Does Tarantino’s use of Django, a lone, vengeful hero, offer a productive discourse in thinking about slavery in the contemporary moment? – Caitlin Stanway-Williams

Caitlin Stanway-Williams has an undergraduate degree in English Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Birmingham and is about to begin her MA in Creative Writing. So far she has specialised in surreal poetry, focusing on reworking Greek mythology in her dissertation, but is planning on developing into novel writing during her masters year. 

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Image credit: Il Fatto Quotidiano via Flickr


Does Tarantino’s use of Django, a lone, vengeful hero, offer a productive discourse in thinking about slavery in the contemporary moment?

The legacy of slavery in the contemporary world has, in recent years, come into focus in popular culture as the Western world deliberates on this shameful history. In the ‘Age of Obama’, with an African-American man in the most powerful seat in the world, this focus could be seen as stemming from the great distance which the black population has come since this chilling past. Yet many suggest that it is a response to the failings of this age where inequality between races is still so high, the lessons of history having been overlooked. Gardullo argues that looking back on slavery through art provides a way of thinking about the subject, suggesting that, ‘it demands we formulate a better theorisation of this historical discourse which can help us reckon with the dominant culture’s seemingly endless ability to forget – or blatantly disregard – how the history of slavery shapes [our society]’.[1] Slave narratives force us to face up to this history and collective guilt.

In this essay I will look at two recent films that contrast in their presentation of this difficult history: Quentin Tarantino’s 2012 blockbuster Django Unchained, and Steve McQueen’s 2013 film 12 Years a Slave.  Toni Morrison, author of Beloved – the archetypal, postmodern slave narrative – maintains that slavery should be viewed through art ‘as a dynamic tool of self-recognition’.[2] I will argue that both of these films use the relationship between the individual and the community of slavery as a way for today’s society to recognise this history, and imagine a past that does, to some extent, empower people today.

Adam Kelly labels our contemporary moment ‘the end of postmodernity’, and expresses concerns that the move away from it could mean that the ‘process of historical remembering turn[s] out to be a kind of forgetting’.[3] Without the presence of a postmodern anxiety challenging presentations of the past, Kelly worries we will forget that there is not a singular, homogenous historical narrative. Django Unchained is a film deeply entrenched in postmodernity: the use of anachronism, narrative and style offer an alternate version of history with an empowered, black male taking revenge upon the wrongs of slavery. Yet Tarantino’s piece often overlooks the communities formed around slavery, presenting instead an aesthetically beautiful, but nonetheless problematic narrative, which does not allow looking back on this history to be Morrison’s ‘tool of self-recognition.’

Django ultimately appears to forget about the individual lives slavery damaged and, instead of using postmodernity to give a voice to those silenced by history, the film seems to distance them further from the viewer. I would like to suggest that 12 Years a Slave is a ‘post-postmodern’ narrative, chronicled linearly and, far-removed from the flashy, anachronistic style of Django, McQueen looks towards authenticity in his representation of slavery and the communities around it. Despite this move away from postmodernism, as an autobiography of a real slave, McQueen’s film remembers this history faithfully. Kelly argues that postmodernism removes the connection to its characters, and 12 Years a Slave is able to offer a genuine, emotional response, free from the anxieties of postmodern theory.[4]

In Django, Tarantino eliminates any sense of individuality among the slaves by capturing them in large groups, often from a distance. There are multiple shots in the film depicting slaves working in fields which use this distancing technique, and Tarantino frequently depicts slaves at the edge of a shot or just off-screen. This is particularly shocking in the scene around midway through the film in Calvin Candie’s home: as two black Mandingo fighters fight to the death, the noise of the combat only makes its way into the background of the ongoing dialogue between the white men.[5]  While this is a life-or-death moment for the individuals, the film’s deliberate disregard for them makes their plight largely unregistered. This reflects how little they are considered as autonomous beings to their white masters, although it provokes discomfort among viewers precisely because of their obliviousness. Tarantino’s use of cinematic effects presents the slaves as a faceless collective: by removing from them any individuality and barely registering them as human, he reflects attitudes of the time.

