Django Unchained: Confronting Racism, Creating a Postmodern Saga
Quentin Tarantino is well known for his sadistic violence as well as juxtaposed humour and tension. Django Unchained extends further than this expected emphasis: we the audience are led to believe that the film is focused on the brutal actions taken towards slaves and the story of Django through the slave period; however, as the film progresses we are drawn into the trap of another Tarantino movie. His movies surface as a brutal yet amusing action film but as we go deeper into the thoughts behind the film, we realise the meaning is deeper and demands the attention of racial segregation. Tarantino’s postmodern and controversial film highlights the racism and institutionalised hatred of the slaves at the time through excessive arrogance and proudness of Django and Stephen, coupled with postmodernism and racism. Although the film is set during the slave labouring time of 1858, postmodernism is a constant underlying factor in Django Unchained. The way Tarantino takes a different approach to developing the themes of racism and arrogance by using comedy and sadistic violence shows a very postmodern way of dealing with the reluctance to address these very real issues that have and still do, puncture our society. Tarantino is frequently creating films that are very postmodern which cover the important issues with a surface layer of comedy, violence and action, making the film more entertaining for the audience and less of a humanity wake up call.
From the near beginning of the film, Django becomes a free slave working as a bounty hunter alongside Dr Schultz, a German dentist. During the scene ‘100 black coffins’ Django and Dr Schultz accompany Monsieur Candie on the journey to Candie Land, Django is told by Dr Schultz that in order to fit in he must act as if he is a black slave. During the journey to Candie land, Django puts into action what Schultz has said and acts as if he’s superior to the other black slaves and he is depicted to believe himself equal or higher to some white men of the party. This is predominately shown with a low angled shot looking up to Django, even at times from the perspective of Monsieur Candie portraying the power of manipulation Django has over him. As Django continues to play this convincing role we, the audience, question if his arrogance comes with Schultz’ order or subsequent to his freedom. Is this Django’s opportunity to return to the white men what they had done to him? His actions lead us to wonder in the end, if his freedom is to be celebrated or condemned. As the party are on their journey, Django receives disgusted looks from the other slaves, predominantly by Rodney. They see him playing the *role of a . . . black slaver* and they don’t want to be told what to do by a black-gone-white man. Django, with his newly gained power, talks down to Rodney asking if he’s “gotta problem with your eyeball” “you wanna boot heel in it?”, the black men, now addressing him as “no sir”, clearly show disapproval in being betrayed by a man of their own nature consequently leading Django to make it clear that the “niggas gon’ understand something about me! I’m worse than any of these white men here! You get the molasses out your ass, and you keep your goddamn eyeballs off me!” As this parade makes progress Django keeps his emotions in order, but this does not come with difficulty. After a while, it is shown how much Django is possibly enjoying his character and we begin to believe that he is not acting at all and that he is enjoying the power so much, he has in fact turned white inside. This is incredibly important to the purpose of Tarantino’s film because it’s showing the widespread theme of institutionalization focused on one point of racial issues. The fact that Django finds it easy to take up the attitude of a white man makes the audience realise the power of forcing someone’s credence can have on a person and how easy it is for former slaves to look down on other slaves. When you are surrounded by lies and acts of arrogance your whole life you start to follow them, and given the chance, begin to turn into the person who gave them.
Django and Monsieur Candie’s relationship make us question just how different their natures are. During a cross cut of the journey to Candie Land, the party visit a hut which is occupied by white hillbillies with dogs, surrounding a slave, D’Artagnan, who is situated in a tree. As the party stops and Monsieur Candie talks to the slave about how he wasted $500 on a man who only gave three fights Monsieur Candie orders “Mr. Stonesipher, let Marsha and her bitches send D’Artagnan to nigger heaven”. As D’Artagnan is being ripped apart by dogs, Monsieur Candie approaches Django on his horse, as a low angle shot from the perspective of Monsieur Candie shows the domination that Django has over Monsieur Candie in the way Django is a free black man and is doing trade with white men. This creates huge tension and displacement of race in the controversial film as they “ain’t never seen a nigger like you ever in his life”. Whilst D’Artagnan is being inhumanely ripped apart by dogs, aspects of postmodernism appear as Tarantino covers the gore with shots of Monsieur Candie and Django speaking of the slave. As they converse, Monsieur Candie notices that Django’s “boss looks a little green around the gills for a blood sport like nigger fighting” while Django shown in a view looking up to a mid close up of his face with does not look at all repulsed rather just sits their with a very solemn expression of his face not at any point leaving the gaze of Monsieur Candie. Dr Schultz “ain’t used to seein’ a man ripped apart by dogs is all” whereas Django is “just a little more used to Americans than he is”. These words showing that Tarantino isn’t at all shy of telling the true brutality of slavery through the eyes of Django. It shows the way others of the world aren’t familiar with the very real actions of slavery that took place and did not think it fair to do so to people of another race. This violent and gruesome scene shows how Tarantino’s film highlights racism and institutionalised hatred by emphasising the arrogance and violent nature of the slave masters, to create a film that evokes us of our history and how we do not bat an eyelid when we see it sadistically on screen. Tarantino’s strong passion towards the negativity of slaving and racism is show very clearly in every moment of Django Unchained. The film as a whole brings out the worst of slavery and leaves us wondering how and why this is part of our history.
