Last week, Django Unchained received some Oscar nominations. Not even waiting until Seth McFarlane’s Oscar night for the usual offenses — Billy Crystal in blackface, showing the KFC clip from precious before panning to every black actor in the room — the Academy gave none of the black cast any nominations, only Christoph Waltz, who already received an Oscar when he played the same role as a Nazi (ditto the Golden Globes, which he took home again Sunday night). The whole thing cements the A-list status of a movie built on B-pictures, none of which the Oscars would ever bother acknowledging, and it’s worth exploring why.
Much like Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchained is a compelling mess, one that uses genre nerdery to riff on the ways cultural delegitimization is as important to racist power structures as violent oppression. Like Basterds, it takes Tarantino’s once primarily referential gabfests and gives it a weighty historical context that alters the subtext of his verbal circle jerks. In Basterds, the insufferable “Beatles or Elvis?” debates from Pulp Fiction were given life-or-death stakes, referential bullshitting as the ultimate poker’s bluff to evade a Nazi death sentence. Django, while giving, like, 80 percent of the dialogue to whites in a vengeance narrative about slavery, provides a sort of autocritique in which Tarantino’s wordplay only serves to expose the ways in which the slave-owning class manipulated science, language, and hospitality to justify slavery as a rightful property of white “civilization.”
Still, the air of novelty with which his conceits are adorned are dubious. As Aisha Harris pointed out in “When Blaxploitation went West,” not only was the avenging slave narrative already given the spaghetti treatment, but also in far more radical fashion. Now, Tarantino is probably the only A-list filmmaker to have watched/cared about every single Black Western that came out in the ’70s, and he’s open about his passion for exploitation cinema; so it’s not a secret. But that doesn’t mean that Fred Williamson’s Boss Trilogy will be coming out on Rolling Thunder home video any time soon. While this list is by no means comprehensive or revelatory, it’s worth it to look at the ways in which the not-bad Django Unchained is still somehow less than the sum of its parts.
The ruse by which Django and Schulz pose as slave fighter purchasers to get into boss-level plantation Candyland involves a grotesque slave-sparring sport called Mandingo Fighting, something like Invisible Man’s boxing riff taken to a Mad Max extreme, all the more odd for its relaxed, backroom gambling den setting. The sport comes from Mandingo, as does the de-romanticized, perverse depiction of plantation life. While Tarantino’s grindhouse rep suggested his avenging slave narrative would be tasteless and offensive, one has to watch Mandingo to see just how mannered and restrained Tarantino’s approach actually is. A bitter, caustic response to Gone with the Wind, Mandingo presents the sexual mores and absurd practices of the plantation as all part of one ugly capitalist endeavor, a Pasolini’s Salo filtered through Beyond the Green Door with rape, slave breeding, and Christian morals.
Similar to how Basterds presents an avenging Jew narrative in Nazi-occupied France that ignores the French Resistance, Unchained ignores the abolition movement so that Monsieur Candie can give a fittingly insane speech about phrenology — or the long-debunked science of brain bumps. Candie asserts slaves are naturally complacent, and given that the only time the viewer sees slaves (other than Django) resisting is when a slave gets caught escaping, his phrenological theories are ostensibly bolstered. But Mandingo exposes the complications of slave revolt, like how it was on the tips of everyone’s tongues but hard to act on as slaves were outgunned by the plantation owners and even simple tasks like reading had to be done in the shadows. In Mandingo, the first instance of slaves in private congress involves a firelight discussion about revolt that takes place at the same time one character is learning how to read. However he gets caught and the plot dissolves. Though the “Kiss my Ass” speech by the slave when he gets lynched is pure poetry. See also:
The Great Silence
While Django Unchained borrows the theme and name from Sergio Corbucci’s Django, the snow-capped mid-section and major German bounty hunter character, played by Christoph Waltz, owe more to The Great Silence. Considered Corbucci’s masterpiece, The Great Silence is an ultra-cynical anarcho-western questioning the idea of justice when law is just state-sanctioned violence. While character Schultz makes bounty hunting a charming sport, only briefly questioned by Django when put on the defensive about his realist tactics at Candyland, Klaus Kinski’s Loco, of Silence, makes nothing charming about his usage of the law to accrue profit for corpses. It’s instead a symbol of systemic decay.
Kerry Washington’s character in Django, Broomhilda, is also a marked departure from both Tarantino’s strong women and nearly an inversion of Silence’s Pauline, a vocal, forward woman whose black husband is killed by Loco because he is a wanted man — though his wanted status wouldn’t have been implemented without the adverse conditions created by structural inequality. There is surprise expressed at how his black flesh is worth as much as white flesh, and the post-slavery proceedings are indicative of black vulnerability post-emancipation. The ending here is opposite of Django’s cathartic release, and while I won’t spoil it, its bleakness undercuts the notion of vengeance in a system that is beyond fucked.
