Quentin Tarantino’s 2012 dark comedy Django Unchained subverts the genre of film commonly referred to as the spaghetti Western in an attempt to form a commentary on, or a condemnation of, slavery and satirises the slave trade on the grounds of its gross atrocities. Following its release, the film garnered critical praise and is Tarantino’s most successful film to date, making just under $450million in worldwide cumulative box office revenue (Nash Information Services, LLC). It is important, however, to ask in this instance how successfully one can satirise such historical events without exploiting them for commercial gain or entertainment purposes. Despite the film’s success, Django has simultaneously caused outcry for its arguably somewhat racist handling of slavery. This essay will aim to distinguish the specific aesthetic and narrative characteristics of the film Django Unchained in relation to Tarantino’s identified artistic intentions for the film as a subversion of the spaghetti Western in order to form a commentary on slavery. By comparing Django to other films surrounding the topic of slavery, and by considering differing critical analyses of Django, this essay will explore how successful, or unsuccessful, Tarantino’s commentary on slavery has become.
Tarantino’s Django Unchained takes heavy reference from the 1966 spaghetti Western Django, which is regarded as a cult film of the genre. The genre of the spaghetti Western alludes to ‘mostly European co-productions but with production centred in the film industry of Italy, made between around 1962 and 1976’ (Kuhn, and Westwell, 2012). Spaghetti Westerns draw tropes from the typical Hollywood western whilst ‘adding distinctive and stylistic elements’, which mostly centre around an ‘obsession with masculinity’ (Kuhn, and Westwell, 2012) and a hyper-cool male protagonist, such as The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (Leone, 1966). As The Oxford Dictionary of Film Studies describes;
The cinematic rendering of final shootouts, destruction, and battles is stylized, even detached, with characters’ reactions (or non-reactions) given in tight closeups. There is a sense in which the spaghetti western works as pure spectacle, therefore… (Kuhn, and Westwell, 2012).
In this sense then it is clear to see how Django may be classed as a spaghetti Western, or more aptly, a subversion of it.
During a scene where ‘Django’ finds and kills the ‘Brittle Brothers’ on ‘Big Daddy’s’ plantation, ‘Django’ enters the scene in bright blue, standing out from the earthy tones of the slaves’ clothes behind him. His stance is powerful and masculine, and he physically dominates the shot, displaying Tarantino’s focus on the hyper-masculine protagonist of the spaghetti Western (Fig.1). The juxtaposition of his striking clothes with the natural surroundings and the irony of his ability to control this shot despite having been in the same position as the slaves behind him not too long before this gives ‘Django’ an almost supernatural capacity – he becomes a symbol for a certain usurpation of power, transgressing the boundaries of the racial and social stratifications forced upon him.
Tarantino further subverts positions of power using camera angles and positioning. In a flashback moment during the scene, ‘Django’ is placed physically beneath one of the brothers – ‘John Brittle’ – as he begs him not to punish his wife and an obvious power dynamic using levels is manifested, wherein ‘Django’ has no power in the shot, aesthetically or narratively (Fig.2). However, when Tarantino brings us back to the present, ‘Django’ is now above one of the ‘Brittle Brothers’, the camera is looking up towards ‘Django’ giving him total power in the scene as his gun, the weapon commanding the power-play, points just past the camera (Fig.3) – a striking resemblance to the 1966 spaghetti Western Django (Fig.4).
Here, we see ‘Django’s’ emotionless gaze in the tight close up after a highly stylised, highly violent shoot-out (Fig.3). The overall effect is a striking subversion of the typical spaghetti Western employed to condemn an injustice both in the hierarchy of power, and against the black peoples who were enslaved during pre-civil war America.
As Frayling has noted, the protagonist or ‘hero-figure’ of the spaghetti Western is normally identifiable by ‘a collection of external gestures, mannerisms, ‘stylish’ articles of clothing, or even motifs on the soundtrack’, concluding that this is removed from any inner desires or motivations of the character and subsequently renders them as spectacle (1998). ‘Django’ certainly conforms to these identifiers; with his unconventional blue suit, the use of the original 1966 Django soundtrack music, and the witty, vengeful dialogue, “I like the way you die, boy” as response to the line spoken to ‘Django’ heard earlier in the flashback, “I like the way you beg, boy” (Fig.2). Nevertheless, within this scene ‘Django’ arguably becomes more than the archetypal spaghetti Western hero; his motivations and desires are distinguished within the flashback scene and ‘Django’ becomes a developed character with a backstory rather than a mere spectacle. Subsequently, one could suggest that ‘Django’ thus transgresses the mould of which the genre presses upon him and Tarantino successfully subverts the spaghetti Western past its generic tropes and uses them only to highlight certain elements of aesthetic and narrative intentions.
