Tarantino ‘Unchained,’ Part 3: White Saviors

In the last of a Q&A series, the director rejects the idea that Django fits into that old Hollywood trope.

Christoph Waltz and Jamie Foxx in Django (Weinstein Co.)
Christoph Waltz and Jamie Foxx in Django (Weinstein Co.)

(The Root) — Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained is about a slave named Django (Jamie Foxx) who gains his freedom and becomes a bounty hunter with the help of Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). They travel (under a ruse developed by Schultz) to Mississippi to free Django’s wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), from evil plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).

Despite how that brief synopsis might make it seem, Django is absolutely not, Tarantino tells The Root Editor-in-Chief Henry Louis Gates Jr., a “white-savior tale.” In the last of a three-part interview series, the writer and director explains in detail the real reason that Django and Schultz’s relationship unfolds the way it does, and when and why the power shifts (possible spoilers).

Henry Louis Gates Jr.: The history of Hollywood is replete with black Christ figures, and we can just list them off the top of our heads. Why did you decide to make Dr. King Schultz the Christ figure?

Quentin Tarantino: Here’s the thing. There was actually some talk when the script got out there. Some people were speculating, is Schultz the white-savior character? He whips [out] a magic wand and Django is able to do this and he’s able to do that and he’s able to do the other thing, but all because Schultz allows him to do it.

And you know, I completely did not think that that was applicable to my story. But the thing is, it’s actually kind of interesting at the same time. While I’m telling a black story, I’m also telling a Western. And I have Western conventions on my side to help tell my story.

HLG: In fact, I call it a postmodern, slave-narrative Western.

QT: I’ll buy that. But you know, one of the tropes of Westerns and telling a story like this is you have an experienced gunfighter who meets the young cowpoke who has some mission that he has to accomplish, and it’s the old, experienced gunfighter who teaches him the tricks of the trade: teaches him how to draw his gun, teaches him how to kill.

Whether it be Kirk Douglas teaching young William Campbell in Man Without a Star or Brian Keith teaching Steve McQueen in Nevada Smith, or actually most of Lee Van Cleef’s spaghetti Westerns that aren’t with Sergio Leone — that’s kind of Van Cleef’s role. Now, you go to the kung fu films — that’s always the case. There’s an older guy teaching the younger guy and sending him on a vengeance journey.

HLG: It’s a fundamental trope of the genre.

QT: Absolutely. So I’m falling back on that. However, knowing you have the history of cinema where, OK, this is a movie about Stephen Biko, but we’re telling it through Kevin Kline’s eyes — that kind of situation — I actually was hoping to get a little bit of narrative anxiety going on about halfway through the movie: Wait, is this just going to be Schultz doing everything? What’s going on here?

Hopefully, if you’re unbiased, from where I’m coming from, it makes sense how the whole first part of the story’s going. But when is Django going to be the hero? Because truthfully, in the first half of the story, he is Schultz’s sidekick. But to me that’s OK.