One symptom of writing a PhD is that you can start to lose sight of why you ever found your topic interesting in the first place. Movies that engage with the past have always compelled me, but I read and write so much on them now that I’ve at times felt that passion slipping away. But after watching Django Unchained (2012), Quentin Tarantino’s miraculous new Spaghetti Western, that passion was reignited with a vengeance. Set in 1858 – two years before the Civil War – it tells the story of Django (Jamie Foxx), a black American slave who is given his freedom by German former-dentist-turned-bounty-hunter Dr King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). The two partner up as bounty hunters and eventually travel to Mississippi to free Django’s wife, Broomhilda von Shaft (Kerry Washington) – or Hildi – from enslavement at Candieland, the rancorous Calvin Candie’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) plantation.
Before I begin discussing the movie, I do need to stress that I’m by no means a Tarantino connoisseur. I feel this is a necessary distinction to make not least because his films seem to reference one another nearly as often as they reference past genres. Some people follow his work with religious devotion, but while I share their respect for his talent, I’ve never been one of them. There are a few of his movies I still haven’t seen. Nor am I an expert on either the Western or its Italian derivative the Spaghetti Western, or, for that matter, Blaxsploitation, which the movie also references. So I can’t read Django Unchained with the same breadth of referential knowledge as others might. But as someone who researches theories on historical and period representation in film, I’ve recently come to the conclusion that Tarantino’s new movie embodies everything that’s awesome about postmodern history (bear with me as I geek out), and it’s from that perspective that I’m keen to examine it.
Despite its general critical acclaim, the film has received quite a bit of highly-publicised criticism. Donald Trump, for instance, called it “totally racist”. Precisely when Trump became an expert on contemporary film I can’t say, but his thoughts appeared on blogs and news sites across the internet. One whose claim to expertise on both contemporary film and representations of race therein is less dubious is filmmaker Spike Lee, who flat-out refused to watch it on the grounds that he already knew it would be disrespectful. In a Twitter post he later characterised his views by proclaiming, “American Slavery Was Not A Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western. It Was A Holocaust. My Ancestors Are Slaves. Stolen From Africa. I Will Honor Them”.
This statement raises an obvious question: what is a Spaghetti Western, and in what way is it so diametrically opposed to the history of slavery? The obvious response to this is that Spaghetti Westerns, and Westerns more generally, are fantasies, and pleasurable ones to watch at that. African slavery in the United States was not a fantasy but a reality for 245 years and one can imagine that the experience of it was about as far from pleasurable as possible. As such, it’s entirely understandable that some have taken issue with the film’s use of fantasy to explore painful historical realities. Slavery is something that many evidently believe should only ever be examined with solemn sobriety, as Lee’s comment implies.
Considering all this, Tarantino was really taking his chances exploring American slavery in a postmodern Western. As Vera Dika rightly argues, the site of criticism in postmodern nostalgia films often lies outside the film text itself, in the assumed audience response to its references (like, in this case, to other Spaghetti Westerns), and “the final completion of the work comes through the audience’s active reading and interaction with the film” (103). In other words, Django Unchained can’t be read at face value; if it is, it’s open to potentially angering misreadings. For instance, one might argue (and some have) that it forces the viewer into identification with Django, so that we root for him rather than for black liberation as a whole. One might also argue that it depicts black people in a position of power but at the expense of women; it’s Django who frees the seemingly helpless Hildi from oppression. One might even argue that it perpetuates the notion that oppressed groups require the help of oppressors by portraying a white man helping a black man to freedom. If one doesn’t read it ironically, one can argue all these things and more and reach the conclusion that Django Unchained is a very problematic movie indeed.
However, like most aspects of the film, these characters and their actions don’t reflect the lives and actions of real people. Instead they engage ironically with typical characters in popular narratives and especially in Western movies. If this wasn’t obvious enough, the clues are in their names. ‘Django’ is the title character in Sergio Corbucci’s 1966 Spaghetti Western Django starring Franco Nero (who, in an intertextual moment, appears in Django Unchained, asks Django how to spell his name, and when Django responds, noting that “the ‘D’ is silent,” replies, “I know.”). Dr Schultz’s first name, King, comes from the 1971 Giancarlo Romitelli Spaghetti Western His Name was King about a bounty hunter and starring German actor Klaus Kinski. ‘Schultz’ is likely connected to “the lonely grave of Paula Schultz” in Kill Bill: Vol. 2 (2004), which itself is a reference to the 1968 movie The Wicked Dreams of Paula Schultz. ‘Broomhilda von Shaft’, a play on the more accurate Brunnhilde von Schaft, is a name Hildi’s German owners – the von Schafts – gave her, and as Schultz explains, it comes from a popular German legend about a hero who must rescue his damsel in distress. I think we can all guess at what her last name alludes to.