Conversely, whilst Tarantino effectively portrays ‘the slave fight[ing] back, actually do[ing] something for himself’ (Foxx, 2013), it is questionable as to what extent Tarantino’s portrayal can be seen as a successful condemnation of slavery. If the spaghetti Western works purely as spectacle, one may argue that the genre is not appropriate for such subject matter. As Bonilla asks, “are certain filmic genres, such as comedy, inherently inadequate for capturing the experience of enslavement?” (2013). Perry would argue that “Black characters successfully appropriating an archetype unusually available to them should not cede aspects of their racial identity in order to embody the character appropriated” (Perry, …). Therefore, in assuming the ‘archetypal traits of the spaghetti Western hero’, ‘Django’ stops representing in any significant way the ‘historical circumstances he is supposed to embody’ (Perry, …). As the black characters in Django have taken on the roles of the spaghetti Western, they are thus unable to ‘present any kind of explanation of the system of oppression that the film aspires to address’ (Dunham, 2016), because their being black has become non-referential to its wider sociohistorical context. Namely, the film ceases to successfully convey any meaningful message about slavery with its subversion of the spaghetti Western.
Furthermore, ‘Django’s’ motivation within the subverted genre has itself been criticised as an unsuccessful commentary on slavery. Dunham argues that ‘Django’ is wholly constructed as an ‘allusion to the archetype of the spaghetti Western’ (2016). Dunham claims that their motivations are thus derived from the tropes of other films, and not from within the characters ‘as they have been developed within the film’ (2016). One could argue that the key trope in this case would be a focus on revenge, a prominent theme in both Hollywood Westerns and spaghetti Westerns, ‘the act of revenge figures in early cinema films… and is a key theme of the Western… among other canonical genres’ (Kuhn, and Westwell, 2012). They are subsequently affected by intervention from outside the context of the narrative of the film and, as such, ‘their desires, actions, and indeed, the whole structure of their decision- making become detached from the sociohistorical environment in which the film has placed them’ (2016). Whilst Dunham agrees that ‘Django’s’ ‘compelling and reasonably developed backstory…distinguishes him from the heroes of the spaghetti Western’, he holds that this backstory becomes invalidated when ‘Django’ is encompassed by a genre type and thus is manifested as ‘nothing more, and nothing less, than an iteration of a stock character that requires no backstory at all’ (2016). For example, ‘Shultz’s’ retelling of the story of ‘Brunhilde’ ‘becomes an audiovisual refraction of Django’s freedom dreams’ (Ford, 2015). The motivations of ‘Django’ and ‘Broomhilda’ are thus enclosed within the realm of a white Germanic legend and the significant black characters of the film become restricted in their depth with regards to motivation and a freedom from slavery.
There are certain aesthetic motivations within the spaghetti Western, and in significant measure they are a ‘deconstruction of the mythical Western narrative in which the hero stands for a rigorous, if often brutally unforgiving, code of frontier justice’ (Dunham, 2016). What is being sought after instead is the ‘undercutting [of] the idea of any moral code’ (Mitchell, 1996). Dunham claims that ‘The justified, idealized violence of the American Western becomes, in the hands of the likes of Leone and Corbucci, violence for violence’s sake’ (2016). With reference to prominent spaghetti Western directors, Leone and Corbucci, Dunham concludes that the spaghetti Western acts as a performance of ‘style and aptitude’ and characters are thus not narratively able to become more than empty shells of symbolism. If Dunham’s analysis is accurate then this is perhaps why Tarantino chooses the spaghetti Western to subvert in order to form a commentary on slavery – it brings out in a much stronger light than perhaps a different genre the absurdity and immorality of slavery. The undercutting of a moral code within the spaghetti Western and the indulgent, arbitrary violence reflects, some might say, the violence perpetrated during slavery. As Vognar concedes, “a spaghetti Western homage would seem to trivialize the horrors of slavery. However, I can’t think of a major Hollywood movie that takes more pains to show the damage slavery inflicted on the human body” (2013).
When examining how successful Tarantino’s commentary on slavery has become it is important to compare Django Unchained to other films about slavery. Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave was released a year after Django and provides a striking contrast in the cinematic portrayal of American slavery. 12 Years is set in the same pre-Civil war era and tells the true story of Soloman Northup, a free man living in New York, who is kidnapped, sold as a slave and sent to Louisiana where he spends twelve years working as a slave. Unlike Django, 12 Years deals with the topic of slavery in a significantly less stylised way – McQueen focuses on dramatic realism (attempting to depict a subject matter truthfully) instead.
