A look at race relations in Quentin Tarantino’s curious revenge fantasy
By T.T. Stern-Enzi
Art – the best and the worst of the various forms – challenges audiences. It offers reflections that ping-pong from the surreal to the mundane, the radiantly abstract to the common, which at times can seem quite vulgar in their uncovering of ugliness of the routine thoughts and feelings that we bury deep within. Film exposes the sight and sound of blood and gore, our hunger for the taste and texture of the insides of our gaping wounds, yet what it does best, sometimes, is lay bare the psychic scars that we never address in meaningful ways.
Quentin Tarantino, as a filmmaker, has proven to be a master of homage, an acolyte of the exploitative fringe with a dazzling facility to use words as weapons. His characters bite vicious chunks out of themselves and others with such speed and finesse that we, in the audience, struggle to register appropriate responses to the attacks. Pain and pleasure lead to uncomfortable laughs, rife with the knowledge that our immediate expressions of feelings can’t be right or true in any binary sense.
Which might go a long way towards explaining the reactions stirred by his latest film, “Django Unchained,” a meandering revenge saga about the titular freed slave (Jamie Foxx) who teams up with a German dentist/bounty hunter named Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) to collect some cash for killing some white folks, while in search of his long-lost wife Broomhilda von Shaft (Kerry Washington). Django and Schultz are not your typical black and white buddy combo, in large part due to the fact that the movie is set two years before the Civil War – a time in which not even the most enlightened European would be able to form such a partnership with a black man and travel openly throughout the South. But this is Tarantino-world, so it is best to simply sit back and go along for the wild ride.
As such, Schultz becomes a mentor to Django, forced to teach him some rather uncomfortable lessons about the bounty hunting trade. At one point, Schultz has Django shoot a man down in front of his own son (with the unspoken shades of “Kill Bill” hovering over the frame) in order to steel him for situations to come. Life is hard and brutal and revenge, it is true, is a dish best served cold. Intriguingly, the dynamic between Schultz and Django, while easy and companionable, never veers towards the paternalistic. They are co-workers whose relationship naturally shifts into a partnership of equals.
A flipside exists, though, in the pair of Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) – the owner of Candie Land, the plantation where Django and Schultz locate Broomhilda – and Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson) – the head slave in charge of the plantation. Stephen, obviously, has been around Candie Land throughout the younger Candie’s life and there is an uneasy alliance between master and servant that blurs the nature of their formal social roles and the sense of intimacy between them. Stephen is the eyes and ears of Calvin Candie in all facets of the plantation’s affairs. Candie Land is Stephen’s playground, as much as it is Calvin’s, except Stephen is not a truly free man. Rather than his life being his own (as Django secures for himself through his partnership with Schultz), Stephen is chained to Calvin and Candie Land.
Immediately following the screening of “Django Unchained” that I attended, I tweeted (a breathtakingly new activity for me that is slowly becoming secondhand) that Stephen is a remarkable live-action version of Uncle Ruckus from “The Boondocks.” Stephen and Ruckus take the idea of being an Uncle Tom far beyond a role; it becomes the basis of identity, the foundation of their souls, the very thing that makes life worth living.
Tarantino, in his grand and all-encompassing love of homage, samples and recontextualizes these dynamics and presents them in a new, oddly familiar reflective framework, but it still requires us to do a bit of work, discomfiting maybe, but necessary. We must break free of our chains and open ourselves to it.
Reach DCP film critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at Film@DaytonCityPaper.com