Yet Tarantino uses the film to highlight Django, a freed slave, as an individual, so that the eye is always drawn to him. Lily Saint argues that Django is ‘the resurrection of that American hero’, a powerful, confident and brave individual who will ‘save the day’.[6] This is particularly obvious when he and King Schultz approach Big Daddy’s house, Django dressed in a flamboyant, blue suit (perhaps a nod to Thomas Gainsborough’s 1770 portrait The Blue Boy, displaying Tarantino’s postmodern convention of playing with genre, history and art[7]) and astride a horse, upright and poised, the actor Jamie Foxx instantly recognisable as all eyes rest on him. Django’s character exudes power and confidence, qualities of the typical American hero, so that we feel a great sense of justice in Django’s actions as he beats up the bad white guys, channelling a Blaxploitation-style ‘super-stud.’

However, if we look deeper this is an extremely problematic image. While Django is empowered by the emphasis on his individuality as the lone, outstanding hero, Saint points out that this means ‘Django refuses to serve as a stand-in for most slaves.’[8] He has picked these clothes for himself, and in doing so self-consciously sets himself aside from other slaves, dressed in their uniform of drab clothing, who look up at him longingly. His separation from the other slaves as he sits upon his horse, raised above them on a kind of pedestal, could serve to further mark him out as a hero, an empowered slave to inspire and liberate them. But Django is a character who acts out of self-interest. Divorcing himself from the slaves and their plight, Django serves to widen the void between the free men and the slaves: he cannot be their hero if he refuses to stand with them.

12 Years a Slave’s Solomon Northrup stands in huge contrast to Django’s brightly clothed, confident ‘super-stud’. At the film’s opening, he stands amongst a group of slaves, a wide-angle shot encompassing them all dressed in the same beige clothing from which Django is very much removed.[9] The circumstances of Solomon’s life have led him to be one of this community of slaves, and nothing outwardly makes him stand out from them as he is immediately situated as their equal, a stand-in for any unlucky person trapped by the system of slavery. This group shot is then contrasted by the following scene, displaying a suited Solomon as a free man, reflecting his comfortable, middle-class lifestyle prior to his incarceration. His freedom is symbolised by his clothing, as he is part of a community of free men who respect one another and can make their own choices. This contrast in scenes reflecting the downfall of Solomon sets up the plot of the whole film. In addition, Anthony Brown argues that, in 12 Years a Slave, McQueen asks ‘a foundational question of the experience of enslaved and free blacks: what does it mean to be human?’[10] Throughout the film, Solomon is forced to accept a place as part of the slave community owing to his misfortune and, unlike in Django, this humanises both the slaves and Solomon himself. This circumstance challenges his misconceptions of his freedom, thus granting him humanity.

Tarantino’s cinematography is deeply indebted to the postmodern style, to the extent that film critic Martin Fradley uses the adjective ‘Tarantino-esque’ as a ‘byword for both pop-culture reference and popular post-modern cinema’.[11] Django Unchained is very consciously ‘Tarantino-esque’ as it draws on this postmodern style with its cultural references and genre-blending. Tarantino appears to employ Blaxploitation tropes: a genre which appeared in the early 1970s and utilised black men as powerful, coolly-dressed and sexualised heroes to execute justice on their white oppressors. While Tarantino problematically denies that these films influenced him, Django’s brash style, violent righteousness and the accompanying music seem to exploit the Blaxploitation tradition.[12] Erica Ball suggests that the powerful eponymous hero in Django ‘capture[s] the promise of power embedded in the Blaxploitation genre’,  giving the viewer an appealing and charismatic individual to support as he pursues revenge and freedom.[13] Using the lone figure of a Blaxploitation hero on the backdrop of a postmodern slave narrative offers an alternative version of history and provides vengeance for the horrors which took place. Tarantino seemingly empowers the black community this way.

However, the Blaxploitation hero trope in Django fails because of its focus on the individual and its disregard of the communal suffering. Original Blaxploitation heroes were located within the black community and fellow blacks were ‘integral to the plot’.[14] Tarantino is unable to capture the promise of power the Blaxploitation genre offered before its early demise with his presentation of Django as an exceptional individual. Missing the element of community so crucial to the genre’s spirit, Tarantino’s cinematography disregards most fellow blacks entirely. Ball therefore dismisses Django’s heroism as ‘wish fulfilment… [which] offers no wisdom on how we might combat the […] disenfranchisement, injustice, and state violence that continue to threaten and devalue black lives today’,[15] issues very much present when Django was released in 2012. Tarantino’s postmodern interest in playing with genre and rewriting the past seems to be unable to offer a version of history which is helpful today. Focusing on the solo hero and personal revenge, he is unable to give insight and relate Django to black lives in 2012. As the Blaxploitation ‘super-stud’, Django is an active agent, yet he fails to translate this empowerment to the black community as the genre originally endeavoured to do.