A vital comparison between the two films is their depiction of the slave’s relationship with their white ‘masters’, where one may argue that McQueen condemns the institution of slavery more successfully than Tarantino. In 12 Years, the character of ‘Master Ford’ is complex and layered – within the scene where the slaves ‘Soloman’ and ‘Eliza’ are to be sold, he acknowledges ‘Eliza’s’ distress at the possibility of being parted with her children. When she begs ‘Ford’ to consider buying her children along with her, he sympathises and is almost persuaded. However, when ‘Ford’ is reminded of the economic disadvantage this would place him in, he physically turns his head away from ‘Eliza’ as he purchases her alone, unable to bear the guilt of separating the family. After arriving at the plantation, ‘Ford’ gifts ‘Soloman’ a violin, and seems gentle and reasonable throughout time on the plantation – the film manifests ‘Ford’s’ benevolent side which almost eclipses his true economic motivations as a plantation owner. However, ‘Eliza’ jolts us back into reality in a pivotal moment:
Eliza: Do I upset the Master and the Mistress? Do you care less about my loss than…than their well being?
Solomon Northup: Master Ford is a decent man.
Eliza: He is a slaver!
Solomon Northup: Under the circumstances…
Eliza: Under the circumstances he is a slaver! […] Solomon Northup: No.
Eliza: You luxuriate in his favor.
Solomon Northup: […] I will offer up my talents to Master Ford. I will keep myself hearty till freedom is opportune!
Eliza: Oh, Ford is your opportunity? You think he does not know that you are more than you suggest? But he does nothing for you. Nothing! You are no better than prized livestock. Call for him. Call, tell him of your previous circumstances and see what it earns you, Solomon. So, you’ve settled into your role as Platt then?
[as Eliza turns from him suddenly Solomon grabs and turns her in anger] Solomon Northup: My back is thick with scars for protesting my freedom. Do not accuse me. (12 Years A Slave, 2013).
The character of ‘Eliza’ is used here to remind the viewer of ‘Ford’s’ benefit from the institution of slavery. ‘Soloman’ attempts to almost justify ‘Ford’s’ actions ‘under the circumstances’, but the film reminds us that no white slave master is blameless no matter their surface level kindness; they are not passive in its continuation, but rather very much active agents keeping the cogs turning in the institution of slavery. In an ironic turn, ‘Soloman’ does attempt to protest him freedom to ‘Ford’, but to no avail:
Solomon Northrup: Master Ford, you must know; I am not a slave. Ford: I cannot hear that.
Solomon Northrup: Before I came to you I was a free man.
Ford: I am trying to save your life! And… I have a debt to be mindful of. (12 Years A Slave, 2013)
Here ‘Ford’ manifests his true intentions, and despite appearing different from the typical greedy slaver such as ‘Freeman’, he is conclusively just as responsible for the gross injustices perpetrated against the slaves, shown in his turning a blind eye to ‘Soloman’s’ wrongful enslavement, manifesting the same mentality as the despicable ‘Freeman’:
Ford: Her child, man. For God’s sake, are you not sentimental in the least?
Freeman: Ah, my sentimentality extends to the length of a coin. (12 Years A Slave, 2013).
McQueen thus depicts a slave/master relationship wherein the viewer is completely aware of the power dynamic between the two. The white slaver, no matter how remorseful they may appear, is responsible for the slave’s suffering and acquires financial gain from it. Thus, 12 Years’ narrative and aesthetic style refuses to shy away from those responsible for the institution of slavery when it makes the slave’s entirely the focus, forming a successful condemnation of slavery.
Comparatively, Tarantino takes a varying narrative approach to the relationship between slave and master. Although the relationship between ‘Shultz’ and ‘Django’ can be seen as a comradery, the relationship is far more complex and at closer examination ‘Shultz’s’ selfless or benevolent actions are arguably an extended personification of white mastery. Within the ‘Brunhilde’ story-telling scene, ‘Schultz’s progressive attempt to posit human universality through his European myth does not defeat the master/slave framework; it merely hides it’ (Schomburg, 2013). Tarantino displays ‘Django’ as a ‘vessel easily captured within Shultz’s Germna myth’ – in order to manifest the heroic stance, ‘Django’ must fit the mould of the ‘white masculine narrative’ (Schomburg, 2013). More so, ‘Shultz’ never explicitly grants ‘Django’ his freedom, but instead subtly manipulates ‘Django’s’ desire to rescue his wife in order to appear as if he is doing so for ‘Django’s’ benefit and not his own economic endeavours in bounty hunting:
Shultz: On one hand, I despise slavery. On the other hand, I need your help. If you’re not in a position to refuse, all the better. So, for the time being, I’m gonna make this slavery malarkey work to my benefit. Still, having said that, I feel guilty… So, I would like the two of us to enter into an agreement. I’m looking for the Brittle brothers. However, at this endeavor, I’m at a slight disadvantage insofar as I don’t know what they look like. But you do. Don’t ya?
