Django Unchained: Ultraviolence and Inequality
I got the chance to see Django Unchained over the weekend, the film has finally made it to Vienna’s original-dub cinemas. I’m a big fan of Tarantino, Pulp Fiction and the two Kill Bills are all-time favourites of mine, whilst I think Deathproof was one of the best horror films of the 2000s. Django is very much a Tarantino film, with great dialogue written for specific actors in mind, pastiche and mash-up of different schlocky film genres, the occasional stretch where nothing seems to happen much, and a diverse soundtrack that somehow works. It’s extremely violent, revelling in blood-soaked revenge, and often very funny.
It also surprised me in how unflinching it was about the horrors of American slavery. There is a scene that takes place in a private room at a Southern club/saloon that really rams home how awful, degrading and rotten slavery was for all those involved. The film might take liberties with history, but it’s exaggerated full colour comic-book style allows it to paint a vivid picture of a truly evil social institution. More provocative than the violence, perhaps, are certain characters in the film. Leonardo DiCaprio is pretty brave to play such a revolting villain, but Samuel L Jackson’s characterisation of DiCaprio’s head servant is painful just to watch. Not all that much has the power to shock anymore, we’re all far too jaded. But Jackson’s servile, toadying, black kapo – and Tarantino isn’t shy about acknowledging that slavery was genocidal – really does hit a nerve. The contrast between the cast of slaveowning gargoyles and the dignity and decency of Django, Schultz and Boomhilda is pretty powerful. There’s nothing ‘worthy’ about Django, but it’s still a powerful humanistic film. As Peter Bradshaw said in the Guardian:
Slavery is a subject on which modern Hollywood is traditionally nervous, a reticence amounting almost to a conspiracy of silence – except, of course, in the explicit context of abolition. As far as Hollywood is concerned, the day-to-day existence of unabolished slavery has been what welfare reformists called the live rail: don’t touch it. It takes a film unencumbered with liberal good taste to try.
Social scientists talk about hegemony, stratification, contradictory class-positions and so on in discussions that are learned but rather dry. Django is aggressive, insulting and thrilling take on the same set of issues: provocative but also pretty thought-provoking.