“Django Unchained” – When Black Is White

April 26th, 2013Stephen Mayes

Notes at 36,000 feet

Tarantino’s wish-fulfillment dream of racial retribution is a delirious 21st Century thrill based on the fantasy of an impossible history. But paradoxically the harsh reality of 19th Century black American alienation is reincarnated and reinforced for the modern audience. Disguised in the feel-good camouflage of moral victory, Django Unchained is an uncomfortable extension of blackface story telling, black experience represented in white culture.

On the one hand it’s a brutally realistic representation of slavery. But it’s a fetishistic representation of the brutality, savoured and rendered with sensual delight. It’s standard-issue violence from Tarantino but rendered more sinister by its invidious context.

Who is Django and what does he actually represent? In effect he’s an honorary white man with commensurate language, clothes, skills and status. He is highly articulate and stumbles in his reading but is literate; he is a deadeye shot without training (“a natural”, murmurs his white sponsor); he is an accomplished horseman with dressage skills; etc. How he acquired these abilities is of course part of Tarantino’s fantastical adventure but the result is that Django is isolated from every other black person in the movie physically and conceptually by more than his freeman status. Moreover, his actions are defined exclusively by their impact on the white characters, not in relation to other blacks; even his assent to the murder of the runaway fighter is defined by his wish to gain credibility with Candie, not by the consequence for the black man who is as disposable to Tarantino as he is to the slave owner. Every other black person in the movie is literally dumb, speaking only to exclaim or beg. The reality of their experience is denied and their suffering is reduced to a palette on which to rhapsodise about white brutality. We see only Django who becomes their champion by virtue of his “white” status and by his actions in the white world. The only other speaking black character is Stephen, who in a clever cartoon reference is directly styled on Uncle Ruckus in appearance and attitude, the stereotypical Uncle Tom without nuance or depth.

Dr Schultz, the secondary protagonist, bequeaths status on Django. In other words, Django’s white status isn’t even achieved by his own fantastical powers, but is dependent on a white man.

Broomhilda, the love interest, is also dumb, barely speaking beyond a few words of German and performing almost no action for herself. She is manhandled, groomed, dressed and undressed by others. The black woman is the complete victim and is the chattel not only of her white owner but also of her black lover. She has sufficient spirit to attempt escape but is unsuccessful. She is ineffective without her man.

I wonder if ultimately this is a movie by a white man about white guilt. Tarantino sets up Django as the black Christ to redeem the sins of the white race.