Similarly, the way Django acts towards the slaves and around the white men, showing an overcoming of his racist and hateful past as a slave, is much like the way Stephen, the ‘favourite slave’ at Candie Land, approaches slavery and racism. Stephen prides himself on being the favourite slave, always managing to be associated with the white men and sees himself as Monsieur Candie’s greatest friend. As Django, Monsieur Candie and his party arrive at Candie Land, we are first introduced to the character of Stephen. After seeing Django coming into the gates on a horse, he takes almost no notice of greeting Monsieur Candie as he is determined to know “who dis nigger on dat nag?“. As Monsieur Candie tries to explain to Stephen that “Django here’s a freeman” and is a guest of theirs, he is mortified and thinks it is most unwelcome that Django “gawn stay in the big house”. The disgust that Stephen has towards Django shown through confused and angry facial expressions in a mid close up of his face, is just another example of how much Stephen has taken the white man role to heart. Stephen has been around white people his whole life and after given the opportunity to be Monsieur Candie’s closest slave, he has completely lost sight of all that he used to be showing the power of his institutionalization by taking it upon himself to insult and stand taller than all other black men. Stephens actions show a contrast in the morality and attitude of Django additionally showing a change of view of the institutionalised racism and slavery. Stephen’s acceptance and embrace of something as dreadful as slavery shows how Tarantino’s film is trying to help the audience to step away from the racial segregation by showing the effects that this accustomed credence has caused. Helping to highlight the way we were accustomed to hating and disrespecting someone of colour and forced into thinking it normal and acceptable. Tarantino highlights the racism and institutionalised hatred of the slaves and how we have been accustomed to believing others are superior to us for a fictitious reason. Stephens despising and superior actions towards Django show the hatred the not only many white people can have to the slaves, but brainwashed black men as well. The hate that Stephen has for Django, comes almost of a jealousy from Django being freed and able to walk with white men while, in the end, Stephen is still a slave and all he knows of his life is serving Monsieur Candie.
‘100 black coffins’, the ‘Mandingo dog scene’ and the actions of Stephen, Monsieur Candie and Django all display how Tarantino’s film highlights the racism and institutionalised hatred of slaves through the proudness and excessive arrogance of Stephan, Django and Monsieur Candie to each other and how they all portray contrasting yet similar passions towards the treatments of slaves at the time. Monsieur Candie’s actions towards the slaves are not acceptable rather understandable however, Stephen and Django’s actions towards those of a similar past is questionable and selfish. Their racism and arrogance is so institutionalized that Django has no problem displaying his own disgust for the slaves even though he was one himself. This idea is vital to the film and Tarantino’s ideas because it is one of the most important meanings behind the film. This meaning is a constant factor in Django Unchained and endeavours to inform us how easy it is to give into someone’s beliefs and actions even when it has caused harm to you in the past. If Django was an amiable and kind hearted man like Dr Schultz, he would take is freedom as a gift, set out to find his wife, free her, then run off and live the rest of his life how he should, but he does not. When Django is first freed, he immediately drops his blanket and changes to the dead white man’s coat, not able to conceal the scars of his past that will stay with him forever, Django can try to forget about his past and continue as he has been around the other men but his past will never leave him. Despite what he may think and how few people will accept him, he will always be an ex slave and will always be seen as trying and of a rambunctious sort. As much as his nature has been changed by the institutionalized hatred towards slaves, Django will always be black and an ex slave, causing it to be a huge betrayal when he acts with disrespect to other slaves. The audience should feel a sense of happiness that he has been freed and further reunited with his wife however we cannot help but wonder if he is challenged to stay the same arrogant man rather than doing what most other free slaves would do and not take their lives and freedom for granted.
In these ways, Django Unchained is Tarantino’s most important and meaningful movie thus far, as it indicates the wicked nature of society and as stated also in the film Tomorrow When the War Began: “All these words, words like ‘evil’ and ‘vicious’, they meant nothing to Nature. Yes, evil was a human invention” and the brainwashing of someone’s thoughts and actions are causing them to stay in the world. The power in this film is extensive and the characters of Stephen, Monsieur Candie, and Django show us who we have been and are becoming in contrast to Dr Schultz who shows us who we need to be. Otherwise we may see the world crumbling under the weight of exclusion and hatred. By the end of the film, we begin to complement Dr Schultz on his innocence and purity and commend him on his disgust to the act of slavery. Tarantino’s postmodern film informs us of the reluctance towards addressing issues of violence and race by covering it with sadistic comedy and action however by the end of the film we realise his motivation and purpose of re informing us of our history and how dreadful and saddening the slavery time was whilst also informing us of this path we are choosing to retake as we step into this modern-day society. Through his postmodern film, adding aspects of very modern filmic techniques, we are able to clearly associate our actions of past with present and are able to see the definite resemblance between the two and if we do not do anything about it, we will enter into a never-ending circle of past and present.
The overall damage that institutionalized racism and hatred can cause is considerable; it leads people away from what they truly believe in and into the ideas behind someone else’s thoughts and beliefs. The way Django and Stephen show this theme throughout the text makes it so much more powerful and opens our eyes to the change it causes. Ultimately if we keep following the credence of one person then we will all be clones of each other and the world would be plain. Django Unchained is able to teach us how Tarantino’s postmodern and controversial film highlights the racism and institutionalised hatred of the slaves at the time by firstly highlighting the power of institutionalising someone from another’s credence, and how easy it can be to accept and follow these once they have been forced into your life for so long despite your own past. Secondly, the way Tarantino is testing the audience by asking us to celebrate the actions of people like Monsieur Candie, Django, and Stephen who are all personalities that appear in our lives and we think nothing of their badness. This film saddened me by way of highlighting flaws in society and taught me that it is vital to respect and be kind to one another otherwise we will be caught up in lies and hate forever.
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