Him: Did you like it?
Me: I think so. Did you?
Him: Yes, but I don’t want to tell anybody that.
That, I think, is the whole point of Django.
He’s hilarious. He channels his charisma and wild energy into a witty, petty, sycophantic villain, endlessly fun to watch and even more fun to root against, the perfect foil for Jamie Foxx’s stone-cold hero. He’s loveable and loathsome, stealing every scene he’s in, and even some that he’s not.
And I am a terrible, terrible person for reacting that way.
Such slaves existed. Their owners used them as informants and weapons against others, scarred and abused them to achieve the desired mix of unfeeling pride and instinctive servility. They were tortured men who in turn tortured others, both victims and perpetuators of a brutal system. There is absolutely nothing funny about their history.
But Samuel L. Jackson is hilarious.
And that, I guess, is the whole point of Django.
Christoph Waltz is excellent in this film. His Oscar nod for Best Supporting Actor is well-earned, even if it’s cheating: he’s the lead character for the first 2 hours of the film. Where I come from (Boston, a city of higher education and rationality), that’s not called a “supporting” role. That’s called starring in a 2-hour movie.
But he can’t be the star, because you can’t have a vengeance movie about American slavery with a white guy as your lead. He can get the ball rolling. He can liberate, train, and equip your black hero. He can take you 90% of the way there. But in the end, he’s got to make a gruesome exit, so that Django can discover his independence, his freedom, his sense of agency, and exact his revenge alone – not as a glorified titular sidekick. This movie simply can’t have a white star.
Though it can, apparently, have a white director.
And that, perhaps, is the whole point of Django.
In the scheme of things, Leonardo Dicaprio’s villain really isn’t all that villainous.
Look at the facts. He owns slaves, but he inherited that estate and lifestyle. Sure, he’s got a bloodlust for gladiatorship, but he treats Django civilly. And when he discovers that he’s been deceived, he fumes a bit, but doesn’t kill anybody, and the terms of his blackmail are surprisingly fair.
Even so, when after two hours the film finally devolves into the Tarantino bloodbath we’ve been waiting for, it’s hard to feign surprise. If the heroes had somehow accomplished their mission without massacring the whites – if they had accepted the reasonable extortion – I would have felt let down. Though it may fly in the face of logic, Leo had to die.
What spells his doom, in Django’s moral universe, isn’t that he buys and sells human beings. It’s that he expects to shake hands at the end. His biggest sin – his fatal sin – is that he’s too damn smug about the whole thing. He doesn’t understand that he’s supposed to feel guilty, or at least ambivalent. And that is why the white man must die.
Is that the whole point of Django?
Tarantino’s name is almost synonymous with over-the-top violence. At times it’s funny, cartoonish – a single shotgun blast sending a body zipping into the next room. At times it’s gross, unreal – fountains of blood spurting every which way. At times it’s excruciating – a slave torn limb from limb by dogs. And at times, I don’t know what it is – a man in the middle of the crossfire, his leg repeatedly torn apart by bullets, a scene too silly to be chilling and too ugly to be funny. It’s just… violent.
Watching Django, you want to think there’s a design to it all. Tarantino must have a plan. He’s too smart not to. But look closer, and you’ll find nothing holding Django together. It unravels.
Eventually you begin to wonder whether the violence came first, and the history second. Maybe Tarantino just wanted to pour his usual cocktail of gore and comedy, nothing more; to achieve a primal reaction, animalistic cheer and laughter at another’s pain, without any political agenda or historical commentary, except as an afterthought. Maybe he knew that to achieve that effect – to get his audiences laughing like so many hyenas – he needed them to dehumanize the victim. And who better to dehumanize than the dehumanizers themselves? Maybe, like too many of us, he just craved violence, and thought, “Hey, I bet violence against slaveholders will go down easy.”
Django made me laugh, squirm, and think. But was I supposed to think? Or just laugh and squirm? Does Tarantino lull us into dehumanizing the villains in order to discomfort us, to awaken us to the sin of dehumanization – or just to provide some thrills and chuckles?
A frightening thought: Does Django have a point?