Django Unchained and the Morality of Revenge

Blood on cotton.

Note: Some plot spoilers follow.

Let me first start with the obvious: Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained is a remarkable feat, stunning both in composition and execution.  The narrative is compelling, the acting is superb, and many of the shots are stunningly beautiful.  Any fan of film – whether spaghetti westerns, coming of age narratives, action movies, or period pieces – should see this movie.  It is a tremendous visual achievement, and will no doubt be short-listed for a wide variety of Oscar categories.

That said, it is a challenging film, and one that I spent a good deal of time thinking and reading about in the day since I’ve seen it, trying to put a finger on why it is so discomfiting.

The movie delves into the powder keg of ante-bellum racial tensions that belied the American South’s economy, exploring the bald-faced violence perpetuated in the name of racial supremacy and the widespread (and institutionalized) repression of blacks in America.  And while the violent nature of the movie certainly gets the most comment, Tarantino should be applauded for depicting the evil of casual racism as vividly as he does the blood shed by blacks at the whim of whites.  While Christoph Waltz’s Dr. King Schultz proudly states his moral abhorrence for slavery, the movie makes clear that even this liberal abolitionist is slave to his own prejudices.

Yes, Django is a wonderful exploration of amorality, evil, and the length we’ll go to seek justice.  Which is largely why I felt the last half hour of the movie lost the plot.  Having borne witness to the incredible cruelty and callous violence of whites toward blacks, and empowered by his new-found prowess as a merchant of death, Django executes a scorched-Earth policy so frightening in its violence that it is a very uncomfortable juxtaposition to see the film end with a sequence of light-hearted equestrian humor as if Django’s only emotional reaction to the eradication of a plantation is “gee, wasn’t that a lark?”

This is a familiar discomfort for many of those who have seen previous Tarantino films.  And knowing that Django is the second of a planned trilogy of revenge films means that it is a feeling we’ll likely experience again.  What bothers me is that the violence in many Tarantino films is celebratory.  While violence was unquestionably a central column in ending slavery in America, need we take such glee in it?

The narrative is much the same as Kill Bill, Tarantino’s previous ode to vengeance.  In both films, acts of unusual violence are inflicted upon a protagonist – acts of such evil and inhumanity that they invoke intensely strong feelings of revulsion, as well as sympathy for the protagonist.  Whether forced separation of lovers into lives of violent subjugation and prostitution or the senseless murder of an unborn child, Tarantino lays the foundation of revenge with the most evil occurances imaginable.  Over the remainder of the film, Tarantino offers periodic flashbacks to these formative experiences to remind the audience that no matter what the protagonist does in the search for vengeance, nothing is unconscionable.  Nothing is immoral.

This is the part that troubles me – sequences of both Kill Bill and Django accentuate the violence and glorify the carnage, offering the audience some sort of catharsis in the blood.  It’s an amazing visual sequence of action.  Django finally gets his just revenge against those who exercised such casual violence against the defenseless, and isn’t there such satisfaction in the degree of the carnage?  My only question is should there be?  In comparing responses to slavery in Django to Lincoln, Alyssa Rosenberg writes, “Revenge may be more fun than reform. But it’s ultimately more self-indulgent.”

The Civil War began two years after the events depicted in the film, a conflict in which 750,000 Americans were killed in a fight largely about the justice of slavery.  The violence depicted in Django may be merely historical prelude to the equally violent overthrow of a system of repression, but can you blame me if I didn’t want to enjoy it?  The glorification of violent revenge may have ultimately ruined Django for other viewers.  Personally, it just made me feel guilty about my enjoyment.

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