Django and His Chains
By David Roark
December 25, 2012
David Roark lives in Dallas and writes about film and culture for Relevant, Paste Magazine and Christianity Today.
There is a story within the story of Django Unchained that Quentin Tarantino intends to be his thesis.
When the former slave Django (Jamie Foxx) tells his new acquaintance, Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), of his wife with a German name, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), and his hope to rescue her out of slavery, Schultz recalls a German fairy tale that parallels the circumstances. In the ancient fable, a princess, also named Broomhilda, is held prisoner at the top of a volcano guarded by a dragon, but a brave hero scales the peak, slays the dragon and saves her.
Given this short anecdote, Django Unchained from the get-go appears to boast noble aspirations, namely to be romantic. But given the gluts of its director, it, alas, proves to be anything but that. While he may follow the core of such a premise, Tarantino can’t help but impose his urge for revenge and violence, not to mention self-gratification, on the film. This excess makes his new spaghetti western less about love or valor and more about the seeming glory of retribution—a Tarantino trademark that makes Django Unchained, like his entire body of work, troubling if not detrimental.
Put simply, Tarantino is notorious for taking a good thing and making it bad. In spite of the moral vacuum he creates time and again, there's no denying the man knows how to make a movie. Grounded in film history, he mish-mashes genres and iconic shots and scenes from films past, taking a whole slew of life-giving elements and whoring them out for his own tainted visions. This misconduct plays out on a broad scale especially when it comes to the subject of revenge.
Put simply, Tarantino is notorious for taking a good thing and making it bad.
With his new film, an undeniably entertaining picture with a delightful soundtrack, exciting performances and a slew of masterfully executed action sequences, Tarantino spins a story with the potential to portray a picture of love, heroism and justice, as its title character sets off to free his wife from the grips of a psychopathic slave owner named Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) and the structure of evil, “Candieland,” over which he reigns. It also possesses the great historical opportunity to, in displaying the hell black slaves suffered in early American society, shed new light on the issue and its implications today.
Indeed, the central idea and premise of Django Unchained seem righteous enough, but, sadly, the man who brings them to life ultimately gets in the way.
Indeed, the central ideas and premises of Django Unchained seem righteous enough, but, sadly, the man who brings them to life ultimately gets in the way.
In the finale, the veteran director has the ideal opportunity to redeem himself—particularly various glorifications and the encumbrance of bloody violence—in the name of justice, when his hero, Django, finally lands upon the opportunity to save his wife and move on. By this point, though, it’s clear the film no longer concerns itself with the Broomhilda fairy tale Tarantino intends to be the film's thesis. On the contrary, that thesis turns out to be a mere justification and catalyst for what Tarantino truly desires—vengeance—as his hero goes from noble to vile, from the oppressed to the oppressor.
The result? A hyper-violent showdown that praises reprisal and punishment, inadvertently trivializes history—here, slavery and black experience—rather than critiquing the worst parts of it and honoring a longsuffering people.