Django Unchained (2012), dir. Quentin Tarantino, Academy Award nominee for Best Picture
Inglourious Basterds (2009) is a paradigmatic example of postmodern film theory. Its hyper-realistic representation of pseudo-historical events distorts our understanding about the chronology of actual events taking place in history. What creates the confusion is the re-contextualization of the actual events, that is, the existence of actual historical characters that are doing the things they didn’t do in reality or the existence of fictional characters that are placed in the realms of actual historical event. Once you are confronted with a postmodern text (in this case film, which is also a form of text) you ought to forget about the history and immerse yourself into the world of fiction. This is actually what entails the problem Baudrillard and Jameson are talking about – the loss of historicity. This loss is reflected in media culture that offers only an illusion of a long lost history, in other words, the production of (history) simulacrum.
Plagiarism and distortion of history is nothing new, especially when it comes to cinema, however, in the case of Tarantino things go a bit haywire. Why? Well, it is one thing when you mistakenly confuse the years (as Affleck did in Argo, for example the Hollywood sign is shown damaged as it had been in the past, but it had actually been repaired in 1978, prior to the events described in the film) or you add certain events for the dramatic purposes (as we can see on the example of torture in Zero Dark Thirty which is allegedly not how CIA got to Bin Laden) but it is quite another when you take the most important event in the history of the world, known as World War II, and you radically distort the history of it changing the entire course of the events in the process. The main difference comes out of the fact that Inglourious Basterds is the figment of author’s imagination and the events that took place in Inglourious Basterds did not actually take place during the course of WWII. This was all done on purpose, and not as a consequence of director’s lack in research, as some might think (there are people who actually think that Inglourious Basterds portrays the real events). With Django Unchained (2012), Inglourious Basterds‘ unique follow up, Tarantino is picking up where he left of, which, give it enough time, might as well turn into a brand new film genre – breaking down of history (in the lack of better words). Both of these films are perfect examples of history distortion but also of intertextuality and reflexivity. For those who are not familiar with these notions, intertextuality is a literal presence in a text of another text, whereas reflexivity in cinema stands for employing cinematic devices that make its audience aware of the fact that they are watching a film.
Inglourious Basterds is a unique amalgamation of a war film with a spaghetti western. The intertextuality of this film is principally present through the existence of music used in the film. Most of the tracks, composed by Ennio Morricone, are taken from already existing westerns, which somehow strangely fit the images on the screen. Next, we have the question of the title. Inglourious Basterds takes its name from Italian Inglorious Bastards (1977) directed by Enzo Castellari. And apart from the title (although Tarantino’s version is slightly distorted) these two films have nothing in common, so, Inglourious Basterds, despite the popular opinion, is not a remake but a brand new original film which was, to some degree, influenced by Dirty Dozen (1976) and Good, Bad and Ugly (1967). Django Unchained is on the other hand a spaghetti western about slavery. And although this is a western, most of the music used in the film is not western ‘appropriate’ (most notably Unchained performed by James Brown and 2Pac, 100 black coffins by Rick Ross, Who Did That To You by John Legend or wonderful Freedom by Anthony Hamilton and Elayna Boynton), which is the opposite of Inglourious Basterds. The soundtrack was comprised from both the original pieces, created specifically for this film as mentioned above, and the tracks, composed again by Morricone and again taken from already existing films. In the spirit of the things Tarantino is doing again there is the question of the title, again. This time Tarantino took the title from Django (1966) Italian Western film directed by Sergio Corbucci starring Franco Nero in the leading role as Django (to my mind a very important detail which I will discuss a bit further in the text). Instead of distorting the title with simple change of letters like he did in Inglourious Basterds Tarantino kept the original title Django attaching the word unchained to it, which alludes to the main theme of the film – the slavery. And just like in the case of the Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchained is also not a remake and most certainly not a remake of Django but is instead an original film influenced by Fleischer’s Mandingo (1975) about a slave trained to fight other slaves, baptized by many critics as an outrageous movie but which Tarantino has often praised.
