First things first: I’m a big fan of Quentin Tarantino’s work. His first three films were a crucial part of my nascent cinephilia. I fashioned a fake beard out of my own hair and some Pritt Stick to aid my entry into a screening of Kill Bill Vol. 1 six months before I turned eighteen, probably six years before I actually looked old enough to be sold a ticket. I once sat and took minutely-detailed notes on every aspect of Death Proof – the film that many people, including Tarantino himself, claim as his worst – the better to fashion a defence of it as his best film of the past fifteen years. I wasn’t totally sold on Inglourious Basterds upon first viewing, but with some greater sense of what it’s really about have come around on rewatches, although I still consider it his weakest and most problematic. At least, I did until seeing Django Unchained earlier tonight, about which I don’t know quite what to think.
There are a lot of variables at play in Django compared with the rest of Tarantino’s body of work. Most notably, it’s the first film he’s made since the untimely death of Sally Menke, who edited all of his previous films and with whom he formed one of the great director-editor partnerships, comparable to Scorsese and Schoonmaker. On top of that, it’s the first film he’s made since Reservoir Dogs without a strong female protagonist – the only woman given significant screen time is Django’s wife Broomhilda, and she’s explicitly fashioned as a damsel in distress straight out of Germanic myth (by the by, if anyone has any leads on why her name is spelled like that and not Brünnhilde or similar, I’m all ears) – and without chapters or other title cards delineating discrete sections. Related to that latter point, it’s the only entry in his filmography as director besides Death Proof that is more or less entirely chronologically linear, barring brief (i.e. seconds long) flashes of Django and Broomhilda’s lives as slaves (and even Death Proof was initially, of course, part of the scrambled chronology of the wider Grindhouse project). However much each of these factors contributes individually, the totality is a film that, of Tarantino’s seven feature-length directorial efforts (eight if you count Kill Bill as two films), feels the least like a Tarantino film and the most like it could have been made by, if not anyone else, at least a keen-eyed mimic. Its blood-spattered climax has one thing in common with Inglourious Basterds, at least: In the sheer gratuitousness of its violence, it threatens to tip Tarantino over into self-parody.
It’s also arguably the first of his ‘vengeance’ films that doesn’t specifically anchor its mayhem to one particular aspect of film history, following Kill Bill‘s addressing of the lack of female role models in western action cinema, Death Proof‘s redressing of misogynistic slasher movie tropes and Inglourious Basterds‘ take on how film can shape and even alter history. It occurred to me around the time that faux-Francophile plantation owner Calvin Candie is informed that Alexandre Dumas was black and therefore unlikely to approve of Candie’s grotesque ‘mandingo’ fights that there might be something in seeing the film’s take on slavery as a symbolic attack on anyone who would claim ownership of cultures other than their own: Candie demanding to be addressed as ‘monsieur’ without speaking another word of French, favoured slave Stephen siding with his white masters over his fellow black prisoners. Since I didn’t think of it until after the halfway point, that interpretation would require a rewatch to nail down fully, but at least it would provide an explanation for the film’s subject matter beyond Tarantino taking it upon himself to avenge the entire concept of slavery, which is where things start to get really problematic.
There’s an interview with Tarantino amongst the extras on the Jackie Brown DVD in which he describes hanging out in a cinema in a predominantly black neighbourhood on Jackie Brown‘s opening weekend to get a sense of the audience’s reaction. He relates seeing a middle-aged black woman – whom, if memory serves, he explicitly compares to Jackie Brown herself – leave one screen and recognise a friend of hers leaving another, before launching into a sitcom-worthy impression of the woman (again, I’m paraphrasing): ‘Hey girlfriend! What you just see? Jackie Brown? Me too! Oh, wasn’t it good?’ That woman’s enjoyment of the film, he concludes, meant he had done his job properly. I could not get that interview – a story whose heart is in the right place but whose telling is chronically, cringingly discordant – out of my head while watching Django Unchained.
I’m no more qualified to comment on cinematic depictions of slavery than Tarantino is, so far be it from me to say he’s doing it wrong. It seems counterintuitive, though, to on the one hand look to redress the balance of depictions of black American history by casting a slave who sees no down side to ‘getting paid to kill white folks’ as an avenging angel, and on the other mine laughs (going by the reactions of the audience with which I saw it, at least) from the incongruity of Django’s clothes, or the bustling way a mammy runs, or, in places, essentially ‘listen to the funny way these people talk’. That’s not to say race has to be dealt with delicately or with a poker face – God knows, if I might invoke perpetual thorn in Tarantino’s side Spike Lee, Do The Right Thing does neither and it’s still one of the greatest depictions of race relations in all of American cinema – but a white man making a film about slavery should nevertheless be aware that he has to tread extremely carefully. With Django, Tarantino effectively stages a rodeo in a minefield.
Which brings me back to the whole idea of the film really being about the woe that betides anyone trying to appropriate any culture other than their own, and why I’m having so much trouble pinning down how I feel about Django. If that theme’s presence is in fact intentional, then I can’t imagine the irony of his telling this particular story didn’t occur to Tarantino at any point during production, especially given his prior feature-length discourse on the power of cinema to mould the public perception of history, but then I can’t square that with some of what he depicts. Maybe that’s the whole point and the entire film is one big piece of performance art to prove that point, Death Proof without a neat delineation between subject and critique. If it’s unintentional, then it’s a film unwittingly at war with itself, Tarantino seizing control of narratives about slavery without a thought of the implications of doing so even as he condemns that type of behaviour in his characters.
I’ll say this though: Even if my initial reaction to it as Tarantino’s weakest film by some distance sticks, I’m still glad it exists, and exists the way it does. If I might be so self-indulgent as to quote what I wrote on Death Proof a couple of years back and linked to above: ‘I’m fairly certain that Tarantino is too good a film-maker to make a wholly bad film – if he ever bombs, he’s going to bomb spectacularly in a way that certainly won’t be boring to watch’. Wherever I end up on Django, he still hasn’t done anything to disprove me.