Tarantino's Latest Misunderstood
Published: Friday, February 1, 2013
Updated: Friday, February 1, 2013 11:02
Warning: This piece contains numerous “Django Unchained” spoilers.
By calling Quentin Tarantino’s latest movie “a masturbatory ode to stereotypes and false history” in his Jan. 15 column (“‘Django’ Warps Racial History,” A3), Zenen Jamies Pérez seems to have missed out on any sort of nuance found in “Django Unchained” — of which there is plenty. I would argue, in fact, that Tarantino is perhaps the mainstream filmmaker most sensitive to issues of race working today, and “Unchained” is a prime example of why.
“Surely,” Pérez wrote, the violent scenes of rape and murder suffered by black characters “would not be portrayed similarly with a white [actor].” While I could go on for ages listing movies where this is not the case (look at the currently in-theaters “Gangster Squad,” which opens with a scene of someone being torn apart by coyotes), Tarantino did — in fact — choose to portray the violence against white characters and black characters differently. While such scenes as the massacre in Calvin Candie’s house is rife with purposely cartoonish violence reminiscent of the spaghetti westerns to which “Unchained” is an homage, the violence against black characters — most notably the slave-versus-slave mandingo wrestling scene — is horrific and hyper-realistic. This is meant to draw increased attention to the brutality of these scenes, and with it, the conditions that caused this violence to be so commonplace.
Having an issue with the white-black relationships in “Unchained” means you ignored how Tarantino actually portrayed it. Take a look at the film’s two major mixed-race pairings: that of Schultz and Django and that of Candie and Stephen, his head slave. The absence of last names for the two black characters shows already that they are placed at a systematic disadvantage when compared to the two white characters. And yet it is these two one-named characters that hold the true power and control in their respective relationships.
Schultz is a man with motivation that does not extend beyond the need to trick and to win. He is a good man, yes, but he knows himself that Django is the one with the true purpose and the higher calling, as evidenced by his comparison of Django to the German hero Siegfried. His murder of Candie — and subsequent death because of it — is not a heroic sacrifice; he kills him because he’d literally rather die than lose.
Candie may have the plantation and the money, but he gained this only through birth; he is by no means an intelligent, conniving person. This distinction belongs to Stephen. While Stephen is devoted to Candie to a fault, he also knows that he is the one calling the shots in the house. Stephen is the one who discovers Schultz and Django’s ruse, and Candie trusts him enough to take his advice seriously. He wishes more than anything else to be white but knows that this can never be the case, and he is filled with intense anger and self-loathing because of it. His chilling transformation from self-aware caricature to furious puppet-master after the Candyland bloodbath shows another slave who has been unchained, but his attitude towards it couldn’t differ more than Django’s.
I agree with Pérez’s assertion that Hollywood would be unwilling to finance or promote a movie about someone like Nat Turner, and I am as disappointed as he is with this unfortunate fact. But he is wrong in failing to recognize the step “Unchained” took in reaching this goal. “Glory,” the acclaimed film that exemplifies the “white-people-solve-racism” motif Pérez decries, is less than 25 years old. Even the still-in-theaters “Lincoln” is somewhat guilty of this. “Unchained,” however, cannot possibly be compared to these two. Setting the movie in the Antebellum South without including slavery and racism would be pointless, and when Django asks Schutlz why his former master doesn’t just abandon him, Schultz’ answer takes into account these conditions while decidedly not adhering to such an offensive motif. “I feel vaguely responsible for you,” he responds without being patronizing — who wouldn’t feel at least some sort of responsibility for someone surrounded by so many people who hate him simply because of the color of his skin? And by calling him “a real life Siegfried,” Schultz suggests that if it weren’t for the circumstances, Django could do fine on his own. Schultz doesn’t solve racism; he just puts the eradication of it in motion.