Django Unchained and the Expendability of Black Bodies in Cinema
I should preface this by saying I enjoy reading. writing, and watching material about Black histories. There is no history of Black peoples that has not been marred by white colonialism and the devastating violence that comes with it. I am no stranger to imagining, describing, or viewing these brutalities.
Even so, I was not prepared for the toll that director Quentin Tarantino’s Christmas release, Django Unchained, would take on me. I walked into the theater feeling hesitant but cautiously optimistic, excited if for no other reason than to see Kerry Washingto and Jamie Foxx act opposite one another. I left 2 hours and 45 minutes later feeling jittery, unsettled, and overwhelmed by emotions I hadn’t experienced consciously in ages.
To be perfectly fair, the film is breathtaking from a cinematographic perspective. Tarantino is an artist, and his eye for camera work is impeccable. He is by no means afraid to take risks, and this resonates with audiences; it is no accident that he has acquired so large a following.
The work has alreay been applauded as groundbreaking; Tarantino has been referred to as “bold,” “daring,” and “edgy” for having the tenacity to write and direct a thriller loosely based on the antebellum South and reveling in depictions of violence primarily against Black people. If I may be blunt, however, I do not believe the risks Tarantino takes in Django are his to negotiate. In “post-racial” America—where Black bodies are disproportionally targeted by hate crimes, police brutality, the prison-industrial complex, dishonest housing and banking practices, and numerous other institutional forms of violence—there is nothing novel about a white director choosing to regale audiences with the coordinated murder of Black people.
[spoilers and descriptions of graphic violence under the cut]
A recapitulation of historical and contemporary realities, the film is alarming in that it speaks volumes about Tarantino’s—and White America’s—delight in severing the Black body. Tarantino depicts countless scenes of brutal dismemberments; in one particularly haunting one, a “fighting mandingo” is ripped apart by dogs as he begs his amused master Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) for his life. What is particularly disturbing is not simply that Tarantino portrays innumerable Black deaths, but rather the haunting joy emanating from almost all white characters in the film—and white audiences—as it occurs. Certainly death is no stranger to Tarantino films, but there is something particularly gruesome about seeing the gleam in an actor’s eye as he instructs two slaves in how to properly kill one another for his enjoyment, cigarette in hand and humanity nowhere to be found. There is something even more sinister at work when one pauses to consider that Dicaprio will likely receive numerous accolades for this role.
This scene and the many like it allow audiences to engage in the same variety of spectatorship seen at lynchings well into the 20th century; Tarantino’s insistence on truly reveling in pain inflicted on the Black body is eerily reminiscent of the active engagement with anti-Black homicide that manifested itself in the creation of postcards, photography journals, and severed body parts as a booming lynching souvenir industry. That the sounds of a hammer bashing in one slave’s skull after the prompt “Finish him!” only elicited gasps of horror from Black audience members was simultaneously disappointing and unsurprising. Given that scientific studies have demonstrated that white people continue to feel less empathy at the sight of brown and black bodies in pain than at the sight of (because nothing is true unless white people conduct a study to prove it, right?), it is to be expected that this maiming of Black characters would not alarm white audiences nearly as much as it would unsettle Black ones.
This begs the question, with whom are white audiences expected to relate? Films with Black heroes like George Lucas’s Red Tails and Danny Glover’s film about the Haitian revolution, if they are even allowed to be made, experience debilitating criticism within the film industry for their lack of white protagonists. Django is by no means exempt from this racialized dynamic. Even the film’s name is indicative of the power structures at work within its reels and beyond: though Django is the title character, he does not commit the title action. Rather, audiences are left wondering what entity has acted upon him; namely, who unchained Django? The answer to this question also offers an answer to the question of relatability.
Dr. Schultz, the bounty hunter who first recruits Django as an assistant of sorts, is a particularly amusing caricature of the white savior complex. An “enlightened” European who draws sympathy and appreciation from the crowd for freeing Django and aiding him in his quest to find his wife, Schulz acts primarily in his own self-interest for the bulk of the movie. While it is theoretically commendable that he frees Django, it must be noted that he only does so after Django has helped him succeed in a mission. In this sense, the Black body is again made expendable; despite debatably genuine warm sentiments toward Django, Schultz still sees him as lesser, valuable chiefly in terms of utility. Tarantino makes explicit his opinion of Django’s lesser intellect through Schultz’s characterization. Schultz is intelligent (if also pedantic), compassionate, and defiant. He is the brains of the dynamic duo, and—despite the fact that Django is literate—it is Schultz who reads, speaks, and acts on his behalf for the vast majority of the film. While there is certainly an argument to be made for Tarantino’s characterization reflecting a desire to preserve authenticity, this must be taken with a grain of salt. Tarantino, a man with credentials in Black historiography that are dubious at absolute best, has been quoted as saying that he finds Roots terribly inaccurate. This is curious given the glaring disparity in commitment to accuracy between the two films; whereas Roots is far from perfect, Django is deliberately accurate only in its depictions of violence.
Perhaps more disturbing than the white savior characterization of Schultz is the amount of time Tarantino spends forcing audiences to bask in racist humor. Though the word “nigger” is repeated somewhere between 50 and 100 times in the film, this is nothing compared to the extended laughs that are had quite literally at Black bodies’ expense. White audiences roared in laughter as Klansmen onscreen spent minutes lamenting their inability to see properly through their masks; the scene was an incredibly extended one in which minor characters were given more lines than Django’s wife spoke during the entire film. As I watched Django in an Anaheim theater, fully aware the city was once a Ku Klux Klan stronghold, the dark irony of white audiences’ ostensibly light-hearted reaction to this scene was not lost on me. That Tarantino spent more screen time exploring the pain of Klansmen mildly inconvenienced by their masks (before a raid that would end Django’s life if successful) than he did fleshing out the thoughts and motivations of major Black characters is further indicative of which audiences he most values. One comment made later in the film—a description of another “fighting mandingo” that jokingly refers to him as “Niggales,” a pejorative, racialized allusion to the myth of Hercules—elicited bellows from most white viewers. The discomfort felt by Black people sitting in their midst was palpable.
Tarantino does, however, succeed in presenting a narrative of Black love particularly uncommon in contemporary movies. It is no light matter that the entire premise of Django’s exploits is that they bring him closer to rescuing his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). In a social climate that contends Black women are simultaneously unattractive, hypersexual, and unfeminine, a movie centered however loosely on the plight of a Black damsel in distress is a breath of fresh air. While white feminists may disagree that this depiction is a positive one and insist that self-actualization is the only liberating motif for women in movies, Black female moviegoers have a far more visceral understanding of just what it means to be forced into self-actualization by virtue of societal demands. More specifically, Black women rarely see images of ourselves in the media that allow for others to support us; rather, both in film and in the world it imitates, we must silently bear others’ burdens. While white women can look to any fairy tale or popular romantic comedy to see themselves cared for in some version of the damsel in distress trope, Black women do not have this luxury.
Therefore, it cannot go unsaid that Django is one of few films that remind us we are not only deserving of love but also worthy of a partner risking everything to rescue us. To Tarantino’s credit, it is this sub-plot—and perhaps the film’s explosive finale—that serve as redeeming points in an otherwise psychologically exhausting bloodbath of Black limbs.