Django Unchained: "A white revenge fantasy"

Noah Smith (who is white) saw "Django," and loved it. "Not for the cartoonish violence (which was OK, nothing special) or for Tarantino's trademark witty banter (which was a bit subdued)," he says, but for its politics. "I'm pretty sure that for all its elements of blaxploitation, Django's politics are all about white people," writes Smith. "It's not a black revenge fantasy; it's a white revenge fantasy." Django isn't black people's story of slavery: it's white people's.


  1. I haven’t seen the film yet but it’s been interesting to follow the controversy around it. It appears that Noah Smith loved the film for precisely the same reasons Tavis Smiley hated it.

  2. Strange. I agree with him, but I just don’t really care to see the movie. I’m not a Tarantino fan anyway, and I don’t love the revenge genre (so why would I watch a film that’s almost guaranteed to be something I won’t really enjoy). To be fair, I didn’t think much of the story of Avatar either. Seems like the same kind of thing really, or like killing Nazis in a video game.

    At the same time though, I also just find the white hero story really uninspiring. It’s really interesting to read his take, because it seems he’s also a white southerner. I’m a southerner, and from one of those Virginia families that gave us early presidents, tobacco, diseased natives, and slavery. I was raised separately from the rest of my family, and not encouraged to take part in the sort of annoying southern pageantry that surrounds things like the DAR. I’m kind of glad for this, because while I find my history interesting it doesn’t strike me as anything to be proud or ashamed of. Prior to coming to the colonies my ancestors killed lots of people in England too, which is how they got the money and social position to try their hand in the drug trade. I don’t feel like they were villains (any more than the corporate aristocracy now).  I don’t need to feel like a hero either by romanticizing them or demonizing them, and either way it wouldn’t matter because I’m a woman.

    Some times I think a major part of the angst in the US is that so few people really *do* know their ancestry and everyone wants it to be so much more important than it was so they can try some claim to superiority, but just pushing that back to Europe doesn’t do any good. Europeans aren’t any better either, and they have their own atrocities.

    On the other hand, if I try to put aside a concern over myself, I find the whole thing really fascinating and terrifying. For instance, when a relative died we were going through some old papers and it was so odd to read the deeds of sale and purchase of people, the descriptions of them. I realized, though I was a kid, that I really don’t understand. I mean, I actually can’t think of what that means in any real way, that these people were not employees.

    Some times I wish people would spend less time trying to craft a narrative around themselves, and more time just observing their current reality.

    1. There’s room for all kinds of stories out there. The real tragedy isn’t that somebody made a movie about slavery from the perspective of a white hero, it’s that nobody makes movies about slavery from the perspective of black slaves.

      It’s a shame and a loss that Hollywood doesn’t seem interested in stories about black people unless A) it’s a raunchy comedy, B) it can include a white hero, or C) it stars Will Smith. Case in point: why hasn’t there been a big-budget movie about the Haitian Revolution? By all rights that should have everything Hollywood loves: an underdog struggle, epic battles, and the ultimate triumph of an oppressed people who end up freeing themselves from an empire and abolishing slavery. (But no white heroes, so no.)

      1. I agree. The worst I can really say about the movie though is that it sounds uninteresting to me, and that I wish Hollywood would investigate telling some other stories. This seems like the same thing that happened with “The Help” too.

        I don’t know, but it seems Hollywood is sort of a thing unto itself. Until more people break into that little universe, it’s going to keep talking about itself and most people are just going to accept it on whatever their own terms for it are.

        I mean, most of us here learn to just watch films that aren’t about us: unless you’re a white man who only watches major Hollywood releases and/or the indie films that also fall into that bracket. If you think about this, it’s a terrible disadvantage.

        Learning to watch films where there are no women, all women are stupid, women are just for decoration and sex scenes, or women are the focus so long as the plot revolves around hetero relationships and men (because that’s all women think about) sounds like hell. But it makes it easier to relate to other films about people who are not like me.

        Then I think about all the amazing movies I would have missed out on if I hadn’t learned to enjoy films for something besides how they reflect back on me.

      2. Talk to Spike Lee, I guess. Probably one of the better chances of a movie being made “by blacks, for blacks”, so to speak.

          1. Then I may have typed too soon about typing too soon. The project sounds like it’s in development hell, likely never to emerge.

    2. “I don’t love the revenge genre (so why would I watch a film that’s almost guaranteed to be something I won’t really enjoy).”

      I guess Zero Dark 30 is out of the question then :-) 
      One thing to be said about revenge fantasy movies is despite the violence, nobody actually dies.  

      1. Actually I haven’t watched Zero Dark 30 either, so that’s kind of accurate.

        I’m one of those people that generally has to be talked *into* watching something.

  3. Somewhat riffing off of Mark’s post last week about Game of Thrones, I’d love it if when this movie comes out there were a “soft r” edit that toned down some of the violence.  Just like with Inglorious Basterds, I’d love to see the film but in terms of what Tarantino does Pulp Fiction is about as intense as I can stomach.   I can’t imagine these films are LESS violent, especially after reading Ebert’s review of Django a few weeks ago.