It doesn’t matter if you get all these references. Some people astound me with their ability to point out references in Tarantino movies. I’ve resigned myself to ignorance. I’m sure there are hundreds I’ve missed. But that’s not the point. The movie gives you enough to recognise that they are allusive, even if you’re not sure what they’re alluding to. And if we think of the characters this way – as the distorted echoes of previous genres – the meanings of the supposedly problematic aspects described above begin to change. Yes, Django Unchained is an individualist story about one man’s retribution, but that’s a defining characteristic of the Western genre. Unlike the modernist practice of exposing signifying systems that represent the past (like the Western) as untrue, postmodern period movies operate within arbitrary signifying systems and rearrange their meanings. Thus, Django Unchained features a traditional Western hero, but that hero is black. To represent the slave collective would reject the Western signifying system altogether and therefore negate the point. But like the traditional Western hero, Django’s character is not realistic but symbolic. Where the old heroes might have symbolised white American values, Django symbolises the quashing of those values and his triumph stands in for the triumph of freedom over slavery.
The same can be said for the dynamic between Django and Hildi. Another key attribute of Western movies is that they tend to feature heroes rescuing damsels in distress, and again, if this narrative device were entirely rejected the movie would no longer work as an ironic Western. However, the device is complicated by its connection to a German legend, highlighting how the same narratives get told in different contexts across Western culture. The Blaxpoitation reference in her last name destabilises the German legend alluded to in her first name while simultaneously reminding us that this is not the film first to engage with these traditional narratives by alluding, as several have noted, to Blaxpoitation movies that also appropriated Westerns (like, for example, Boss Nigger (1974)). Furthermore, the ‘damsel in distress’ narrative is disarranged: now it’s a black hero rescuing a black damsel and that damsel is powerful (when we first meet her, she has just attempted to escape Candieland) and clever (for instance, she’s bilingual). She’s still a damsel in distress, but when she faints, or presses her fingers to her ears to shield from an explosion, Western tropes are gently being mocked; hence, when first reunited with Django, she faints after he says “Hey, little trouble-maker” and Schultz ironically comments, “You silver-tongued devil, you.”
When it comes to the subject of the white Dr Schultz as supposed saviour of the black Django – and indeed to the role of Dr Schultz generally – things are a bit different. The Django-Schultz dynamic isn’t a common feature of Westerns, at least not as far as I have encountered in my limited contact with them, but it is common in stories of liberation. Narratives that depict a member of the oppressor group as a hero who saves the oppressed group are a dime a dozen (take Schindler’s List (1993), for instance) and they tend to neutralise the evils committed by the oppressor group while simultaneously suggesting that the oppressed group is too weak to achieve power independently. These are the stories being referenced here, but again, their underlying concept is turned on its head. We need to remember that despite being white, Schultz isn’t a member of the oppressor group in this context; the oppressors here are the white American population, and Schultz is a German immigrant. This refigures traditional Spaghetti Westerns that hid their transnational identities, not least by redubbing international actors with American accents, by highlighting Schultz’s foreignness. But it also ironises the white Western hero, who epitomises the fantasy of the American everyman, by redefining the ‘cultured’ European-ness usually vilified in Westerns (and other Hollywood films; think Die Hard (1988), for example) as reflecting the goodness that can result from knowledge and enlightenment.
Schultz, then, is an outsider himself, one who takes advantage of his unique position, as a person with fair skin, of being able to perform the role of the oppressor as a means of combatting the oppressor group. On multiple occasions, he pretends to ascribe to racist values in order to enact retribution on bigoted white Americans like Big Daddy (Don Johnson) and Calvin Candie. Schultz compares his line of work as a bounty hunter to slavery – “flesh for cash” – and one can imagine that for him it might represent the antithesis of slavery: selling the flesh of cruel white men for cash rather than that of innocent black people. Bounty hunting in Django Unchained doesn’t reflect real bounty hunting, but rather plays out a fantasy wherein those who perpetuate racism and commit crimes against humanity get what they deserve. Schultz’s use of performance is, like his bounty hunting, an aggressive act against those who commit these crimes. The dynamic between Schultz and Django, then, is one wherein one outsider assists another outsider by means of his ability to mimic the insider, and this negates the possibility of giving credit to actual members of the oppressor group. Schultz’s and Django’s performances are key to Django Unchained and I’ll come back to the subject nearer the end. The point to be taken here is that the film’s criticality lies not in the text itself but in how it engages with its references, and it’s essential to consider these references and not take the movie at face value.
