With the Oscars upon us, Phuong Nguyen revisits one of the most talked about films of the year, and Hollywood’s on-going struggles in portraying race and brutal violence as entertainment. Disclaimer: This article contains major spoilers. Maybe all of them.
There’s a still point in the movie Django Unchained when the German dentist, Dr. King Schultz, played by Christoph Waltz, has an epiphany about the violence around him. Sitting in a horse-drawn carriage, Schultz watches a slave being torn apart by a pack of dogs at the order of plantation owner, Calvin J. Candie (Leo DiCaprio). While Candie stares down Django (Jamie Fox), watching him for the slightest hint of weakness—a flinch, a grimace—Schultz sits quietly in the carriage, looking at and looking away from the dog attack. The scene is briefly void of dialogue—there is only the screams of the slave, the sound of the dogs, and intermittent laughter of Candie’s men.
If you are the squeamish type, the horror of violence in this scene will overshadow the quiet realization occurring over Schultz’s face. If you aren’t the squeamish type, this scene will bring it out of you, or at the very least, unsettle you like no other scene in the movie (save for maybe the Mandigo fight). There is no overwhelming musical score or anachronistically placed rap song to emphasize the artificiality of the violence, thus reassuring the audience of the distance needed to enjoy the film as a “movie violence” experience. This was a realistically shot scene, and as far as I remember, the audience at my screening was completely hushed by it.
In a recent Fresh Air interview with Terry Gross, Quentin Tarantino explained that there were two specific types of violence in the film:
“There’s the brutal reality of the violence that slaves lived under, under the slavery laws, 245 years. And then there’s the violence of Django’s retribution. And that’s movie violence, and that’s fun, and that’s cool, and that’s really enjoyable.”
However, the realism of the dog attack complicates Tarantino’s answer. Schultz’s epiphany, sitting there in the carriage, emphasizes how his previous logic about violence now entangles him in a moral trap that he can’t reconcile. The dog scene forced me to consider, how can you enjoy a film that tries to balance movie violence with probable violence against slaves?
In the first half of the film, Schultz is a well-spoken bounty hunter who cloaks his violent actions within the realms of reason and law: if he has put a “bullet in [someone’s] beast,” it’s because the rider raised his gun against Schultz first. If he has shot the sheriff dead in the street, it’s because there is a legal warrant for the sheriff’s arrest, dead or alive. The justifications for seemingly random and brutal violence by Schultz are embedded within the legal language; in many cases the violence precedes the reports of Schultz’s gun.
In Robert Cover’s essay, “Violence and the Word,” he writes that a judge’s interpretation of the law sets violence in motion, that “[a] judge articulates her understanding of a text, and as a result, somebody loses his freedom, his property, his children, even his life.” Later in the essay, Cover writes that the “[l]aw is the projection of an imagined future on reality.” The essay was written in 1986, but it articulates ideas about how Schultz’s comfort and familiarity with state-sanctioned violence results from a detachment of responsibility. Before he has killed anyone, the law has already decided his or her death. Schultz acts accordingly to the letter of the law, even if it goes against a moral code (such as shooting a man in front of his son). So when the same system sanctions the dog attack on the slave, something fundamentally changes in Schultz that we don’t see until three-quarter point of the movie.
And if this happens to Schultz, you have to wonder—what level of enjoyment do movie audiences get from watching a realistically shot scene like the dog attack, knowing that very well that incident could have happened in the past? And what does it mean to enjoy it in a movie fictionalizing retribution?
It’s clear that Tarantino wants to relieve the tension of “real slave violence” in his movie with the happy, all-out shooting spree by Django in the last third of the film. But Schultz’s death reveals that the film is really about Schultz’s moral dilemma, regardless of the title, regardless of artful shoots of blood bursting through images of whiteness.
The character of Django is merely the artifice that justifies Tarantino’s choice of historical setting for a movie trying to provide comfort about modern racial relations to a specific audience that does not think about the historical legacy of slavery.
This a movie enjoyed by the tougher-stomached counterparts of people who liked movies like The Help or Cloud Atlas for their progressive outlook on race. This is one of the strange movies made in Hollywood’s attempt to portray post-raciality in the Obama age, without losing that profitable trope of always having a white hero/heroine.
Some of our favourite posts about Django Unchained:
by Imara Jones (colorlines.com)
by Richard Prince (theroot.com)
by Shanta N. Covington (msnbc.com)