    1. I’d actually say it’s just about on the level of Reservoir Dogs.

      The first half of the movie is no worse than Pulp Fiction, or, say, the recent True Grit. The latter half, like Reservoir Dogs, does get a bit bloody, but almost cartoonishly so.

      1. It´s not the cartoon violence but the sadism towards the slaves that puts Django far above Reservoir Dogs in terms of violence in my opinion.

  4. A keen observation, I feel.

    I’m not an oppressed ethnic minority. I don’t suffer from racial persecution of any degree. I’m a third generation American of Southern European descent. My ancestors played no part in the American Civil War, or any other war to my knowledge. They were people of simple means in a region of the world that has not seen slavery since Roman times. My family has no connection with racial conflict that I can trace, and it is not a history that belongs to us in any way.

    Why did I enjoy Django? Because I’m a proponent of humanism, of equality before the law, of peace and prosperity for all. Cruelty and oppression in any form trouble me. So yes, a movie about brutish slavers being given their bloody comeuppance appeals to a certain portion of my id. Because much like the works of Dumas which the movie references, Django Unchained invites the audience to consider justice and providence, and suggests that where God (or perhaps a lack thereof) fails to provide for the punishment of the wicked, it falls to mankind to police themselves – and at the same time to beware of hunting out our own monsters, for fear of becoming them ourselves.

  5. You put me in MacBeth and Carmen Jones 
    And all kinds of Swing Mikados 
    And in everything but what’s about me– 
    But someday somebody’ll 
    Stand up and talk about me, 
    And write about me– 
    Black and beautiful– 
    And sing about me, 
    And put on plays about me! 
    I reckon it’ll be 
    Me myself!
    — Langston Hughes

  6. Interesting. I don’t think I necessarily agree with his assessment of Schultz as the “white man’s agent” necessarily, I mean, look at what happens with the roles of Schultz and Django when they head to Candyland, but the conclusion he makes is intriguing nonetheless.

    1. I would agree that he certainly has some aspects of it in his character, but I don’t think he’s as “contemptuous” of slavery as Smith does – in the beginning he’s ambivalent about the fate of the other slaves with Django until he’s personally attacked, and it’s not until Candy feeds a slave to dogs that he really starts to display an animosity for it as opposed to an intellectual detachment.

      His position as a ‘white saviour’ is also somewhat subverted by the fact that he not only doesn’t “sacrifice[s] his life in the pursuit of freedom and justice for the black man”, but his action in pursuing a personal revenge are done knowing it will end in his death and more than likely those of the black slave(s) he’s supposedly dying for. He intentionally throws his life away and undoes almost everything they’ve worked towards just because he personally dislikes Candy, with Django being enslaved once more and transported away from his wife as in the opening of the movie.

  7. I love it when folks make comments about a film they haven’t even seen yet.
    Django isn’t about white revenge, black revenge or even slavery.  It’s about comedy.  You guys are trying to read depth into a very superficial (and funny) film.  Tarentino’s cameo says it all.

    1. Do you think comedy isn’t about anything else? You do know that drama can be superficial too, right? And comedy can be pretty profound. 

    2. I’m pretty sure a lot of the people commenting have seen the movie judging by the fact that they’re citing specifics from the plot.  Also, fairly sure the reviewers actually saw the movie as well.

      Maybe it’s your interpretation of the movie that’s superficial as opposed to the movie itself?

    3. He intentionally throws his life away and undoes almost everything they’ve worked towards just because he personally dislikes Candy[…]

      Hm, I saw a different movie than you, I guess. From the Clockwork Orange reference via the Alexandre Dumas père rising action to the shake-hands climax and SCNR & shooting denoument, this is classic drama. And it has not so much to do with personal revenge, in my POV. Especially the SCNR part is a perfect indicator against a personal revenge.

      This man. He deserved the academy award. Just for this. Admittedly, he brilliantly played his cards for this, doing his own AA PR with “Djesus – uncrossed” on SNL.

  8. I haven’t seen the film, but it sounds to me like he’s over-thinking it. Slave-owners, like Nazis, are generally-acceptable go-to bad guys. You can put them in a film and do whatever you like to them, and people will cheer. We know we’re not supposed to like them. If Tarantino’s “good German” was carving his way through the ranks of SS-men, or sex traffickers, or terrorists of any flavor, the reaction might have been similar.

    No surprise, incidentally, to learn that a Hollywood film that’s supposed to be about black people is really about a white guy. That seems to happen a lot.

  9. If anything I think this essay illustrates what a potent mirror Django Unchained serves as.

    I disagree pretty strongly with the conclusion of it, not because I find his logic lacking, but rather I disagree with his intrepretation of events.

    The claim that the good Dr. Schultz is some Realer White Person who puts the southern lesser white people to shame militarily is ignoring the fact that Django also, on his first exposure to a rifle, pulls off a perfect 300+ yard shot in the dark sniping a fleeing slaver riding across his vision at full gallop.  The facts as I see them are that the Dr. isn’t somehow “greater” but that all the good guys are “greater”.