I read another criticism of Django Unchained – a more complex one – that argued that the problem with telling a fantasy story like this is that it implies that black resistance never occurred in reality. The reviewer writes, “Tarantino’s revenge fantasy depicts acts of black resistance to slavery as just that, a fantasy”, suggesting that the film presents “black resistance as a missed opportunity, not as a historical fact”. Although this argument demonstrates a willingness to read the film as ironic fantasy rather than as a realistic representation of slavery, it still falls into the trap of reading the film as engaging with historical reality, in that the writer suggests that Tarantino is trying to re-imagine reality. Instead, the movie is re-imagining fantasy. The film isn’t concerned with the factual event of slavery – whether this scenario ever did or did not occur is of little consequence – but instead with the filmic narratives that have been used to tell stories of America’s history. The Western genre has been one of the key cultural pathways into that history, and blacks were written out of it. Film narratives that wrote slavery into them, like The Birth of a Nation (1915), did so to further inflict violence on African American culture. These are the narratives that Tarantino is concerned with: not slavery’s historical realities, but its historical fictions. Not the past itself, but the generic tropes that have been used to access it. Thus, while a modernist historical film might try to portray a more ‘realistic’ representation of the Ku Klux Klan, this movie portrays it as we remember it in The Birth of a Nation – the horse riding with torches, the classical music from the soundtrack that is culturally associated with it – and then ironises it, comically drawing attention to their inability to see through the masks and refiguring it so that the viewer now identifies with Django and Schultz and cheers when they triumph over the vigilante group. And while a modernist period movie might choose to replace Spaghetti Western music with music more historically accurate to the slavery period, Django Unchained uses actual music from Spaghetti Westerns, like Ennio Morricone’s epitomic music from movies like The Hellbenders (1966) and Luis Bacalov’s music for the original Django (1966), but disturbs the unified system they operate within by also including contemporary songs by African American artists like Anthony Hamilton’s and Elayna Boynton’s “Freedom”, Rick Ross’ “100 Black Coffins” and “Ode to Django”, produced by RZA.
To those at least somewhat familiar with Tarantino movies, the fact that Django Unchained is a genre mashup is no surprise. It shouldn’t even surprise people that Tarantino would want to ‘mash up’ a Spaghetti Western instead of a traditional Western, as it was itself a mashed up genre. But the question here, as it was for the equally incredible Inglourious Basterds (2009) before it, is: why history? What’s the point in exploring the historical traumas of the Holocaust and American slavery as postmodern genre movies? Why not aim for a grittier, more realistic depiction of slavery, one that attempts to shed all the artificial conventions of fantasy genres like the Western?
The answer, quite simply, is that if this is the route we wish to take, we have to contend with what historical reality actually is. We have to contend with the burden of realism: realism by its very nature implies that things are being shown as they really are, or in this case, as they really were. But do we know how they really were? And even if we do, could it ever be possible to show things as they really, truly, actually were? In short, no. We cannot know slavery. As Fredric Jameson points out, history is so “multitudinous” as to defy the possibility of being “described, characterized, labelled, or conceptualized” (282). There isn’t one way it really was. The ways it was are infinite.
And yet, people have been (usually erroneously) defining slaves and slavery in narratives for centuries, and for us, these narratives are history. Like history books are narratives that include or omit events based on whatever argument they want to convey about the past, so too is the Western genre. It’s a fictional historical narrative, yes, but it still omits whatever doesn’t fit neatly into its story of the American past and in so doing affects cultural perspectives on the past. As long as we continue to pretend that the only significant way we access history is through history books and that less ‘serious’ narratives like the Western don’t matter so much, those genres will continue to hold power over us. The Western’s been championing the American dream while erasing the existence of slavery for almost a hundred years now. We can’t ignore the effect this has had on American perspectives. Like it or not, we learn a lot about our world through the movies. And it’s only by re-inserting slavery not only into more ‘serious’ narratives like history books but the more ‘fun’ ones too that we can really begin to change perspectives.
So slavery can, and indeed should, be as much a part of the Spaghetti Western as it should any other historical narrative. The past only continues to exist in the stories we tell about it. This, of course, still leaves Spike Lee’s question of whether it’s ethical; after all, the Western is, essentially, a light and pleasurable form of entertainment. But here is what, for me, makes Django Unchained so special, and what separates it from your average postmodern period movie. As it does everything described above, it simultaneously turns the pleasure of watching a Western into the pleasure of watching two people act out what the film itself does: perform a role only to discredit everything that the role stands for. The racist values that Django and Schultz pretend to ascribe to in the roles they perform – pretending to buy a female slave as a sexual companion for Django, posing as businessmen interested in the (fictitious, incidentally) sport of ‘Mandingo Fighting’, or slave gladiator fighting – are used against the people who ascribe to those values. In this way, their various projects reflect the film’s overall project of ‘performing the role’ of the Spaghetti Western in order to ironise what it has traditionally stood for.
The result of this is that as we, the audience, identify with Django and Schultz, we by extension identify with the film itself and feel like we’re participating in rewriting historical narratives. This turns the pleasure of watching traditional white American values reign into the pleasure of participating in tearing those values apart, one bullet at a time. This isn’t to say that watching the film is always pleasurable; indeed, our identification with Django’s and Schultz’s moral objective relies on the head-on confrontation of historical horrors, as we see when Candie murders a black man by setting dogs on him. But to me, the film’s crowning achievement is that it turns something as ‘highbrow’ as rethinking historical narratives into a hell of a lot of fun. Pleasure is its most powerful weapon.