Before I go into the question of slavery and controversy surrounding this film I would like to single out one scene – described by most critics simply as Franco Nero’s cameo – that is to my mind perhaps the best scene of the entire film, a scene that can serve as a good intro for the N-word controversy. Close to the middle of the film we follow our main protagonists Dr. King Schultz (Christopher Waltz) and Django (Jamie Foxx) into the middle of a Madingo-like fight that is taking place in Calvin Candie’s (Leonardo Di Caprio) premises. Calvin Candie, the most notorious plantation owner in the South, has Django’s wife Broomhilda van Shaft (Kerry Washington) in his possession so Schultz makes a deal with Django to help him free his wife (granting them both freedom along the way) if Django in return helps the dentist-turned-bounty hunter Schultz identify three outlaws that go by the name of the Brittle brothers. Schultz and Django devise a plan to reach Broomhilda by posing as potential purchasers of a Mandingo fighter (for 12 000$). Considering that Schultz is a Caucasian it ‘stands to reason’ that he is the one who is doing all the negotiating with Candie despite the fact that Django, a free man, is an expert in Madingo fighting. Franco Nero, the original Django, is in this film, logically, a slave-owner and he had just lost a Madingo fight against Calvin Candie. Disappointed, he joins Django at the bar. The conversation they are taking part in goes like this:
Franco Nero: What is your name?
Jamie Foxx: Django.
Franco Nero: Can you spell it?
Jamie Foxx: D J A N G O. The D is silent.
Franco Nero: I know.
Nevermind the fact that this is one of the funniest scenes of the film, its importance however, doesn’t lie in its degree of humor but rather in the intertextuality I am talking about. The reason Franco Nero knows that the D is silent is because he too was Django some fifty years ago. But not only was he Django, he was a white Django. Looking at them now, sitting together at the bar, discussing their now shared name, is a highlight of the film that takes already complex things on a whole new level of complexity. The controversy surrounding the usage of N-word in this film is one of these complexities. There was a lot of complaints coming from the Black community who find the usage of the N-word offensive. Director Spike Lee even attacked Tarantino but without even seeing the film which I think is utterly absurd. First of all it is pretty much impossible to make a film about slavery without using the N- word. Yes, at certain points it is very hard to watch and yes, it depicts the treatment of slaves in a very graphic fashion. Sadly it was a harsh reality during this time period, and therefore tiptoeing around the subject matter would have been more disrespectful for the film rather than for it to face it head on. Slavery isn’t really something you can or should sugarcoat. And why would you? Next, Django and Schultz don’t bound to no one, from racist plantation owners and lawmen to the KKK, who are depicted in this film as a bunch of bumbling idiots. If anyone should be offended it should be the white folks, or to be politically correct, Caucasians. There is also a brilliant scene happening at Colonel Sander’s plantation when he asks one of his slave-girls to show Django around but to treat him as a free man, which Django is.
Big Daddy: Django isn’t a slave. Django is a free man. You understand? You can’t treat him like any of these other niggers around here, cause he ain’t like any of these other niggers around here. Ya got it?
Betina: You wan’ I should treat him like white folks?
Big Daddy: No. That’s not what I said.
Betina: Then I don’t know what’cha want, Big Daddy
Big Daddy: Yes? I can see that….hm..What’s the name of that peckerwood boy from town that works with the glass..ahm..his momma work over at the lumberyard
Big Daddy’s Slave: Oh you mean Jerry.
Big Daddy: That’s the boy’s name! Jerry! You know Jerry, don’t you sugar?
Betina: Yes, Big Daddy.
Big Daddy: Well, that’s it then. You just treat him like you would Jerry.
This scene has twofold meaning. First it shows the gravity of the time and inability to deal with the new situation Big Daddy and Betina, Big Daddy’s slave-girl, found themselves in. Django, a black man, is also a free man. This is basically a paradox because his freedom doesn’t put him on an equal footing with the rest of the white folks because in their eyes he is well, to put it bluntly, not white and therefore cannot be treated as one despite his freedom. Furthermore, he assumed the role of a valet, which therefore means that although he is free, he is still at his master’s service. The second importance of this scene lies in the characterization of Big Daddy. He is portrayed as nice, kind slave-owner (if that can even be said), who looks just like Colonel Sanders, the happiest and kindest man alive only so he would right in the next scene turn into a leader of pre-KKK group called The Regulators. Need I say more?