First, listen to this film’s theme. Now, obviously Tarantino couldn’t get away with using it for the Django Unchained trailer, but it is indicative of how dull the edge of his middlebrow-peddling can be when he resorts to the most obvious James Brown song outside of “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag.” Much like how Brown’s score for blaxploitation film Black Caesar invades the tired Disney-fied Little Italy of the Godfather theme, the score for Boss funks up the Frankie Lane tradition of mythic, overblown balladry, a missed opportunity in the still enjoyably themed previous year’s Blazing Saddles (which may be coming to Broadway).
In Boss, Fred Willamson and (Dolemite director) D’Urville Martin star as slaves-turned-bounty hunters who elect themselves sheriff of a small white town in hopes of capturing a white outlaw. What transpires is far less moody in its contemplation than the previous two, but as a comedy of race relations turned upside down, it’s sharp and biting in its breezy satire. For instance take this joke, seen in the trailer, where Boss’ deputy, Amos, talks down the white mayor for interrupting with business while he’s dining. Boss asks Amos where he learned to talk like that, to which Amos responds that he heard his master say it and has been waiting eight years to use it. It’s a jokey acknowledgement of the bullshit behind “civilized” formalities and a canny nod to the way in which slaves taught themselves the “ways of the master” when it was illegal. Unlike Django, Boss is self-taught and doesn’t require the paternal assistance of a well-meaning white man to come into his own.
Lincoln Washington: Free Man
The entitlement with which Tarantino wants America to confront its past (via well-worn, violent genre tropes) still commits the unfortunate problem of relegating the conversation to slavery, as if the horror of systematized white violence ended after the civil war. That, and its evasion of the abolition movement, links it to Spielberg’s current Lincoln, which suggests the radicalism of abolitionists needed to be tempered for pragmatic, backdoor compromises. In actuality, as pointed out in a variety of places, emancipation owed a lot more to radicals than to the 13th Amendment, which passed without much to guarantee the safety of blacks outside of freedom; that lack of guaranteed safety net led to the violence and disenfranchisement in the years following.
This is something which Ben Marra’s controversial cheapie, grindhouse comic Lincoln Washington: Free Man, partially addresses by setting the action during Reconstruction. More tasteless and offensive than Tarantino’s harshest critics’ fears, Lincoln Washington is violent, sadistic, perverse, and even fantastical in the superheroic abilities imbued in its titular character. Washington is a free man whose vengeance against his master for the rape and murder of his wife won’t bring her back, and thus he vows to a live in peaceful solitude on a plot of land he deems owed to him. White folk don’t see it the same way, though, and the KKK end up driving Lincoln out of pacifism and into limb-tearing Rambo-mode. While committing a lot of the same sins as Django Unchained and then some, its birth and climax awash in violence, Lincoln Washington offers no catharsis in dismantling the master’s house when the master’s country will still find ways to turn pockets of itself into plantations.
One underdiscussed precedent to Django Unchained is Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s German Western Whity, a film’s whose titular character (a mulatto house slave far more sympathetic than Samuel L. Jackson’s arch-villain Uncle Tom Stephen in Django), must negotiate the scheming airs and sexual perversions of the Nicholson family plantation. The violent sexual uses of the plantation eventually turn to murderous ones in a bid for the patriarch’s estate — touching on Stockholm syndrome, Oedipal hysteria, and the deep psychological trauma of systemic racism.
Fassbinder juggles multiple Italian powerhouses; for instance, he removes the divine force from Pier Paolo Pasolini’s seductively destructive Teorema – making Whity’s role in the princely Terence Stamp part into a blank slate for which psychologically damaged whites used slaves. Whity is the only one whose skin isn’t tampered with; the rest of the cast is either adorned with darkened blotches or a ghostly pallor of Mario Bava-like make-up pushing the aristocratic dissolution of Luchino Vischonti’s The Leopard to undead extremes.
Most interesting is where the trademark, swirling Sergio Leone tracking shot is put to use, such as the moment where Whity attempts to normalize himself by offering cash instead of love to the local prostitute, or the part where the Nicholson patriarch reads out his will to a darkened room of sickly heirs. When the family discusses giving more rights to “Negroes,” which is followed by a scene in which mother and son prank Whity by randomly asking him to come in for mindless tasks, it imbues the eventual destruction of the final shootout with a pained release (contrary to Django‘s mindless catharsis) as it exposes rights given (like Lincoln‘s 13th Amendment history lesson) over the rights taken as one of many dehumanizing compromises.