Django: Oh, I know what they look like, all right.
Schultz: Good. So here’s my agreement: You travel with me until we find them […] You do that, I agree to give you your freedom. (Django Unchained, 2012).
However, ‘Shultz’ is shot before he can grant ‘Django’ his freedom. Thus, ‘Not yet free, Django still lives inside the world of Dr. Schultz’ (Schomburg, 2013) with Tarantino making no attempt to free ‘Django’ of the chains of neither the mould of the white spaghetti Western hero’s vengeful motivations or ‘Shultz’s’ eyes through which we mainly view ‘Django’. ‘Shultz’ does not offer ‘Django’ an alternative, but uses an imperative, ‘You travel with me’, and indeed he uses ‘this slave malarkey to work to [his] benefit’. Consequently, ‘Shultz’ essentially becomes nothing more than a white master, exploiting ‘Django’s’ lack of agency; ‘Candie rules by overtly violent tactics, whereas Schultz rules through benevolent gestures’ (Schomburg, 2013).
Tarantino’s intentions in subverting the spaghetti Western was “to make a movie that deals with America’s horrific past with slavery” – he claimed he “thought it could be better if it was wrapped up in genre. It seems to [Tarantino] that so many westerns… have bent over backwards to avoid [slavery], as is America’s way” (2013). Tarantino thus intended to make a Western that faced slavery, as fusing the former genre with the latter subject matter is an irony within itself which would result in a much more striking commentary on slavery than perhaps a historical drama such as McQueen’s 12 Years.
Nevertheless, as Schomburg convincingly argues, ‘while Tarantino’s script builds intentionally toward Django’s bloody revenge, it remains inside Schultz’s narrative. That is, Django Unchained is not merely a slave revenge tale; it is an exploration of the limits and possibilities of the white ally: the white progressive who stands within the dominant group and imagines it possible to stand against the dominant group’s injustices’ (2013). Therefore, the film puts forward a certain agenda wherein it attempts to pardon white complicity so long as remorse or reluctance is expressed, a stance McQueen’s 12 Years actively condemns in its narrative and stylistic choices, portraying white complicity as equally damaging to black slave lives as a violent, active mastery. Thus, the film arguably ‘constitutes a reductive, White-centric, and essentially racist take on the institution of slavery’ (Dunham, 2016). Conclusively, one may argue that McQueen makes a much stronger condemnation of slavery, and thus a more successful commentary on the institution than Tarantino’s subverted spaghetti Western.
Django is almost undeniably a film that empowers the image of black heroism and agency. The film takes heavy aesthetic inspiration from ‘blaxploitation’ films wherein ‘black characters and communities are the heroes and subjects of film’ instead of ‘sidekicks or villains’ (Lynne, 2000). Washington, who plays ‘Broomhilda’, stated:
So many of the narratives about slavery have been about powerlessness. […] this is a film about a black man who finds his freedom and rescues his wife. He is an agent of his own power, he’s a liberator, he’s a hero […] The thing that’s getting in the way of them being with each other is the institution of slavery – he’s gotta take down slavery to get [his wife]. (2013)
The film is thus a strong allegory for black power within a racist institution: ‘its plot – the story of a black man who bests evil whites – is cleaved from the blaxploitation model’ (Wickham, 2013). However, Tarantino’s transgression of multiple genres in one film can cause a miscommunication in filmic intention. There is no doubt that Django succeeds as an empowering transgression of the normative white masculine hero narrative, and as a deconstruction of the black victim narrative, through a ground-breaking subversion of the spaghetti Western. However, ‘as a film that treads upon the issue of slavery […] I think the movie leaves a lot to be desired’ (Wickham, 2013). A confused motivation on Tarantino’s behalf and perhaps a misuse of the spaghetti Western genre causes the film to fall short on successful narrative and aesthetic choices in specifically a condemnation of slavery – conclusively, a widely shared critique, “American Slavery Was Not A Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western. It Was A Holocaust.” (Lee, 2012).
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