Not Giving Django Too Much Credit
Django is a film that’s been pivoted as an answer, when it raises more questions than anything. Should it be viewed within its historical significance, and the extent to which it can portray the horrors of slavery while reinvigorating a moment in history that many find irrelevant and antiquated? Or rather, should it be divorced from its political implications, and viewed primarily as a work of art that allows audiences to immerse themselves within its riveting sensory and cathartic pleasures? Moreover, how are we to reconcile another white director’s ahistorical foray into America’s traumatic racial histories? Regardless of the questions it poses, Django has been shockingly well regarded, and has not been given the rigorous critical attention that it merits. Undoubtedly, Django is a good film, but it is my intent here to unearth some of Django’s more problematic dimensions, and provide some much needed criticism to what is at least an interesting film.
Ostensibly, one would think that Django Unchained is about the Black “free” slave, for whom the film is named after. However, though the film seems to be about Django in theory, this does play out in practice. By far, the most engaging and complex characters of the film are those occupied by white actors. Slave owner Calvin Candie and German bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz, (played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Christoph Waltz respectively), are verbose, charismatic, and dominate scenes with their grandiloquent diatribes. Conversely, Django’s emotional complexity is relegated to brooding silences and gun slinging. Why is it that Django’s most poignant moments in the film lie solely within his massacres? Slavery’s salience surely lies in the commodification of Black bodies and the corporeal punishments inflicted on the Black race, but depictions of slavery should give due attention to the psychological and emotional traumas inflicted on Black slaves. Django fails in this regard, and instead chooses to rely on visceral scenes for shock value. Kerry Washington hardly utters three lines the entire movie, with her claims to fame being her beauty, and her significance as a walking allusion to German mythology. The remaining slaves exist as stereotypical tropes meant to serve as backdrops to the main action of the scenes.
The clear exception is the slave Stephen, played by Samuel L. Jackson, whose prominence ignites a turning point in the plot of the movie. But he becomes so drowned in over-exaggerated, dialect-ridden idioms, and the egregious use of the “N-word” that the nuance of his character is diluted with a comic effervescence akin to minstrelsy. Had he been less two-dimensionally devoted to his master, his role as the Black crony could have offered an opportunity to portray the precarious role that Black overseers occupied. Instead, Stephen is merely a comic figure and a Black villain whose sole purpose is to be reproached by audiences.
Furthermore, another myth that Django Unchained perpetuates is the degree of agency Foxx’s character holds. While Django is declared “free” at the beginning of the movie, he is clearly coached and guided along to suit the whims of the paternalistic and “benevolent” Dr. Schultz. The white bounty hunter who “detests slavery” but feels “responsible” for Django, and thus has little problem enlisting Django to suit his needs. Django does regain the spotlight for the latter portion of the film, but we cannot ignore the extent to which he plays second fiddle to Waltz’ performance for the bulk of the film.
The paternalistic benevolence of Dr. Schultz juxtaposed against the tyranny of Calvin Candie creates a movie where white people get to be both the moral authority and the oppressors. There are “good white people” and there are “bad white people,” so any possibility of white audiences’ critical consideration of how they are implicated in slavery is undone by their ability to identify with the anti-slavery white characters. Even a scene with the Ku Klux Klan, the personification of white racism, is pure hilarity. The message, the KKK is actually funny! We’ve had it wrong the entire time!
Now of course, Django has its merits. Foxx’s, Jackson’s, and Washington’s performances are wonderful and engaging despite being bereft of the complexity they deserve. There are even some interesting historical references to Eugenics and Alexandre Dumas. Furthermore, Black folklore and fictionalized accounts of Black history are hardly mainstream, so that idea that fictional heroes can be made out of our history and put on the national stage does perhaps speak to the progress we have made in rebutting against America’s racial turbulence. But overall, Django Unchained is merely a good movie.
Django Unchained has been receiving a lot of praise. This praise is arguably justified, what could have been another tepid ahistorical foray into American’s traumatic racial histories, akin to recent films like Lincoln and The Help, actually turned out to be a sensational and riveting narrative that gives audiences a chance to see a Black protagonist kill a bunch of white people. Frankly, we don’t get that often. Without a doubt, Django is a good movie, and you will have a good time. But, Django is just a good movie, and perhaps that’s all it needs to be. I am excited for the conversations it will spark, but we should caution ourselves to keep a critical eye on a movie that is merely fun at best, and another rendering of problematic racial and ahistorical Hollywood politics at worst.