Next, let me go back to the D is silent scene. This scene is a very good example of reflexivity (the third aspect of Tarantino films) because Franco Nero broke his character of a slave-owner when he briefly stepped into his former character of Django. Reflexivity is Tarantino’s trademark. In Reservoir Dogs (1992) the question of the ear alludes to Blue Velvet (1987) while the character that performs the act of cutting is called Mister Blonde (names appropriated from The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974)) or Vic Vega, as we later find out, a name that strangely resembles John Travolta’s character Vincent Vega from Pulp Fiction (1994). After the song Stuck in the Middle With You is done we can hear the commercial for Jack Rabbit Slim’s, a restaurant where now famous dance scene of Pulp Fiction takes place. Joe, the leader of the gang, portrayed by Lawrence Tierney who also played John Dillinger in Dillinger (1945) remarks that Mister Orange is dead as Dillinger. Jack Scagnetti from Natural Born Killers (1994) is the nephew of Seymore Scagnetti, who is Vic Vega’s parole officer in Reservoir Dogs. In Pulp Fiction Vincent Vega and Jules Winnfield are stepping back into the characters of cold-blooded killers after the brief foot-massage talk. In Inglourious Basterds the ahistorical end of WWII takes place in the cinema, the end of the war is announced via the cinema screen and most of the characters are actors, cinema owners or film critics. For example Fredric Zoller (Daniel Bruhl) a German sniper is also a star of German Nazi propaganda films, Shosanna (Melanie Laurent) runs the small cinema in Paris and film critic of German cinema Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender) is now a Lieutenant (who dies in a Mexican Standoff). In Django Unchained reflexivity, apart from Nero’s cameo, can be found in various moments throughout the film with both Schultz and Django stepping in and out of different characters by the means of costumes they are choosing for themselves at will, which is at times quite funny. The most notable example of this is of course Django’s character of King Schultz’s valet which he embodies through the Fauntleroy suit which is basically a formal outfit for a boy composed of a hip-length jacket and knee-length pants, often in blue velvet, a wide, lacy collar and cuffs. Three things come to mind with this suite: (a) Thomas Gainsborough’s The Blue Boy (1770), (b) Francisco Goya’s Blue Boy (1783) and (c) Little Lord Fauntleroy a children’s novel written by English playwright and author Frances H. Burnett (The Fauntleroy suit, so well-described by Burnett and realized in Reginald Birch’s detailed pen and ink drawings, created a fad for formal dress for American middle-class children “What the Earl saw was a graceful, childish figure in a black velvet suit, with a lace collar, and with lovelocks waving about the handsome, manly little face, whose eyes met his with a look of innocent good-fellowship.” (Little Lord Fauntleroy)). Other good examples are Django’s green jacket mimicking Little Joe from Bonanza, sunglasses that were actually replicas of Charles Bronson’s from The White Buffalo and Don Johnson’s Big Daddy look as a juncture of Miami Vice (Johnson played detective James “Sony” Crockett who epitomized the dress style – linen white pants, T-shirts under white Armani jacket- that became a hallmark of the series and had a huge impact on menswear in the 1980s), and Colonel Sanders (the founder and the official face of Kentucky Fried Chicken).
As for the amount of blood, Django Unchained doesn’t go awry, the last act is literally painted in red. Tarantino’s way of portraying violence in a manner of trash horror films doesn’t really bother me. In fact, I welcome it because for one, it is usually done by mimicking a Mexican standoff, which I personally find brilliant; second, there is always that aspect of emphasizing the level of violence that consequently annuls it which is far better than not showing it like in the case of the ear cutting in Reservoir Dogs when the actual act of violence was left for the audience to imagine, and, let’s be honest, there is nothing worse than that. As for the actors, well, the ambiguity of the leading character in Inglourious Basterds is something Tarantino ‘corrected’ this time around giving the lead to Jamie Foxx although it was the brilliant Christoph Waltz who, just like in Inglourious Basterds as SD Colonel Hans Landa, absolutely dominated the screen as a German dentist, dr. Schultz.
A German, Hans Landa himself, freeing a slave called Django; a slave dropping the controversial N-word wherever he goes; a N-girl treating fancy pants former-slave-turned-bounty-hunter as Jerry and not as a full-equal W-man; a pre-KKK rant on the hood design and their inability to actually see the N in the dark; a slave wife called Broomhilda von Shaft (Broomhilda as for Brünnhilde from Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung and Shaft as in John Shaft, the prominent character of Blaxploitation genre that emerged in the 1970s?) who can speak German and is kept imprisoned by the Shaft himself (Samuel L. Jackson who brilliantly portrays Stephen, Candies slave and disturbingly, his best friend) etc. I think I have seen everything now. That is, until the next Tarantino film, which I will wait for with anticipation and utmost excitement.
In conclusion, this is not a very good film (and here you can read my thoughts as to why) but it is definitely an interesting one.
text written by: Monika Ponjavic