Presented as being entirely powerless at many points in the film, Solomon is not the stereotypical, empowered hero. He is frequently witnessed as being unable to help himself or other slaves: in particular, towards the middle of the film when Solomon stumbles upon the lynching of two other black slaves and can do nothing to help, opting to leave the situation as quickly as possible. While he does not help the other slaves as we might expect him to, Stephanie Li points out that, ‘viewers understand that for him to take action is to herald his own death,’[16] and, as such, we feel an affinity with Solomon’s difficult situation which renders him powerless. Viewers are left empathising with his impossible circumstances,  thus reminding them how fragile lives within slavery were. Solomon is a relatable character, not some distant, untouchable hero.

Li also states that ‘McQueen repeatedly dramatizes male impotence’, pointing to this inability to help fellow slaves, particularly his female counterparts.[17] Instead of the violent, powerful, ‘super-stud’ Django, Solomon is just one man trapped in the brutal system and, while feeling kinship with his fellow slaves, he cannot help their plight any more than he can help his own. Nonetheless, there is a sense of heroism in the film through the bond the slaves create; the small acts of kindness that pass between them; and the community they build, that Solomon gradually accepts. This bond is visible in the painful moment when Solomon and Patsy’s eyes meet, as the horrific wounds inflicted on her by Solomon are tended to by fellow slaves. Instead of anger, there is a deep connection and understanding through the horrific violence, since, as Li puts it, they share the ‘unspeakable emotions that coexist with such unrelenting violence’.[18] Although Solomon was the one forced to give out the punishment to Patsy, the slaves within the community understand each other’s pain because they have shared it and are bonded by it.

As Solomon experiences the horrors doled out by the institution of slavery, he becomes more and more part of this community. McQueen’s film shocks as a result of these systematic horrors, yet he finds a way to think about the past more effectively than a postmodern questioning and subverting of it. McQueen uses the connection between slaves to offer a way forward, the shared suffering creating a community which can be a place of healing and relief. While Solomon is not a ‘super-stud’ or even much of a hero in his own story, the sense of community that Django loses from the Blaxploitation genre is obvious in 12 Years a Slave.

Although the music which our protagonists would have experienced is not accessible today, both films try to create authentic ‘slave-music’ of their own. Tarantino’s use of music reflects his unique style of genre blending and his preoccupation with postmodern cinematography. Not only does Django Unchained use music from classic Westerns but also, anachronistically, music from black artists across the ages. The use of the Western music once more highlights the individuated hero we have seen throughout, as the style corresponds to the lone gunman cliché. Yet the use of black artists, drawing on genres such as Rap, RnB and Jazz, juxtaposes this, as it reflects the black community’s rise following the emancipation of slavery.

These songs are all artistic responses to social situations influenced by the memory of slavery and its ripple effects in society for decades after. For example, RnB and Soul musician Anthony Hamilton and Indie Soul Singer Elayna Boynton’s track ‘Freedom’ is played over Django’s failed escape.[19] The use of RnB, a style deeply entrenched in black culture since its beginning in the late 1970s, reflects on the black community and the contemporary hardships they faced. When played over Django’s traumatic personal experiences with slavery, we see him as part of the slave community for the first time, casting off his presentation as a lone hero and placing him inside the system instead.

Ball looks back on the tradition of Blaxploitation/Slavesploitation films, stating that, ‘the use of contemporary black music marked these films as stories that would be told from the perspective of the enslaved.’[20] At this point, Tarantino seems to be positioning Django inside the community of slavery, as the use of music calls upon this tradition, especially hip-hop’s preoccupation with redemption. However, Django’s redemption is brief, as he goes on to reject and even be violent towards his fellow slaves. With this in mind, the use of black music can then be seen to provide contrast with his behaviour. Tarantino attempts to exploit the Blaxploitation tradition while not dwelling on its main concerns.

On the other hand, McQueen favours the use of diegetic music (sound coming from within the world of the film), reflecting the brutal reality his work evokes. As Ramey points out, McQueen places a ‘high value on authenticity’[21] in the compositions he uses. Slave chants are commonly used as the characters work, simple songs created with the combined voices of slaves, thus drawing again on the sense of community between the individuals. Towards the end of the film, we see Solomon accept and become part of this community. Around three-quarters of the way through the film, he joins in the communal singing at a fellow slaves’ funeral, as those grieving form a choir to express their sorrow. Solomon, who has previously had no part in their song, shares his voice with this community, a signal of his acknowledgement of his place in the group.

