Director: Quentin Tarantino, 2012 (R)
Quentin Tarantino certainly does nothing in half measures. He is all in, and is not afraid to tackle tough or even taboo topics. His previous film, Inglourious Basterds, resulted in a violent and radical revisionist version of World War 2 history, as he addressed the Holocaust. This, his 8th film, tackles slavery in the antebellum south. Not so much a full on western, this movie combines comedy and violent action with aspects taken from the buddy, revenge, and caper genres. The result is a long but surprisingly entertaining film, if you can get past the gory violence that so often characterizes his films.
The movie opens with a retro feel. The title captions pop up on screen like an old spaghetti western, while the title song underscores that feel. A line of slaves, chained together, is being marched through a forest led by two horsed cowboys. Django (Jamie Foxx) is one of the slaves. But Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz, an Oscar winner from Tarantino’s prior film), driving his dentist wagon, stops them during the night. He is looking for Django, a slave who can identify the Brittle brothers. With over-elocuted forumality, this erstwhile dentist offers to buy Django, and ultimately gets his way. But not before blood and bodies lay strewn on the landscape. Hence, the tone is set right up front.
Schultz may be a dentist by education, but he is a bounty hunter by trade. That is where the money is. As he tells Django, the men he hunts are wanted dead or alive. He prefers dead, and then trades corpses for cash with the US Marshalls. Killing for profit. Rewarding but risky.
The first act of the film introduces the two main characters and their quests. Schultz simply wants to hunt killers. Django is his key to identify three brothers. But Django proves a skilled hunter and soon gains his freedom and becomes Schultz partner. Django, in turn, wants to find his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), a German speaking slave, buy her freedom and be reunited in love. Of course, elements of revenge enter, for whippings and other degrading acts done to her.
By the second act, the pair are on their way to Candieland, a huge plantation owned by Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), a Francophile slave owner who dabbles in mandingo fighting. To enter the viper’s nest, Schultz concocts a plan, a con game where these two hunters pose as mandingo slave buyers. Here is the caper. To get in, pull off the ruse, and exit with the spoils.
The acting is top notch. Jamie Foxx, already an Oscar winner for his portrayal of Ray Charles, does fine work as a slave with a mission. We empathize with him, even as we deplore some of the tactics. Waltz is a wonder, again, as a German in America. He can thank Tarantino for the fame that has come to him. DiCaprio plays almost over the top as a monster hiding behind the veneer of a Southern gentleman. Don Johnson appears in the first act as another plantation owner. But it is Samuel L. Jackson who almost steals the show as Stephen, Candie’s butler, a black man whose speech is patronizingly black but whose sensibilities and desires are undeniably white. Not surprisingly, Tarantino himself shows up in an extended cameo at the end. Although is acting is workmanlike, his presence is more of a distraction than a benefit.
Tarantino creates any number of terrific scenes and sequences. He balances the action with comedy. An early scene has Django and Schultz drinking beer in a bar totally alone, while the whole town is waiting to shoot them when they emerge. Another comic scene centers on a hunt for these hunters. With a lynch mob on horseback, these proto-Klu Klux Klansmen spend 5 minutes whining and complaining about the hoods they are wearing. None can see out of the poorly placed eyeholes. Perhaps the best and goriest is an extended shootout toward the end. Blood ends up repainting the insides of the house, in a realistic portrayal of the violence.
There are many ethical themes embedded in Django which could be unchained. Slavery is center-stage, but this has been discussed in another 2012 film that focused on that subject: Lincoln. Revenge weaves it ways throughout, but was treated at length in Basterds. Better yet, though, is the idea of a man’s internal moral code and the conflicts, which arise. These include conflicts over slavery and revenge, as well as the use of violence.
Each of the main characters, Schultz, Django and Stephen have a moral code that is conflicted. Candie alone stands as a singular minded man, bordering on caricature. He is the foil for each of these three, so we can wrestle, like mandingos, with the subthemes present. As John Eldredge, in his new book “The Utter Relief of Holiness,” says: “This is human nature: to find a morality that is comfortable and convenient and let it suffice for holiness.” Each of the three characters have found a morality, an inner code, that at first is comfortable but increasingly becomes itchy and uncomfortable if not contradictory.
