Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained is a clever and insidious cipher. Through its ambiguities, contradictions, evasions, and doubled-consciousness, its dense imagery counterintuitively constructs a blank screen onto which various audiences can project their own fantasies. But these fantasies themselves are split between politically correct and socially determined responses, and far deeper, atavistic, and darker impulses the film deliberately pricks but does not resolve.
Tarantino is obsessed with film history and specializes in the generic mash-up. His are films about being films, deliberately derivative collages.
Django misleadingly announces itself in its opening sequence as a "spaghetti western," exemplified by director Sergio Leone and composer Ennio Morricone. Tarantino has aped some of Leone's sequences and lifted Morricone passages before. His new film derives its name directly from Sergio Corbucci's 1966 Django, perhaps the most violent of all spaghetti westerns.
But actually, Django Unchained is a reinvention of 1970s "blaxploitation." Tarantino has tapped into this genre before in several films, most notably Jackie Brown. His last film, Inglourious Basterds, is named after Quel maledetto treno blindato, a 1978 World War II flick that included Fred Williamson in a classic blaxploitation role.
Django owes most to the 1975 potboiler Mandingo. Not only are primary themes and tropes lifted directly from Mandingo, entire scenes and settings are virtually replicated. Django comes very close to being a remake of Mandingo, with spaghetti westerns, Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven, and other sources added in.
But Django operates in a radically different cultural environment than Mandingo did in 1975. With Barack Obama in the White House, there's no need to have a runaway slave declare, "This is much our land as it is your'n. And after you hang me, kiss my ass!" That much has been established.
Django isn't a particularly violent film by Tarantino or Hollywood standards. And it pales in comparison to Cormac McCarthy's blood-soaked masterpiece novel Blood Meridian. But it is a highly sadistic one.
Django is a revenge fantasy. Along with love stories, these are the oldest, most ubiquitous human narratives. In Western culture, the thread runs from The Iliad to Hamlet, from Rambo to gangsta rap.
Inglourious Basterds was a revenge fantasy about the pleasure of killing Nazi Germans. And Dr. Schultz -- the bounty hunting German dentist in Django who is metaphorically extracting the putrefaction from America's rotten maw -- functions as a kind of apology. Nonetheless, in the terms of a mercifully passé school of criticism, the only good white man in the film is, indeed, a dead one.
Everyone with a sense of justice roots for the revenge of the underdog. And there must always be a kind of catharsis in seeing violent retribution exacted on the likes of slavers.
But there is a more insidious dynamic at work in Django, just as there was in Mandingo and contemporaneous Holocaust films of the 70s. The elaborate and lingering depiction of sadistic white power over black bodies invokes not only indulgence in the vicarious pleasures of cruelty, but more specifically provokes a liminal nostalgia for the deep brutality of America's racial past.
Might, for instance, the scene where Django is about to be castrated, trigger an irresistible impulse in some to want to relive such an order of total power - even when packaged as justification for an equally brutal revenge? Do we read this as sublimated racist sadism because Django is written and directed by a white man? Would we see it as sublimated masochism had it been by a black director? And what about audience response: white, black, and other?
Perhaps the coldest moment of revenge in Django is the sudden killing of the young white lady of the plantation. There's no space in the moral economy of Django for pausing to consider its ethical implications. And, indeed, all women in the film are mere objects, without the least agency or personalities. This means its dubious racial politics are compounded with terrible gender sensibilities.
And, unlike Mandingo, which foregrounds it, white women's desire for black men is ostentatiously and quite unconvincingly avoided in Django, the film's most telling blind spot. This is unquestionably a male fantasy, and a fairly disgraceful one at that.
The "exploitation" in 1970s blaxploitation was that of a white-driven entertainment industry marketing to a theretofore ignored constituency by shamelessly playing on its fantasies, fears, and aspirations. Tarantino's Django is clearly aimed at broader audiences, but may be repeating similarly exploitative, manipulative gestures at multiple registers simultaneously.
In spite of everything, it was almost impossible most white and black American audiences would respond to Django similarly, particularly at the visceral and liminal levels, and commentary since its release strongly suggest this in indeed the case. Tarantino knows that and is playing on everyone's neuroses quite ruthlessly. Familiar blaxploitation meets conscious white-guiltsploitation and liminal whitepower-nostalgia-sploitation. Sadism, masochism, and that witches' brew of American racial anxieties just made Tarantino yet another fistful of dollars.