What does it say about the role of Quentin Tarantino in the modern American psychosphere that his highest grossing film (not counting inflation) to date is an often hyper-violent action saga featuring a loquacious bounty hunter and his ex-slave partner in crime mowing down vigilantes, a man being ripped to shreds by attack dogs, one of the most beloved stars of the era portraying one of the most vile characters of the era, and some of the wettest gore set pieces since the Evil Dead films? And that it also happens to be a brutal indictment of the institutionalization of slavery in this country, rubbing the audience’s faces in just how normalized this dehumanization once was? Indeed, even though Django Unchained was a major box office hit (with a Christmas Day opening, no less!), its lasting legacy centers on the cultural conversations that sprung up around it. And what those conversations say about so many levels of the modern social stratum.
Discussions about Tarantino’s handling of race were going to spring up no matter the actual content of Django. It can be argued that those QT-centric race conversations have assumed the level of a constant low industrial hum, especially in an Internet-driven culture that gives voice to so many different factions. His battles with Spike Lee are legendary, especially in the wake of Jackie Brown, when Lee called him out for his supposed appropriation of black culture and free use of racial epithets in his screenplays. Tarantino didn’t always necessarily help his case in the public sphere. That long-standing love of playing up to a larger than life public persona has sometimes given him the air of starring in a performance art remake of Revenge of the Nerds (see his reputed assault of Natural Born Killers producer Don Murphy, payback for some smack talk that Murphy delivered in the press). Confronting Lee in a New York theater and bragging about how he grew up in a predominantly black culture (the complete extent of that claim is still a matter of debate) did him no favors either.
But the cultural critique of QT as poacher of the minority experience is a gross oversimplification as well. The roles that he’s written for Samuel L. Jackson, Pam Grier, and Django’s Jamie Foxx are some of the strongest, most nuanced minority characters in modern mainstream cinema, even if the exploitation trappings of the filmic universes in which these characters live can make it easy to overlook such complexity. From all indications, Tarantino’s love of black culture is just one part of a much larger cultural voracity that he enjoys, and if anything, he’s always been more than deferential to the great minority stars, directors, and technicians of the past. Even moreso than a being a director, his main drive in life still seems to be as evangelist for cinematic history, and you could argue that a public figure with this level of power using his fame for such means has done more those reputations than Hollywood as a whole. That doesn’t excuse his occasional missteps or forays into tone deafness; it just makes him a fairly complex person, a trait that can often be drowned out in a meme-obsessed, social justice warrior environment in which Manichean simplicity too often rules the day.
Even setting aside Tarantino’s controversial racial past, Django Unchained was destined to be the subject of some level of heated debate based on its concurrent release with Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, which went on to win that year’s Best Picture Academy Award. And it’s here that how we as a society view race and, by proxy, the greater cultural conversation today come into sharp focus. The standard line of thought that I read and heard in the winter of 2013-2014 was that McQueen’s film was the noble, wrenching history lesson that this country needed, whereas Django was deeply problematic in attempting to handle such a sensitive topic in the form of an action/road/revenge film. Which, in and of itself, is a deeply problematic concept endemic of that dreaded mindset that I saw used as a cudgel during my years in the education field, and which was always summed up in one word: appropriateness.
I’ve referenced him several times in the past, but Bret Easton Ellis has recently had his moment in the media spotlight with Tarantino, summoning a minor social media firestorm in the wake of his New York Times interview with QT, in which the director expressed his tepid enthusiasm for Selma and asserted that Kathryn Bigelow’s 2010 Best Director Oscar (for The Hurt Locker) win was primarily motivated by the utter lack of attention that the Academy (and Hollywood) has historically given to women directors. As Ellis expounds upon in an essay he wrote shortly after the incident, the whole matter comes down to the difference between aesthetics and ideology. After all, a film can be praised for its base philosophy, yet still critiqued for its aesthetic values (and vice versa; see Triumph of the Will.) Yet the controversy around he and Tarantino’s aesthetic opinions on these and other films was met with a wave of derision, as blanket dismissals of both the art and the artist.
It’s this same philosophy of aesthetics and ideology that seemed (and, perhaps, still seem) to lie at the heart the perceived 12 Years/Django dichotomy. Steve McQueen’s films have always been intriguing formalist exercises, rigorous in their style and approach. In Hunger and Shame, he leads Michael Fassbender through mirror versions of the gauntlet of physical and spiritual self-abasement. Amidst these tortured wrangling, a profound sense of visual and sonic poetry still exists. The snowbound opening moments of Hunger offer a portrait of quotidian peace and beauty that stand in high contrast to the squalor and cold brutality of the Maze Prison. And the perverse sexual indulgences of Shame are framed by passages of neon noir beauty, such as Fassbender’s long night run through the streets of New York. Moreover, the harshest moments of each film can still hold the pained, profane allure of a Bosch painting.
When I saw 12 Years a Slave, I recognized some of these similar traits in it. And yet, the formal audacity that I so enjoyed about those previous films seemed to have been tamed for this slavery tale. Sure, parts of it are beautiful, as any decently shot film set in such a landscape will be. But much of McQueen’s stylistic approach just felt that much flatter than what came before. And for a director whose art world background lent so much transcendent power to his film work, this was a mildly disappointing development. Not that 12 Years is a bad film. Its depictions of just how vile institutionalized slavery could be serve as a stern rebuke to a long Hollywood history that has too often been a bastion of whitewashing the subject. And the intensity of the performances by Fassbender and Chiwetel Ejiofor is often bracing. But purely as a cinematic project, it just felt a bit lacking in the context of what came before.
