Even though Django Unchained held my attention for its two hour and forty-five minute running time and made me laugh along the way,1 I have qualms with its egregious violence. I don’t have a problem with violence in film generally, and usually, I am a pretty avid Tarantino fan; needless to say, I don’t protest someone cutting off someone else’s ear, or ripping someone’s eyeball from its socket.
I do think much of the violence in Django works well and is even necessary to the story. I don’t, for example, have a problem with the scene in which the Brittle brothers relentlessly whip Hilda. Or when Django lashes one Brittle brother to oblivion before shooting him. I don’t have a problem with D’Artagnan fighting another slave to entertain their master, Candie, and then smashing his opponent’s skull in with a hammer. I don’t have a problem with the pack of dogs eviscerating D’Artagnan. And I don’t have a problem with Dr. King Schultz killing Calvin Candie (or anyone on his bounty list).
Of course I have a problem with it. Most of these scenes—particularly D’Artagnan’s brutal fight with another slave and his later demise at the hands (teeth) of dogs—nauseated me. But that’s okay—we should be nauseated by these scenes, and nausea isn’t an indication that the film is problematic. The thing about the aforementioned scenes is they make sense within the context of the story and we can thus understand and even advocate their inclusion.
For example, considering the story takes place in 1858, we expect the Brittle brothers to whip Hilda after she ran away. And though sicking dogs on your aberrant slave seems egregious, it’s conceivably an action an egregious individual such as Candie would take. Similarly, I can understand two slaves fighting to the death simply to entertain their master, because their master wouldn’t view them as human beings but as his property, with which he can do what he likes.
And I can similarly understand other acts of violence because they are born in moments of passion: i.e. Django ruthlessly whips one Brittle brother for exacting harm on his wife, Hilda; Schultz kills Candie because he is so disgusted with Candie as a human being and Candie’s threat to kill Hilda if he doesn’t get a goddamn handshake pushes Schultz over the edge.2 Regarding Schultz killing many men as a bounty hunter, he was serving what he believed was his civic duty, and he believed these men were bad, having committed felony offenses, and having done so, forfeited their right to life.
The violence I do have a problem with is that which I do not believe serves the film’s story: Django sanctioning Candie’s violent murder of D’Artagnan by way of angry dogs; Django murdering the three white men who had agreed to free him; and Django murdering every white person in sight on Candie’s land.
Schultz was going to rescue D’Artagnan, willing to “reimburse” Candie for the money he would lose as a consequence of D’Artagnan’s refusal to continue fighting. Candie is ready to turn D’Artagnan safely over to Schultz, but Django says no, D’Artagnan is a worthless slave he and Schultz have no use for. When Candie asks Django whether he has any objection to Candie dealing with D’Artagnan any way he sees fit, Django tells him to do with his slave as he wishes. Yes, Candie is the one who sicks the dogs on D’Artagnan. But he’s a slave owner indoctrinated with the racist views of his time. He’s our antagonist. Thus, I expect him to behave badly. Django, on the other hand, is our protagonist, and as such, I expect better of him. And because he is a former slave, I expect him to sympathize and empathize with other slaves. But he doesn’t.
Similarly problematic is the scene in which Django murders the three white men who had agreed to free him and accompany him to Candie’s plantation to capture an outlaw for bounty. Django manipulates those men into freeing him, which is fine and understandable. But to convince them to trust him, and then to so deplorably betray that trust by murdering them is not only unnecessary, it’s despicable. They posed no immediate threat, willingly gave him a gun, and agreed to help him.
By killing those men, Django violates the most basic agreement of civilized society: “I can trust you not to kill me and you can trust me not to kill you.” Django’s ruthless behavior suggests a senseless, irrational world where no one empathizes with anyone, no one can trust anyone, and your life is constantly in jeopardy.3
When Django returns to the Candie Land, he murders every white person he sees4 regardless of whether or not they had wronged him.5 Murdering almost everyone on the estate exacerbates the problem cited above in addition to perpetuating the dangerous “us vs. them” mentality. Pitting yourself against others, refusing to empathize with them, and refusing to even view them as human beings with a right to life and happiness are what lead to the normalization of abominable practices such as slavery in the first place. And what good is revising history merely as a revenge fantasy that perpetuates the problems it sets out to solve?
In the end, Django is a ruthless, vindictive, conniving, self-righteous, self-entitled character bereft of empathy. He’s no different from his persecutors. By portraying him as the protagonist, his shitty actions are glorified. His eradication of an entire estate is glorified. His manipulation and subsequent murder of men who were willing to help him are glorified. His cold-hearted refusal to save a man in peril is glorified. This movie, whether it intends to or not, suggests our lives are so precarious we can trust no one, and the only way to survive is to be self-serving and ruthless.
The New Yorker recently published a great review of Django Unchained that echoes my own qualms with the film’s moral depravity. Read it here.
1. i.e. the Ku Klux Klan bickering about one member’s wife doing a shoddy job cutting eye holes in the bags they wore on their heads, leaving them all virtually blind.
2. Though, I wish Schultz hadn’t killed Candie, because that incident is what set the whole bombastic violent last act in motion.
3. Certainly enough to induce anxiety and perhaps even leave you flailing in existential despair.
4. Plus Stephen, but that’s a different matter, as Stephen is the catalyst for all hell breaking loose, having informed Candie of Django and Schultz’s plan.
5. Candie’s sister Lara in particular comes to mind.