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.

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Posted on February 3, 2013, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. One quibble about “acknowledging that slavery was genocidal”. Isn’t slavery best classed as a form of exploitation rather than a form of genocide? Slavery is coerced work, not elimination.

    On “blood-soaked revenge”: isn’t Tarantino just finding more excuses for this. Kill Bill is woman’s bloody revenge on men; Inglorious Basterds is Jews bloody revenge on Germans; now Django is blacks bloody revenge on southern whites. I’m noticing a pattern.

  2. Yes, Tarantino is risking getting into a comfy revenge-rut. Although S Korea’s Park Chan-wook made a career out of revenge films. Kill Bill and Django are definitely homages to two specific exploitation sub-genres: rape-revenge films (e.g. I Spit on Your Grave, banned in the UK) and blaxploitation (where righteous black heroes got the chance to make a stand against white oppressors). None of these genres are exactly subtle stuff. In fairness, Deathproof did feature a pretty good twist on the usual ‘powerless women hunted by a psychopath’ clichés.

    I’ll get back to the slavery/genocide thing tomorrow – need to think through a proper answer.

  3. Okay, little later than planned, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to describe slavery in the Americas as genocidal. Yes, the conscious goal might not have been the eradication of a people but I generally lean towards structural analysis and so I’d place greater weight on the effects rather than the intentions of the protagonists. The mortality rates of the slave trade and of the practice of slavery are pretty eye-watering. The accounts I’ve read (and I’d need to go back to consult sources for a fuller answer) seemed to suggest that slavery in the Americas was of a different kind to that practised in the classical world for example, and much more brutal. Certainly ‘exploitation’ isn’t adequate for slavery in the Americas, that suggests indentured labour or feudal work service and the like. I realise that the way genocide is used implies the attempt to eradicate a people, understood as an ethnic entity, but I’ve never really seen the importance of making a distinction between genocide and other forms of mass killing such as politicide.

  1. Pingback: Time to Get Rid of Genocide | Breviosity

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