Django’s Unflinching Look at America

Candie: Your boss looks a little green around the gills.
Django: I’m just a little more used to Americans than he is.

Quentin Tarantino might be a genius. He may also be a glorified fanboy who takes a strange sort of pleasure in serving his audiences the very gruel they demand. But regardless of where he actually falls on this spectrum or how passionately his supporters and detractors argue for one understanding of his work over the other, Tarantino is unparalleled in his ability to provoke. His films can be decried. They can be hailed as cinematic masterpieces.  But they cannot be ignored, for he knows his audience all too well. 

Tarantino’s most recent film, Django Unchained, was released on Christmas Day, 2012, less than two weeks after the mass shooting in Newtown, CT.  The timing was purely coincidental.  Nevertheless, the United States’ sixteenth fatal mass shooting of 2012 served as the immediate context in which audiences viewed the film.  Without question, every incident of violence that makes its way into the news cycle is disconcerting to some degree, for it underscores the chaos that seems to define modern life. But with this most recent act of terror, Americans collectively stood aghast because of the victims – young children and their teachers.

Given this viewing context, Tarantino’s film serves as a blessing and a curse, for it both reflects and exposes aspects of the American cultural consciousness that most of us would rather not explore, at least not in any substantive way. Yet, in making this claim, I am not attempting to rescue the film or baptize it in any way. Django is a graphically intense movie that flirts with being irresponsible at times. It deserves its R-rating. No child should see it, nor should many adults. I felt personally uneasy throughout the entire screening. Furthermore, it is a flawed film. Although the bulk of the narrative is sharp, witty, and concise, the final segment is as distracting as it is gratuitous.  But herein lays the dilemma: although problematic, Django Unchained may be one of Tarantino’s best films.

On the surface, Django is about the horrors of slavery in America.  It is the revisionist tale of a slave-turned-bounty-hunter (Django) who embarks on a hero’s quest to save his wife, Broomhilda.  Much like Tarantino’s prior film, Inglorious Basterds, the story culminates with a rewriting of history.

In the case of Django though, it is the rewriting of American history. In a cathartic (and somewhat predictable) bloodbath, the erstwhile slave is able to enact his revenge by shooting everyone in sight – repeatedly. Guns figure prominently in the movie, and the result is exactly what we might expect. It is bloody. It is visceral. It is numbing. As with the rampant use of the “n-word” throughout the film, all of this gun violence could make some viewers a little “green around the gills.”  But for those who are “a little more used to Americans,” it is simply par for the course.

Does Tarantino go too far? Perhaps. But onscreen violence is nothing new or unusual for American filmgoers. In fact, alongside Django, two of the top five highest grossing films the first week of January 2013 were Zero Dark Thirty and Texas Chainsaw 3D. Violence, it would seem, is both appalling and appealing for Americans. It is thus not surprising that the graphic nature of the film and its subject matter has polarized audiences and critics alike.

Some believe it to be an offensive example of Blaxploitation.  From this perspective, Tarantino is simply using America’s painful history of racial oppression because he knows it will be effective in making audiences squirm. Others applaud his attempt to open the eyes of a whole new generation of filmgoers to the horrors of our collective history.  As a spaghetti Western, which itself is a revisionist take on the classic Hollywood Western, Django is not simply subverting generic expectations.  Rather, it is offering us a revisionist history of a revisionist history. To miss this point is to miss the point entirely. Indeed, Tarantino himself has suggested that part of the reason that Django is so over the top has to do with the fact that no amount of cinematic surrealism could ever be more outrageous than the brutal reality of slavery itself.

Yet, as I mentioned above, it is impossible to detach our understanding of this film from the larger cultural “moment” in which we find ourselves–a moment marked not just by a lingering undercurrent of racism, but also by our collective embrace of violence as a way of life. When we consider our reflexive responses to terrorism, to politics, to sporting events, or even to other drivers on the highway, violence seems to be stitched into the fabric of American culture. It is a part of our DNA.

So, if nothing else, Tarantino’s film offers Americans a timely opportunity to stare into our own hearts and see it for what it really is. As such, Django is not for the faint of heart. But that may very well be the point: some truths are simply not pleasant. In fact, they are downright disturbing. When a human being shoots another human being with a gun, the result is as graphically violent as anyone could imagine. And this ought to disturb all of us. So when it comes to Django, the question is not so much why this film is so troubling to so many, but why so many other films are not.

To be sure, Django Unchained is an incredibly well made and, at times, funny movie. But it is also a graphic depiction of a brutally violent time in our nation’s past. I found little-to-no comfort in the film’s narrative. I would imagine that few will.

Yet, there are certain moments when we have an obligation to fix our gaze on disquieting realities in order to purge ourselves of the desire to avoid unpleasantness at all costs. And it may be that, given the recent history of mass shootings in America, now is that time. In an important sense, we need to be disturbed. But the hope is that, by allowing a film like Django to affect us in this way, we will come to a point where we might not only see the ugly truth, but also truly see.

Kutter Callaway is the Director of Church Relations and an Affiliate Professor of Theology and Culture at Fuller Theological Seminary. His theological musings are often focused on contemporary culture. His book, Scoring Transcendence: Contemporary Film Music as Religious Experience, on the theological significance of music in film, is due out in January of 2013 through Baylor University Press. He also contributed to Halos and Avatars (2010), the first book on theology and video games, and Don’t Stop Believin’ (2012), a dictionary of religion and popular culture.