Instead of considering himself as a free man, wrongly-enslaved and therefore a separate individual, Solomon recognises himself as a victim of slavery alongside them, a humbling and humanising moment. While mournful, this acceptance is empowering, as McQueen portrays the community of slavery as a place of healing and connection. Instead of using contemporary black music to tell an emboldened story from the slave-perspective, as the Blaxploitation genre does and Tarantino attempts to do, McQueen uses music to try and recreate living through this time. Immersed in their collective voices, Solomon becomes part of this community, and the viewer is given a way, for a short while, to feel part of and understand the community and culture formed around slavery.

The use of the fiddle music and the instrument as a symbol is also important in the film. McQueen emphasised this by having 12 Years a Slaves’ composer Nicholas Britall, who also composed the slave chants, research the 19th century American music that Solomon would have performed and been exposed to. Corinne Ramey notes that there is a change in the music before and after Solomon is enslaved, ‘the violin playing flatter and more out of tune’, reflecting the sad change in tone as Solomon loses his autonomy.[22]  The fiddle also stands as a broad metaphor for Solomon. At the beginning it is a sign of his freedom, since he enjoys playing it to entertain his fellow free men, making money to support his family, whereas once he is enslaved he is forced to play. Towards the end of the film, Solomon breaks his fiddle as he embraces his place in the community of slaves and it becomes a symbol of his acceptance.

Tarantino ends Django Unchained on a high, as our hero rides off into the distance with his beloved wife after having killed all the ‘baddies’. Cavorting playfully with his horse, the horrors of the film and of slavery are forgotten, up in flames like Candie’s house. This ending is fitting for the stereotypical American hero, down to the anachronistic sunglasses Django dons, and satisfies the wish-fulfilment that the film sets up. Django is a postmodern narrative that offers an alternative history, granting revenge for slavery and enabling viewers to leave the cinema feeling like the wrongs of the past have been righted. Yet this is enormously problematic, as the narrative is one of personal vengeance, not offering closure for a group, and Django has done nothing to help the other slaves we have watched suffer throughout the film. Saint points out that ‘he is passively complicit in their emancipation at best, wilfully violent towards them at worst.’[23] If Django is the powerful hero Tarantino presents him as being throughout, then we are left questioning why he does not help at least some of his fellow slaves, instead of focusing on his own concerns.

More problematically, he is actively violent towards other slaves during the film, even killing the house-slave Stephen as the film concludes. While, again, this feels satisfying, as he is unpleasant and malicious to his fellow slaves, Stephen too is trapped by the system of slavery. Saint goes on to question, ‘how does Django’s singular act avenge the communal outrage that was slavery?’[24] Django’s injudicious violence brands him as distinctly amoral and his obsession with personal vengeance presents him as a troublesome hero. Tarantino’s trademark violence in this film, while entertaining and satisfyingly replicating heroic revenge tropes, does not constitute a collective healing process.

Solomon’s ending is much more solemn, even somewhat anti-climactic, as Solomon is again presented as a helpless character whose life is shaped by circumstance when Mr Parker, his friend in New York, comes to release him. Even as Epps insists, ‘that is my nigger’, it falls on deaf ears, and as Solomon embraces his friend, we see him become an individual once more, rejecting Epps’ language of ownership. Yet, unlike Django, the freedom he is given is tinged with sorrow as he leaves behind his fellow slaves in brutal conditions. Knowing this, he embraces Patsy before he leaves, filled with guilt at his inability to help. She is left staring at him as he rides away, alone, bereft and still enslaved herself.

When Solomon returns to his family, he embraces them too, being accepted back into the unit after his long absence. The film does not end on a happy note, nor a gratuitously satisfying one like Django’s, yet there is a sense of reality and an emotional connection within it that Django lacks. The loving, physical contact with both his fellow slaves, free men and family demonstrates that they are all human, granting them a dignity the system of slavery has denied them. Again, it presents the group as a place for healing the emotional wounds created by the memory of slavery. McQueen gives way to a discourse of thinking about slavery, setting the path for communal healing as a way to think about the past productively.

