enters the plantation he struggles to keep up his character as a wannabe slaver because things are just so awful. He may be able to look and recognise slavery, but he can’t cope with seeing it up front and right in his face. Looking back. His character shoots from a distance, but the moment he gets up close he realises just how destructive people can be.
He seems like an obvious nod to the white guilt felt by, well, everybody white with anykind of conscience whatsoever, and his final inability to accept what’s going on leads him to suicidally shoot DiCaprio. But, even as he admits, it’s a move which doesn’t help or solve anything – he doesn’t free or save anybody by doing it, he just eases his own conscience.
By contrast, Foxx acts centrally in the film as an attack on the people who enabled and allowed slavery to go on, without a second thought. His first kill in the film is a slaver about to whip a girl, whom he shoots. But he reacts far more harshly to the slaver who is standing, watching and laughing. The slaver who tied the slave girl to the tree in the first place, ready to be whipped. The finale repeats the idea, with DiCaprio getting a quick death before Samuel L. Jackson’s character suffers a more protracted death.
That’s an interesting move from the script. Rather than offering the more brutal punishment for the people who directly attack slaves, Tarantino is more interested in hurting those who aid and abet those people. The infrastructure, in a sense, which allowed slavery to actually happen. As DiCaprio points out – what is it keeping the hundreds of slaves on his plantation from taking over? Infrastructure in society.
There are issues with the film, but thematically it’s a startlingly sharp piece of work from a filmmaker who very often gets distracted.