Django Unchained is a blockbuster that is already proving to be controversial simply for the subject matter it chooses to integrate into the story. You have undoubtedly seen it, or chosen to avoid it for this exact reason. Because of the director and the genre it pays homage to, it is what you think it is: a violent and adventurous Tarantino film in the way he lets everything unfold, and it is not that at the same time. I would rather not review the movie here as everyone is going to have their own two cents on it, and instead concentrate on some of the subtleties I noticed. No need to worry about any major spoilers here for those who have yet to see it.
When watching the film you probably realized that the horror of slavery goes up a few notches as the film progresses. In most literature dealing with slaves the worst of southern culture and oppression is shown the deeper south one geographically travels. With Django Unchained this happens when they head east from Texas into Mississippi, leaving the wild wild west for the satanic south. Which is the opposite of what many runaway slaves did, as going to somewhere like California was a possibility to live a decent life without fear of menaces like the Klu Klux Klan. (Or absurd bigotry like one scene in the film shows, providing a ‘I wonder what they are thinking about’ look at what KKK members probably discussed when slipping into their outfits.) The tone changes the moment they arrive in confederacy territory, showing slaves walking around with spikes on their collars in a chain gang during the first scene there. This is a more harsh treatment from the beginning scene where Django is freed. It only gets worse as the movie progresses, with the ultimate terror awaiting at Candie’s plantation. The treatment of the slaves at each plantation also gets more brutal, with the punishment of disobedience at the first one only met with whipping, and later on with dogs. For Tarantino’s films he makes his characters venture into darker territory to get what they want, and in this case it takes on a greater meaning that he may or may not be aware of.
Something I noticed is how the characters introduced at Candieland are not the shining examples often portrayed in literature and exaggerated depictions of that era, but are reduced to the most decrepit takes on them. The most obvious is Sam Jackson as Stephen (a reference to Stepin Fetchit?), who in perhaps being the one with the darkest complexion and hobbled posture has been the most consumed by the evil at the plantation. He is a something of a trickster like in African-American folklore (and looks something like Uncle Remus too), charged with passing down the ways of evil to each generation of owners there and upholds it because of the power and wealth he is able to manipulate. But also noticeable is the sister of Candie. Part of upholding the myth of southern greatness is that the women look perfect, a pale, spotless complexion that radiates and represents what is great about whiteness. Candie’s sister with her wrinkled skin and what appears to be freckles does not fit this iconic image, but by the way Candie and everyone living at the plantation treats her you would think so. Plus the customary greeting kisses are done in a way that suggests infidelity, perhaps alluding to the stereotype of some southerners marrying within their families.
The scene where Django and Schulz are being lectured by Candie about the difference between the skulls of a black and white person highlights one of several misguided beliefs which around that time were thought to be scientific by some. Not far off from the eugenics tree, phrenology was used to justify racism during that time and many proven theories were bent to establish the reasoning for oppressing blacks. Even religion was a tool, symbolic in the crosses burned by the KKK to the logic for missionaries converting Africans to Christianity. What is also interesting is how Tarantino does not present the other threats in the film like the main villains and relegates them to pawns. There are only powerful individuals in the film, not groups of people. Which has also drawn criticism for making the slaves below the level of boldness and skill of Django and the other black leading characters. I cannot really say if they were made docile in reference to a talented tenth sort of thinking, but the beginning scene where the slaves kill the auctioneers who had Django in the chain gang are an exception to this rule.
There are a few plot devices that Tarantino deploys in which he tries to alter them, but falls a bit short of defying the way they are overused. Most jarring is that Schultz seems to craft Django to become the hero that saves the day. Many will see this as reinforcing the white savior complex, and the fact that a white director like Tarantino was at the helm of the film does not do much to debunk this. Tarantino said he designed it to be different from that, to toy with the idea and break away from it in the second half, but he does not really establish Django as being cunning or intelligent beforehand or show why someone crafty like Schultz would seriously take an interest in Django. One idea that also weakens the role of an otherwise talented actress is Kerry Washington as the damsel in distress, Broomhilda. She is the sole motivation behind Django’s revenge scheme and is always presented in the film as the prize he is after, but we never see her as much more than that. We witness her at looking her best and worst, but rarely, if ever, as someone who completes him or has their own identity outside of their marriage. Yes, there are several nods in that she tried to run away twice and her knowing a second language is a plus, but this does not really establish her as a character on the level of the main cast. Both of these are arguably traits of Tarantino’s films, but are repeated in Hollywood films so often that it does become tiring.
I am not sure if any single group can own an experience. Ever since Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” there has been those on the other side of slavery attempting to depict the horror of it here in America. That book may not be the best example, but there have been sincere tries to portray black American culture and slavery from non-black people. But these attempts outside of the African-American and diaspora circles are often overshadowed by the general societal taboo around acknowledging this era. Commentators are right when the main consensus of the country seems to be of rendering discussions about this as unnecessary, and to dismiss it as harping on the past. This despite the fact that that the line between this history and present day poverty appears to be blurring, and this past chapter may live on in the prisons around the nation. Django Unchained may not do much to push this conversation forward, but it is a bludgeon to those who may think in post-racial terms and want to see it all go away.