Those art world trappings around McQueen are what have led to much of his acclaim, and in many ways they made him the perfect candidate for directing a film like 12 Years (that and his racial makeup.) Released at the height of awards season mania, 12 Years bore the all-important patina of what is considered to be honorable and, yes, appropriate about films like this: it was an “important” movie by an “important” director, one which would deal with a controversial subject in an almost solemn and ultimately uplifting manner. It’s a cycle that is repeated every year around this time, and it’s produced many films that make an audience (especially an upscale, white audience) feel good about their tastes and social mores in a most non-confrontational manner. And it almost guarantees an impenetrable armor of respectability around such projects.
Tarantino, of course, is a populist and a sensationalist through and through which, in the current cultural climate, made him improperly suited to tackle such a serious cultural stain as slavery. But in many ways, his distinct sensibilities made him the perfect director to do so. The episodes of brutal violence and degradation in 12 Years are, indeed, gut-wrenching and deeply uncomfortable. They’re also completely expected in a film that was essentially presold as a deeply uncomfortable history lesson, almost a safe zone for reinforcement of a noble and admirable ideal. And even in those more extreme moments, there’s a certain distancing that the tone and setting provide. The slave sales and plantation scenes carry a certain power, but they’re also presented as being of such a past moment as to seem almost alien in their ugliness. Django takes place in much similar venues, but its dark humor and hyperbolic violence hook the audience in deep before throwing them into the darker and more disturbing elements of the story.
Take the twin characters that Michael Fassbender and Leonardo DiCaprio portray in these films. Edwin Epps is a galvanizing presence, but he’s also a monster through and through from the outset. His psychotic abuse is terrifying, but after establishing such a demeanor, the film has almost nowhere to go with him. And for the most part, he’s easy to hate from the moment he first appears on screen. Calvin Candie, on the other hand, is a paragon of suave amiability, which provides much of the shock of his introduction against the background of two men beating each other to death in a cruel Mandingo fight. Knowing that Candie is the film’s heavy and big bad doesn’t immediately weaken the pleasure of enjoying the slimy charm that DiCaprio brings to playing him. It’s not until his hideous use of Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) to interrogate Django and King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) that the full extent of his monstrous nature comes to the forefront.
And it’s this dichotomy that reveals Django’s true value as commentary on the racism inherent in modern culture. Despite being a portrait of a bygone time, Tarantino’s film feels so immediate because the world it portrays is one in which polite culture effectively hides the moral repugnance of this institutionalized discrimination. The world that Solomon Northup travels through in McQueen’s film is akin to a walking nightmare, one which must be endure if it is to ever be escaped. There’s deep aesthetic pleasure in the buddy cop riffs of King Schultz and Django, an enjoyment that (much like life in that era) almost makes it easy to forget the vile backbone of the American culture. Schultz lives by an extension of such a mindset, freeing Django only because he needs him to identify one of his bounties (although his freeing of Django’s fellow slaves shows a much more progressive streak as well), and generally viewing the murders he commits and the deals he strikes through a purely pragmatic and transactional lens. One of the most telling scenes is then vein shows him encouraging Django in making his first kill of a man who, though a murderer, also has a young son who, it’s implied, doesn’t know about his father’s criminality. Django’s hesitance to pull the trigger (and the son’s distant grief at his father’s death) tells the audience that there’s more than empty action and revenge at stake here (much as Kill Bill also posited.)
The payoff for this scene is one of most powerful in all of Tarantino’s filmography, and one that offers a biting commentary on modern racism and a meta-commentary on racism in cinema. After reluctantly striking the deal to free Broomhilda, Schultz sits in the background of Candie’s parlor reflecting on the slave who he saw torn apart by dogs earlier in the day. Playing the hero this time, Christoph Waltz is as captivating a presence as he was in Inglourious Basterds. He’s also, once again, a master storyteller and soothsayer, escaping from several tight situations by taking solace in the cool logic of the bounty hunter’s legal rights, and blocking some of the moral quandaries inherent in touring through slave country with Django by agreeing that they must only play the roles of master and slave. It’s an echo of the performative impulse than runs through Basterds, but this time, Waltz’s character must finally come face to face with the horrors that he’s witnessed. The deep pain and sadness on Waltz’s face as he realizes that Calvin Candie can’t just be dismissed as another loathsome business associate is moving stuff, and when he blows the whole deal by murdering Candie rather than debasing himself with a handshake, it’s almost understandable. Here is a man who, much like the audience for this film, has passed through so much of others’ pain and suffering only to finally know the full cost of such a distancing. True, the aftermath of this explosion of violence eventually leads to Django slaughtering the plantation survivors and reclaiming Broomhilda’s freedom, which can be read as both historical revisionism (a claim also levied against the Basterds’ climactic Nazi massacre) and as uplifting an ending as 12 Years provides. But there’s no forgetting the extreme ugliness that took place deep in the heart of the gilded palace of sin that is Candieland. And that evoked a conflicted, ruminative feeling upon exiting the theater, the combination of elation and horror one that is tough to shake, and anything but reaffirming.
That world that Django offers can seem very distant in a modern society that has become more enlightened in racial, ethnic, and sexual tolerance and acceptance than previous eras. And yet, there are the major city police shootings of black men that have taken place in the years following the film’s release. And the coded, immigrant-baiting racism at the heart of several major presidential campaigns. And the increasingly corporate culture that has helped to expand the income gap to levels not seen since the Jazz Age, a disparity that overwhelmingly affects minorities. American culture is in the full flush of a love affair with the frictionless experience (as Silicon Valley magnates put it), one in which we pass from pleasure to pleasure without much thought or hard matters of choice. Too often, we confront racism with a social media campaign, or by signing a Change.org petition. Or by watching a film that tells us exactly what we expect it will about the subject. It might not ever be acclaimed as a profound treatise on race relations, but in packing such horrific lessons into a deeply alluring exterior, Django Unchained captures so much of what racial discrimination means in the world in which we live.