I like the direction Quentin Tarantino is going with his movies. He's gone from genre-bending gangster flicks to genre-bending historical movies. The dark humor is still there, and the ultra violence and clever, verbose dialogue. But there is something new going on in Inglorious Basterds and, most recently, Django Unchained. It's not exactly a moral conscience, because the heroes kill an awful lot of people. It's something more like old-school western-style justice.
Django Unchained is a western, and the first comparison that comes to mind is High Noon, one of my all time favorite movies. In High Noon, the hero kills seven men at the end, as the townspeople look on in shock and confusion. And before Gary Cooper rides off into the sunset with Grace Kelly, he throws his sheriff's star in the dirt, as if to say, "To hell with your effed-up society." John Wayne famously called High Noon "un-American" for precisely this reason. But the film remains a classic because it urged a McCarthy-era America to question whether or not justice, as defined by American society at the time, was, in fact, true justice.
In Django Unchained, Tarantino is up to something similar. The America he shows us is ugly, brutal, and full of bitter hypocrisy. In one scene, a slave owner orders dogs to rip apart a runaway slave. A German immigrant, Django's companion, looks on in horror. The slave owner looks at Django and says, "Your companion looks a little green." Django responds, "He's not used to America." Implying, of course, that America is a ruthless and brutal place (which it was, for slaves like Django). In the film, the forces of ruthless capitalism and ruthless sadism thinly masked as racial superiority coalesce into the character of Calvin Candie, the "Master" of a plantation ironically called "Candyland."
The scenes on the plantation reminded me a lot of the southern writer Flannery O'Connor's stories and novels. Although her stories were set in the mid-twentieth century, she captured something of the ironic juxtaposition of "Southern hospitality" and overt racism. Candie is a gentleman. He is (usually) quite polite. But he is also a ruthless slave-owner who enjoys watching his "mandingos" (slave fighters) beat each other to death, for sport. In these scenes, I couldn't help but feel like I was watching Ultimate Fighting.
Given such an effed-up society, a true hero must be an outlaw. And Django is one bad-ass motherf#cker. We, as an audience, WANT him to kill the "white folks." Not all white folks, just the ones who like to whip other humans, chain them in boxes, and exploit their labor. Basically, anyone involved in the system of slavery, which was a lot of people in 1858 America.
Maybe it's because I've spent the past year or so working on a research project about my own town's history (which is full of terrible racism: the KKK, housing discrimination, school sergegation, etc.) that I found such a deep satisfaction watching Django mete out justice against his oppressors. When reading about all the atrocities of the past that so many millions of Americans were totally okay with, I continually find myself longing to read about heroes who stand up and say, "Enough!" These heroes exist, but they are few and far between. Watching Django gun down slave traders creates a strange sensation of satisfaction and horror.
But American history is full of horrors. Our beloved founding fathers Washington and Jefferson owned slaves! And yet we Americans like to think of ourselves as "exceptional" or that God is on our side. For black slaves and Native Americans, the only thing exceptional about America was its exceptional cruelty.
We have come a long way as a society, but it's important to remind ourselves that the "good old days" never really existed. Django Unchained, while fictional and stylized, plants itself firmly in a very real American past. And to that past, and it's institutions, the film raises a fist (or a colt .45) of defiance, as if to say (as my friend Josue likes to say), "In your face, system!"