‘Django Unchained’: A Postracial Epic?

Quentin Tarantino's brutal film may center on a superhero slave, but any deeper meaning is arguable.

Movie still of Jamie Foxx and Kerry Washington (IMDB)

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Let’s all agree up front that a film about a newly freed slave enacting revenge on those who abused him and his wife can seem problematic when the director is a white man. There is no way around this. As illustrated by the critics who disagreed with having Steven Spielberg produce and direct Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, the white-black dynamic is an odd coupling, and not every filmmaker would be able to correctly capture the characters’ speech patterns or have the appropriate racial sensitivity. (Perhaps that’s partly why the Dino De Laurentiis-produced Mandingo is so hard to watch. The 1975 film’s slavery story is shockingly atrocious.)

And while I thought Tarantino made Django an easy hero, the protagonist wasn’t very nuanced. He is the strong and silent type, though Foxx’s naturally big presence makes it easy to root for him.

On the other hand, DiCaprio’s character has numerous fizzy one-liners, Schultz is hilariously verbose and Jackson’s wily house Negro is despicably cunning enough to make viewers really hate him. Elsewhere, Washington’s Hildy had, perhaps, a paragraph of dialogue in the entire film. In hindsight, Django doesn’t seem to be told from Django’s perspective, and somehow I know if another director, like Spike Lee, had made this film, it would have been much different.

Though the slave trade is the backdrop for the film, Tarantino establishes early on that the racist calling cards of the mid-1800s are silly. In the beginning, Waltz’s character, after buying Django and freeing his fellow slaves, says that he doesn’t agree with slavery, but for the sake of his needs, he’s enlisting Django’s help to find his bounty marks. There, Tarantino sets the film’s tone, which seems to say, “Racism is ridiculous, but just go with me.”

In another scene, Django and Schultz are chased by a Ku Klux Klan group, led by Miami Vice veteran Don Johnson, and perched on horses, the members spend 10 minutes fussing that they can’t see through their masks because one member’s wife is not the best seamstress and didn’t cut proper holes. It’s hilarious.

In another scene, DiCaprio’s plantation owner, Candie, asks for his German-speaking slave, Hildy, and when he’s rebuffed because she’s busy being punished for trying to run away again, he orders her produced because “What’s the point of having a German-speaking n–ger if you can’t trot them out when you have guests?” Again, I found this funny, though the language and situation made me cringe.