I took a three-hour break from reading books about John Brown and his midnight raid on Harpers Ferry to go see Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, which was rumored to have something to do with liberating slaves by extremely violent means.
It was Boxing Day, when rich folk were once expected to hand out boxes of gifts to their servants and the deserving poor, and this year the movies at the Cineplex seemed to have taken up the theme of human misery. From what I could see, the mothers and their daughters were heading for Les Misérables while the guys (I went with my older son) gravitated toward Tarantino. (Senators, meanwhile, were flying back to Washington for some Lincoln-esque horse-trading, to decide whether the rich should pay higher taxes or the poor should have their programs slashed, or both.)
It seemed mildly transgressive to be watching Django. The school massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, a couple of hours south of where we live, had led to the cancellation of a red-carpet celebration of the gun-filled film on Christmas Eve in Los Angeles, and Spike Lee had announced on Twitter that he personally was boycotting Django in honor of his ancestors. “American Slavery Was Not A Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western,” he wrote sternly, as though someone had rashly claimed it was.
As the film got underway, the crude credits, the Ennio Morricone tunes, the fake boulders and cheesy mountain backdrops made you think that Spike Lee might have a point, though it was hard to resist a scene, more Blazing Saddles than Birth of a Nation, where Jonah Hill turned up in a KKK rally led by Don Johnson’s Big Daddy, and the nightriders found they couldn’t “see fucking shit” through the holes in their hoods.
Something more serious entered the mix with the marvelous Christoph Waltz character, a German bounty-hunter and dentist, by pretense or profession, named Dr. King (as in Martin?) Schultz. Dr. Schultz is no John Brown, at least not at the start of the film. Though he finds slavery distasteful, he sees an analogy between his own business—“I kill people and sell the corpses for cash”—and the lucrative slave-trade in living bodies.
We first see Schultz’s little horse-drawn coach in the distance on a dark night, with its giant tooth (for hiding stuff like dynamite) bobbing crazily on a spring. King confronts two white men driving seven slaves chained together with ankle-irons. He’s looking for a slave who can identify the Brittle brothers, outlaws with a hefty price on their heads. Django (given a strong and sympathetic performance by Jamie Foxx) turns out to be that slave. Schultz, eyes twinkling and moustache twitching, pays to get him unchained. He answers the slave drivers’ indignation with a cool (and ruthlessly violent) efficiency that we’ll grow accustomed to, carefully establishing a motive of self-defense before opening fire. Django and Schultz embark on a profitable partnership; by the end of the film, each man has entered the other’s world and been changed in the process.
Schultz, a trickster figure, has a taste for theater and masquerade. Django, dressed preposterously as Gainsborough’s Blue Boy (later he’ll don a black hat and menacing shades), poses as Schultz’s valet. Trained by Schultz to be “the fastest gun in the South,” he will help track down outlaws, getting paid a third (not half) of the profits. In exchange, Schultz will help Django rescue his wife (played somewhat listlessly by Kerry Washington, though the script gives the role little scope) from a notorious plantation in Mississippi.
What might have started as a way of explaining Waltz’s German accent (he’s an immigrant, etc.) seems to have spread into the plot. Schultz is surprised to learn that Django’s wife is called Brünnhilde (actually, Broomhilda) von Shaft (via Wagner, presumably, and maybe Isaac Hayes), and has learned to speak excellent German from her German owners. On a leisurely evening among the fake boulders, Dr. Schultz tells Django the story of Siegfried’s rescue of Brünnhilde, foreshadowing the ring of fire that will eventually encircle Broomhilda’s place of imprisonment, and Django’s avenging raid, rifle in hand, to free her.
The film is in love with such European allusions. A trained “Mandingo” fighter—a participant in fight-to-the death spectacles more firmly rooted in the history of Blaxploitation films and Roman gladiators than in the history of American slavery —named Dartagnan inspires some back-and-forth about The Three Musketeers before the predictable payoff from Dr. Schultz: “Alexandre Dumas is black.” Broomhilda, more a remembered ideal than a flesh-and-blood character, resembles other fallen women from French novels, such as Dumas’s Milady, branded like her, or Les Miz’s Fantine (played by Tarantino stalwart Uma Thurman in a pre-Anne Hathaway version directed by Bille August in 1998).
The chief villain in a film chockfull of them is Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), the slimy plantation master of Candyland and current owner of Broomhilda, a “comfort girl” for Candie’s slave fighters. Tarantino is perhaps more interested in Candie than we are, or, for that matter, DiCaprio appears to be. He is given a very long routine with a skull and a handsaw, explaining that slaves, as shown by phrenology, are innately servile. Candie’s not very shrewd, though; his incestuous sister, who plays “Für Elise” on the harp, and his head house-slave, Stephen, do a lot of his thinking for him.
It is perhaps a weakness of Tarantino’s film, though surely consistent with the spaghetti western genre, that a great gulf separates the good guys from the bad. No room is left for the ugly, the ambiguous, the in-between. The obvious candidate would be the loyal Stephen (wonderfully and frighteningly played by Samuel L. Jackson), who is surely as much a victim of slavery as anyone in the film, and yet the death reserved for this traitor to his race is notably cruel. Tarantino, true to his chosen genres and perhaps his temperament, revels in exacting revenge on history’s most notorious torturers, on Nazis in Inglourious Basterds and now on slaveholders, as though sufficient blood could redeem the fallen world.
The specific question raised by John Brown’s raid is whether it is morally defensible, in the face of evil laws, to go beyond civil disobedience and embrace outright violent law-breaking instead. (“Assuredly, if insurrection is ever a sacred duty, it must be when it is directed against Slavery,” Victor Hugo wrote of Brown.) The question is easily answered in the Dirty Harry movies (Clint Eastwood’s other classic role, when he’d moved on from spaghetti westerns) but given more thought by Schultz, who, as a bounty hunter, has observed the law punctiliously his whole career and profited handsomely from it.
In a pivotal scene in the big house in Candyland, we watch Dr. Schultz, his back turned to us, turning over the question in his mind and in his hunched shoulders before he grasps a Derringer hidden down his sleeve. Django’s triumphant return, rifle in hand on a galloping horse, is yet to come, when the whole audience can breathe a little easier as the avenging black angel settles the score and drenches the premises with several layers of fresh blood. “Hung be the Heavens in Scarlet,” as John Brown wrote before unleashing holy hell on Harpers Ferry.
Quite apart from its out-of-season gunslinging, Django Unchained is predictably being spoken of as “controversial,” with some questioning Tarantino’s right to show this or that aspect of slavery and others celebrating a righteous black man, an African-American Dirty Harry, taking care of the flawed nation’s business. “In my world, you gotta get dirty,” Django murmurs to Schultz. “That’s what I’m doing. I’m getting dirty.” As for Dr. King Schultz, he may not be John Brown, but with his quirky, trickster’s temperament, which matches the filmmaker’s manipulations, he’s got his priorities right.