Django Unchained is a beguiling film. ‘Beguiling’ may seem an odd adjective for a Tarantino blood-fest, but despite that director’s well-known penchant for violence being well to the fore in this tale of the pre-civil-war southern states of America, the film does charm the viewer. This is chiefly because of the engaging story, which grips from the opening shots, the clever, witty and often laugh-out-loud funny script and, above all, the stand-out performance of the supporting lead, German actor Christoph Waltz.
Only lately come to US films and international stardom (and until now mainly playing villains), Waltz plays a German immigrant doctor travelling as an itinerant dentist (we are never sure of his true qualifications, if any) but in reality operating as a bounty hunter, duly authorised, we are given to understand, by the US courts to capture wanted criminals “dead or alive”.
This being a Tarantino film, the Doctor (thus we will call him, as he is called this by all in the film) never bothers even to try to catch them alive. A corpse, duly produced and identified, is sufficient to claim the bounty, and no doubt less bother to transport to show the authorities than a living prisoner, and each ‘capture’ provides an opportunity for a display of crack shooting.
The Doctor character is handsome and erudite; a funny, charming and convincing con-man (as all con-men have to be, or they would never succeed). He fools everyone until the moment after the killing, when he produces the wanted poster/warrant from his inside coat pocket.
Slavery is the backdrop against which the story of the film plays out. The film is hyped by some critics as a serious exposé of the brutal reality of the slave system in the USA, which existed, and was the basis for much of the wealth of that country, from the late 17th century until the second half of the 19th century. Is that assessment of the film justified? We would have to say that no, it is not.
The film starts with a pair of travelling slave merchants, who are moving Django and a half-dozen other slaves along a remote woodland track in rural Texas. The Doctor, in his character of itinerant dentist in a horse-drawn closed wagon complete with a large model of a molar bouncing on a spring on the wagon’s roof, hoves into view.
It appears he has been looking for these particular slavers with the object of buying Django from them. He parries the slavers’ curious enquiries and concludes the deal after he has questioned Django to confirm that he knows and could identify three brothers who were the overseers at the last plantation he worked on before being sold away by the owner.
Once the purchase is completed and verified by a signed bill of sale, at the Doctor’s insistence, an altercation arises which is resolved, Tarantino-style, by the Doctor shooting and wounding one slaver and killing the other, tossing the remaining slaves the keys to their shackles and a rifle and giving them the choice of taking the injured and helpless surviving slaver back to the nearest town (in the hope that they might get their freedom as a reward), or shooting him and escaping to “a more enlightened part of this country” where they might be free.
The opening scene sets the tone for the rest of the film: comedy, irony, wit, with the doctor usually getting the better of everyone he meets through his quicker wits and greater intelligence, but with every dispute being settled summarily with casual, lethal violence.
Django, played by Jamie Foxx, is needed by the Doctor because the three overseer brothers are wanted ‘dead or alive’ and are the objects of his latest bounty hunt; the Doctor does not know what they look like, but Django does. The pair find the overseer brothers working under different names at a new slave plantation.
Django turns out to be a naturally accurate marksman with pistol and rifle. Having been given his freedom as his reward for his contribution to the success of the hunt, he agrees to the Doctor’s proposal that they work together as a team as bounty hunters in the mountains of the far West for the duration of the winter, with Django taking a third of the rewards earned. The Doctor trains him and Django practises until he is a perfect shot. They spend a ‘profitable’ winter together.
The story then changes gear and becomes almost a different film. Django has told the Doctor that he and his wife were sold separately (by express order of their owner) after they had tried to run away from the plantation together. He wants to find and free his wife so they can run away together again.
The Doctor has promised to help Django after the winter, although that means going back to Mississippi, where they were sold at slave auction, in order to discover his wife’s buyer and present whereabouts. This is a mission and a place that will be very dangerous for Django as an African American (‘Nigger’ in contemporary parlance), even one now a free man and with papers to prove his new status.
There is a stand-out performance by Leonardo di Caprio as the new owner of Django’s wife, ‘Monsieur’ Candie, owner of one of Mississippi’s largest plantations, ‘Candieland’, and scion of an old, rich slave-owning family. ‘Monsieur’ Candie (his title of preference) owns a string of slaves kept specifically to fight, bare-knuckled, to the death if required, the slaves of other plantation owners in a ‘sport’ called ‘Mandingo fighting’. It is through this pastime that our heroes make contact with him.
The Doctor is shown to view with distaste the violence of a bout he witnesses with ‘Monsieur’ Candie, and also the result of the latter’s subsequent command to an overseer that the dogs be let loose to kill a Mandingo fighter slave of his caught while running away in order to avoid having to fight further bouts. Django reminds the Doctor that months before he had told Django to shoot a wanted criminal “in cold blood in front of his own son” from a safe and hidden vantage point, afterwards giving the poster to Django as a keepsake (“You never forget your first bounty”).
The twists and turns of the plot thereafter we will not reveal. It is enough to say that there is an explosion of violence and killing before Django can ride off into the sunset together with his companion.
Why do we say that this film is not a serious exposé of slavery? Because essentially it just presents the same, dominant (if not sole) message of modern American cinema in another setting: which is that any wrong can be righted by individual, vigilante-type violence.
There is no reference, even in passing, to the economic basis of slavery as a system, or of the economic basis for its eventual abolition; it just seems to be the result of wicked, callous and ‘unenlightened’ men, with the way out therefore being through ‘enlightened’ men or individual gunfights.
The organised ‘Freedom Railroad’ is not mentioned even when the context invites it, as when the doctor suggests the slaves escape from Texas (an awful long way without help from the ‘more enlightened’ parts of the country he referred to as their possible destination), or when Django recounts the story of his and his wife’s failed attempt to run away.
Django refers to his lost love as his ‘wife’ throughout, though slaves in fact had no right to marry; they might be made or allowed to breed, or used (often) by their owners for sex, but if they formed relationships of their own choice these could be and often were broken at will by their owners, as the slaves were regarded as livestock, like cattle, not fully human.
Django and his wife are shown as rare exceptions to the rule of cowed and obedient slaves. He gives no clue to the feelings of his fellow slaves, even though the brutality of the system is shown.
The ‘solution’ to slavery is totally misrepresented in Django Unchained, and not by accident. The truth, however, is that slavery became uneconomic partly because of the development of technology (which meant brute strength was no longer the prime requirement for cultivation on the plantation), and partly because of the increasing cost and difficulty of controlling the slaves and putting down their repeated uprisings.
Slavery was (and still is) a class question – in its modern manifestations, it is a feature of imperialist exploitation, which was and will be defeated only by collective action by the oppressed people themselves, who in the current conditions of imperialism can only succeed if led by the revolutionary proletariat.
Slavery in Tibet was only ended when the region was liberated following the success of the Chinese revolution and the founding of the People’s Republic of China. Bonded labour in India (slavery by another name) and outright slavery in a number of African countries have not been affected by the ‘independence’ of those countries from direct colonial rule, since their local leaders still govern on behalf of the imperialists.
So long as surplus value can be extracted from another’s labour, there will be every form of exploitation, including slavery, even in the heartlands of imperialism.
See and enjoy the film, but do not be beguiled into buying into its ‘solution’.