Django: Pulp Western look at slavery


Django Unchained, a film written and directed by Quentin Tarantino.

“Django Unchained” takes place in 1858, two years before the Civil War—the year that William Wells Brown published the first Black drama, “Leap to Freedom,” John Brown held an anti-slavery convention, Abraham Lincoln said  “A house divided against itself cannot stand,” and the Richmond Daily Dispatch reported that 90 blacks were arrested for trying to get an education.

Tarantino made his engaging, well-acted and directed film in the true spaghetti-western style, with Ennio Marricone adding to the soundtrack as he had for Sergio Leone’s films. However, he tackled a more serious issue than that of the typical pulp western of revenge, showdowns, and gun-battle one-upmanship. “Django Unchained”is a seriously nutty “comedy” that elicits a sober discussion on enslavement, and its portrayal over the years by slaves to Hollywood.

Put bluntly, he does not employ mushy sentimental platitudes a la Spielberg in “Amistad” or “The Color Purple.” It is about the deadly craziness of racism and slavery’s particular horrors.

“Django” stars Jaime Foxx, Kerry Washington, Leonardo DiCaprio, and the incredible German actor, Christopher Waltz, for whom Tarantino wrote delightful, erudite, highfalutin exchanges. He also wrote a lot of inflammatory dialogue for the white guys and some “domesticated” Blacks, including generous use of the “n” word. Tarantino’s love for Japanese samurai films is evident in lots of blood splattering and gushing.

Dr. King Shultz (Waltz) is a bounty hunter who tracks wanted men: Dead or Alive. During a chance meeting in the woods at night, he comes across Django, an escaped slave in a chain gang, who knows where the bad guys are. Shultz frees him and elicits his help. Django agrees only if Shultz helps find his wife, Broomhilda (an obvious play on the name Brunhilda of Wagnerian lore), played by Kerry Washington. She is a slave at Calvin Candie’s Mississippi plantation.

When they ride into a town, the townsfolk are shocked: “Looka there! A n— on a horse!” Over beers, Shultz tells Django that bounty hunting is “like slavery, a flesh-for-cash business.” He convinces Django to play his valet so as to come off more a businessman than bounty hunter, and sends him off to a costume shop. Django emerges dressed as Gainsborough’s “The Blue Boy” (Tarantino does have a wicked sense of cultural reference). To his credit, Tarantino uses flashbacks sparingly, showing them only to flesh out character, such as Django and his wife and his early days as a slave.

Many scenes are shot through with gory brutality wreaked on Blacks that are difficult to stomach, such as one of whipping a half-naked woman for breaking a few eggs. Shultz and Django rile up white slave owners who resort to forming a hooded posse (precursors of the Klan?), who complain about the hoods, which is hilarious; much needed levity in this violent film.

In one scene, Shultz asks Django about Broomhilda’s name, then tells him the German myth, how the hero Siegfried rescues Brunhilda. He then convinces Django to act like a slaver himself, to ingratiate themselves with Candie, outfitting him in fine, well-to-do cowboy attire and a beautiful, hi-steppin’ horse, on which he cuts quite a figure.

By now, almost halfway into the three-hour film, I was getting impatient: when would meet we Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio)? After witnessing a gruesome contest between slaves egged on by white plantation hands, involving a slave, d’Artagnan (Eto Assando), they arrive at Candie’s plantation, CandiLand.  Candie is handsome, rich, smooth talking, corrupt, and evil. He stages bloody wrestling-to–the-death matches between slaves in a gorgeously appointed room while guests drink and dine, oohing and ahhhing as they shrink from blood spatters.

Broomhilda is there, severly punished for trying to escape. Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson, made up, as one critic said, like Uncle Ben), is Candie’s kowtowing, simpering house slave with his own agenda, who literally hangs over Candie’s chair at the head of the table. He bows and nods as Candie explains to his guests why slaves don’t revolt, using a skull to illustrate. At one point, Shultz is visibly appalled; Stephen asks Django why it doesn’t bother him, being Black himself. Django answers that Shultz is German, “I’m more used to Americans than he is.”

It’s fair to say that Christopher Waltz carries the film. After Shultz is gone, near the end, the film becomes predictable. Django turns himself in to spare his wife. But he has an out—money, and lots of it.

The ending is a bloodbath; no one is spared. Django gives Stephen his comeuppance, too. But there is a happy ending. Django impresses Broomhilda with his horse’s dressage; then the couple ride off into a “Gone with the Wind” sunset. Django becomes a legend for Blacks, almost like Toussaint L’Ouverture.

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