Django Unchained is a film which, often problematically, celebrates the individual as being above the others, as Django tellingly proclaims himself ‘one nigger in ten thousand’. On the other hand, 12 Years a Slave uses the standard slave narrative to tell the tale of one real man’s suffering and survival in the system of slavery, finally accepting and finding comfort in the community that forms around it. Django uses more postmodern tropes which allows it to be a tale which tells the story of slavery from the perspective of an enslaved man, representing a minority view and questioning the white-dominated narrative of the past we are generally exposed to. Yet its emphasis on the individual makes it unsuccessful as a slave narrative. Django rejects the community and, while employing some methods of the empowering Blaxploitation genre, the film does not present a thoughtful way of viewing the history of slavery or its reverberations in our present moment.

12 Years a Slave is wholly more successful at finding a discourse for slavery in our contemporary world, precisely because of its focus on the community of slavery. It is a piece that can be used as a ‘tool of self-recognition’ in inviting a discussion about how this community influences us today and the issues that are still present in the ‘Age of Obama.’  McQueen’s turn back to reality and use of a traditional, linear narrative marks a move away from postmodernity and does not, as Kelly suggests, stop historical remembering happening productively. The voice of Solomon, a slave who accepts his place among the community of slavery unlike Django, gives an alternative and authentic witness to history, far-removed from the white-dominated lens. In conclusion, I consider McQueen’s piece to be a post-postmodern narrative performing an act of cultural memory which can be applied productively to reflections on society and black lives today.

 

Endnotes

[1] Paul Gardullo, ‘Spectacles of Slavery: Pageantry, Film and Early Twentieth-Century Public Memory’, Slavery & Abolition: A Journal of Slave and Post-Slave Studies, 34, (2013), 222-235, (p. 222).

[2] Gardullo, ‘Spectacles of Slavery’, p.223.

[3] Adam Kelly, ‘Beginning with Postmodernism,’ Twentieth Century Literature, 57, (2011), 391-422, (p. 415).

[4] Kelly, ibid.

[5] Django Unchained, dir. by Quentin Tarantino, (Sony Pictures, 2012).

[6] Lily Saint, ‘Response: “Why Slavery Now?” Django Unchained as a History of the Present’, Safundi: The Journal of South African and American Studies, 16, (August 2015), 307-311, (p.308).

[7] Erica. L. Ball, ‘Response: “Goodbye Miss Lara!” or what’s slavery got to do with it? Regeneration through Violence in Django Unchained?’, Safundi: The Journal of South African and American Studies, 16, (2015), 312-317, (p.313).

[8] Saint, “Why Slavery Now?”, p.310.

[9] 12 Years a Slave, dir. by Steve McQueen, (Fox Searchlight Pictures, 2013).

[10] Anthony. L. Brown. & Christopher Davis, ‘Race and Historical Memory on the Silver Screen: A Movie Review of 12 Years a Slave’, Theory & Research in Social Education, 42, (2014), 275-279, (p.276).

[11]Martin Fradley, ‘Quentin Tarantino’, in Fifty Contemporary Filmmakers, (London: Routledge, 2010 ed. Yvonne Tasker), pp.338- 345, (p.341).

[12] Johannes Ferhle, ‘”And I would call it ‘A Southern’” Renewing/Exploiting the Blaxploitation Western’, The Journal of South African and American Studies, 16, (2015), 291-306, (p. 301).

[13] Ball, ‘Response: “Goodbye Miss Lara!”’, (p.315).

[14] Ferhle,‘”And I would call it “A Southern”’, p. 300.

[15] Ball, ‘Response: “Goodbye Miss Lara!”’, p. 317.

[16] Stephanie, Li, ‘12 Years a Slave as a Neo-Slave Narrative’, American Literary History, 26, (2014), 326-330, (p. 328).

[17] Li, ’12 Years as a Neo-Slave Narrative’, p.328.

[18] Ibid, p.329.

[19] Randy Lewis, ‘Quentin Tarantino discusses the Music of Django Unchained’, Los Angeles Times, 25 December 2012, http://articles.latimes.com/2012/dec/25/entertainment/la-et-ms-quentin-tarantino-django-unchained-music-soundtrack-streaming-20121224, [accessed 12/04/16].

[20] Ball, ‘Response: “Goodbye Miss Lara!”’, p.315.

[21] Corinne Ramey, ‘’12 Years a Slave’, Music Set to a Time and Place’, The Wall Street Journal, 28 February 2014, <http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052702304026804579409731527220844>, [accessed 16/04/2016].

[22] Ramey, ‘’12 Years a Slave’, Music Set to a Time and a Place’.

[23] Saint, ‘Response: “Why Slavery Now?”, (p.310).

[24] Ibid.

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