Early in the film, Schultz tells Django that he despises slavery but he is willing to use it to his advantage by leaving Django figuratively in chains. In this way, he can control Django, his slave even while he offers the hope and promise of freedom. It is convenient to him to keep Django as a slave, at least for a while. He subverts his own internal moral code pragmatically for his own benefit. This is a false morality, a prostitution of principle.
Like Schultz, Stephen has his own conflict of principle over slavery. Himself a slave, he has risen within the ranks to become the chief among slaves in Candieland. White haired and leaning on a cane, he speaks as a slave would be expected to speak, but in private he drops these airs. A terrific scene has him sitting in the drawing room with Candie himself, sharing brandies, speaking openly, like two equals would. It is he who spots the grand deception, not Candie. But he, too, is a deceiver. He has compromised his principles for the sake of a more convenient life.
Slavery is indeed abhorrent. Its physical expression is on display here, where one man owns another like chattel property. But slavery is as much an inner dwelling, as the apostle Paul makes clear: “Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves to someone to obey him as slaves, you are slaves to the one whom you obey—whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness?” (Rom. 6:16) We all are slaves if we obey sin, and we do. We can only be unchained by the freeing blood of Jesus, who put himself on the whipping post for us (Rom. 8:2).
More than this, though, Stephen has violated his inner moral code of race. He has put himself in a position where he, a black man, supports the oppression of other blacks by the white slavers. He is more white than some of the red-neck cowboys used as hired hands by Candie to wrangle the slaves.
Then there is Django, the protagonist and hero. His internal conflicts revolve around revenge and violence. On revenge, in the first act he gives way to his desire for revenge on those who have hurt his beloved. Taking matters into his own hands, he executes the lex talionis law, repaying eye for eye (Exod. 21:26). Yet later, when faced with Candie’s gangsters, he is willing to hold this in check, seeking the better prize of freeing his wife.
Violence and killing, though, produce initial conflict for Django. Early in his “career” as a bounty hunter, Django lies on the ground scoping a farmer plowing his land. This farmer is a man wanted for murder. But with his head in the sights of his rifle, Django is not ready to pull the trigger. He feels conflicted. Yet, after the first time he kills in this way, his conscience is seared (1 Tim. 4:2), and he is able to become proficient at killing. Indeed, by the end, almost a battalion of bodies lies at this feet.
Perhaps this is the most important question that emerges from Tarantino’s film: is it morally justifiable to use violence and kill others if not done in self-defense? The early kills are clearly from afar, for pay not protection. Django and Schultz could have captured not killed, and still earned their pay.
Jesus gives us some guidance here. While on earth he was a pacifist. “Peace I leave with you,” he told his disciples just hours before his death (Jn. 14:27). When Matthew cut off a servant’s ear trying to defend Jesus, he told him: “Put your sword back in its place for all who draw the sword will die by the sword” (Matt. 26:52). Yet, he was not afraid to stand up to injustice. Earlier in his ministry, “he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple area, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables” (Jn. 2:15). At the end times, Jesus will come back mounted on a white horse leading the armies of heaven, himself now bearing a sword (Rev. 19:11-21). He will come in violence to do war with the wicked. And he will win. Death itself will be ultimately defeated. So pacifism is not permanent. Violence is morally justified in certain circumstances.
However we find ourselves, we must seek to be unchained by Jesus. Once freed, we must seek to live whole and holy lives, holding to an inner moral code manifested to us by the Holy Spirit. We have the requirements of the law written on our hearts (Rom. 2:15) and we now have a new heart of flesh to replace the one of stone (Ez. 36:26). In Jesus, we are freed from sin and condemnation, and made free to live conflict-free!
Copyright ©2013, Martin Baggs