History, Tarantino style: “Django Unchained”

Quentin Tarantino’s latest film is a tonic after the incessant racist dog whistles of last year’s campaign (and basically Obama’s entire presidency). This film answers the dog whistles with a shotgun blast. “Django Unchained” takes a central tragedy of American history and re-imagines it as exploitation-film revenge fantasy. This patently “insensitive” treatment of slavery and racism isn’t for everyone: Spike Lee recently complained via Twitter: “… slavery was not a …spaghetti Western. It was a holocaust.” Yet Tarantino’s previous film, “Inglourious Basterds,” was also a “spaghetti Western” – about the Jewish Holocaust. “Basterds” tells the story of a World War II all-Jewish-American special ops unit in occupied France dedicated to killing – and scalping – as many Nazis as possible.

“Django” is to Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” what “Basterds” is to “Schindler’s List”: an action film do-over of historical outrages. Whereas Spielberg uses real people and events to create fictionalized history, Tarantino’s use of trashy fiction encourages us to discern powerful moral truths from history. Spike Lee has (rightly) criticized Tarantino in the past for his flippant use of the n-word – Tarantino’s repeated use of it in his own dialog in “Pulp Fiction” was particularly troubling. However, here the word is used, fittingly, to depict racism. Together, both “Django” and “Basterds” form a dual indictment of white supremacy in its European and American skins.

Like many Westerns, “Django” is about redemption and retribution. It tells the story of Django (Jamie Foxx), a slave in pre-Civil=War Texas freed by German bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). Together, they pursue Django’s quest to reunite with his wife, Broomhilda Von Shaft (Kerry Washington). Django learns to be a hardened killer (“the fastest gun in the South”) from Dr. Schultz; in turn Django teaches the German “dentist” to be human.

The eccentric cinematic meta-narrative of “Django” and “Basterds” operates like a stoned Hegelian dialectic between pop culture and history. Dr. Schultz (as the heroic twin of Hans Landa, “The Jew Hunter,” in “Basterds”) preemptively redeems German culture by casting Django’s struggle as the story of Siegfried and Brunhilde, and by not bearing to hear Beethoven as the background music to inhuman brutality (in a scene reminiscent of “A Clockwork Orange.”) Leonardo DiCaprio plays the slaver Calvin Candie as an anti-Lt. Aldo Raine (“Basterds” good guy Brad Pitt), Southern accent and all. Candie blasphemes the European Enlightenment in his final outrage, his pseudoscientific justification of white supremacy’s perverse order.

Dr. Schultz learns that the law can only rectify injustice up to a point; radical moral action is needed to approach true justice. In this sense, he is like another slavery-hating mid-19th-century German doctor I know of who taught that each of us has the power to change the world.

“Django” holds a funhouse mirror up to the reality of the monstrous institution of slavery – to really get at the true horror and absurdity of slavery and white supremacism, it is necessary to construct the grotesque carnal carnival of atrocities Tarantino has assembled with this film. Django’s antebellum South is nonetheless a more “accurate” picture of slavery and racism than that seen in any genteel period epic: almost as tasteless, offensive, and inappropriate as reality itself. The obscenities committed by Django’s villains are insults to our sensibilities so severe that they can only be resolved by shootouts that are so ridiculously bloody they become slapstick, like pie fights with gore instead of custard. “Django” visualizes quite literally Lincoln’s second inaugural address: “until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn by the sword.”

Tarantino clearly loves his medium – his films are always banquets for movie lovers, and he wears his cinephile heart on his sleeve. “Django” refers as easily to 1970s plantation potboiler sleaze (“Mandingo“) and blaxploitation Westerns (“Take a Hard Ride“) as it does to higher brow fare like Gillo Pontecorvo’s “Burn!” and Sam Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch.” It owes as much to the racially charged opening scenes of George Romero’s “Dawn of the Dead” (1978) as it does to the stark closing shots of Alexander Dovzhenko’s “Arsenal” (1928). It’s a cross between “Birth of a Nation” and “Blazing Saddles,” or “Gone With the Wind” with a gangsta rap soundtrack.

I wish Tarantino would continue this film cycle forever, with action heroes to save every oppressed community. I can’t wait to see Sonny Chiba as an ass-kicking World War II internee, or Sean Penn as a Harvey Milk who shoots back.

What I admire most about Quentin Tarantino as an artist is the respect and appreciation he shows for his audience by putting out work that doesn’t pander or insult their intelligence, but instead raises consciousness by exploring challenging questions and offering provocative ideas in an entertaining way. “Django” has as much to offer to film and lit majors and fans of equal rights as it does to grindhouse gorehounds. Like all great art, Tarantino’s antiracist period pieces don’t leave one satisfied; they leave one wanting to confront injustice in real time – before it’s “too late” and history is allowed to play out its tragedies without intercession.

Movie information:

“Django Unchained”

Directed by Quentin Tarantino

Starring: Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kerry Washington, Samuel L. Jackson

2012, rated R (violence and language), 165 min.

Photo: Movie still of Christoph Waltz and Jamie Foxx.