I saw Django Unchained this weekend, and like a lot of people, I’ve been thinking about it in tandem with Inglourious Basterds. And obviously the comparisons have to do with vengeance, violence, and atrocities on a world-historical scale. IB gives us plenty of violence but no Nazi atrocities after the murder of Shoshana’s family in the opening scene. The Holocaust is conspicuously absent, providing all of the moral background for the film and none of the content, at least until the movie house is turned into an ad hoc crematorium. DU, on the other hand, presents us over and over again with all of the most brutal, dehumanizing aspects of slavery. Humiliation, whipping, dogs, etc. (even though “Mandingo fighting” was not a real thing, compulsory slave-on-slave violence certainly was).
But one of the interesting things DU does that IB doesn’t is present us with a moral agent with whom we can (and are meant to) identify in the person of Schultz. In IBwe see vengeance for past wrongs, whether those wrongs are personal (Shoshana) or political/racial/ethnic (the Basterds). Shoshana kills Nazis because Nazis killed her family, and the Basterds kill Nazis because the Nazis would kill them (or worse) if they got the chance. But in the case of Schultz killing Candie, we finally see someone kill not because they’ve been wronged and not because that person would kill him if given the chance, but because of moral revulsion. Schultz kills Candie because he finds slavery not just bad but disgusting, just as he helps Django because “when a German finds a real, live Siegfried, that’s kind of a big deal,” not because helping Django will get him anything.
I’m not quite sure what to do with that. On the one hand, part of me feels a little weird about the agent of deep moral sensibility in the antebellum South being White. On the other, Django is consciously aligned with the mythical Siegfried and (what amounts to the same thing for Tarantino) the Blaxploitation protagonist — he’s something more than human. But in a film this concerned with providing this much screen time to the brutalizing effects of slavery, are we looking for “more than human”? Shouldn’t “human” be enough? Tarantino obviously isn’t the person to look to for realism, moral or otherwise,and that’s fine — there are plenty of other people to produce that kind of work. But when I heard the audience at Sunday’s screening laugh, chillingly, at the wrong places, I suppose I have to ask what kind of imaginative/cultural work DjangoUnchainedis doing and what kinds of passions it’s engaging.