    I also disagree with the interpretation that Schultz holds slavery in unique disgust.  He speaks very matter of factly about his career change into bounty hunting, and appears to take the pragmatic view of many situations.  I think there is equal support for the supposition that he’s never cared much about slavery before simply because it hasn’t directly affected him.

    As to the idea that Schultz purposefully sacrificed himself at the end of act 2: 

    A – I think my interpretation that Shultz didn’t hold slavery in unique disgust originally fits neatly to his awakening at Candyland and his boiling over into an act of homicidal rage.  Unless I missed something there is no evidence given in the film that it was intentionally a self-sacrificing act, rather a shattering of Schultz’s normally cool demeanor leading to an act which was uncalculated and with unplanned consequences.

    B – There is no denying that Schultz was The Mentor.  The Mentor can’t be a force in act 3 of a protagonists traditional arc.  Tarintino’s playing genre movie again.  Nobody exits neatly stage left in this genre.  Thus the (violent) death of Schultz was a forgone conclusion.  Therefore I’m not even sure any significance should be given to its manner, as the clock had ticked.

  10. The black person I talked to loved it, and particularly enjoyed the scene of the white sister of the slave owner Leo being blown away.  It was the third thing out of her mouth, when I saw her, ‘Hi. How are you? Did you see Django Unchained?’  This is probably not a whites only kind of revenge fantasy — I’m pretty sure that blacks can go in (for it), as well.  

    1. I suspect you’re probably a pretty OK person, but I’d avoid making arguments that begin with “the black person I talked to [expressed opinion]…”

      1. No, not a white power enthusiast, if that’s what you’re wondering.  It would also be a stretch to call her a friend, and it would lose something in the translation if I omitted that she’s, you know, black.  

        I’m also very aware of the phenomena you’re talking about.  For the sake of argument, let’s assume that if I’m on Boing Boing, I’m self-aware enough of the ‘Some of my best friends are [insert hated group here].’  

        1. Okay, so if you’re aware of that, then why did you step in it by beginning your comment by talking about one black person’s opinion of the movie as if other black people are likely to have the same opinion? 

          Do you go around thinking white people have pretty much the same opinion about something after hearing one white person’s opinion about it?

          Blacks are not a monolith.

          1. Oh, relax.  Save your outrage for baby seals or blood diamonds or something.  

            You can always go over to the Yahoo News and yell at some old white people if it will make you feel better.  

          2. I don’t see any outrage, I just see a pretty salient suggestion that you shouldn’t take an individual black person’s opinion as representative of the “black community” in general, which really is how your initial comment came across.

            Maybe instead of accusing people of pearl clutching you could just think about whether there is a better way of saying what you’re trying to say.  (There almost certainly is.)

            You should also probably consider that this really isn’t a discussion of whether individual black people might enjoy the film — I don’t think anyone is arguing that (because that would be a ridiculous claim to make). “My black friend liked it” isn’t necessarily completely relevant to whether it’s a “white revenge film”, a “black revenge film”, neither, or both.

          3. I have some platitudes that you should save up for special occasions.  These are big.  I just discovered them:

            The sky is not falling.
            Not everyone thinks alike, you know?
            We’re all the same inside.
            (My favorite:)
            It’s not all black and white.  It’s shades of grey.

            When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.
            I just made some.  Would you like some?

  11. I didn’t like Django that much, but my gripes were more with the general storytelling itself.  The high-minded meta commentary and themes were interesting and well done, but the day-to-day of the story didn’t work well.  Too many pointless scenes of men riding around on horses, looking badass.  A general problem of every open story arc being quickly closed, so that at the end of the movie, nothing from the beginning matters.  The main nemesis of Sam Jackson isn’t even present for most of the film, which makes his hasty hatred feel forced.  I just didn’t think the fundamentals worked well.

  12. Some subjects merit respect, reverence, and a modicum of tact: all of which are missing in Django Unchained. The writing is awful, the story unoriginal. Nothing is presented in this film that Tarantino has not done before. He has become derivative of himself, which normally is not a good thing. Add to that how Tarantino has always been derviative of other filmmakers, and you have something even worse than mere flash.

    The film itself is uninspiring. There was not a single moment during which I found myself either entertained or surprised. And the script itself? Just try to read it. That the acdemy chose to give it an award (in a writing category, no less) says much about so meaningless and ignorable an institution. Truly sad. In particular (or, as Tarantino would no doubt write it: In particularly), Tarantino would do well to learn basic grammar skills. He needs also to learn how to spell. Catchy turns of phrase, twisty vernacular, and slatherings of cliches do not indicate good writing; they indicate laziness, shallowness, and ineptitude. Add to this the fact that Tarantino took slavery as a subject and attempted (in the poorest manner posisble) to transform it into a spaghetti western comedy and you made add egregious egocentricity and immaturity to the personal roster of what he would probably call his “attributes.”

    In all, a pathetic, repulsive film.

    1. About this post: it went to the section before I could revise it. Therefore, some typos exist, of which I am aware.

      “acdemy” should read “academy.”
      “derviative” should read “derivative.”
      “posisble” should read “possible”

      Given that the post deals with Tarantino’s writing, it’s important that I point out the misspellings (unintended) in the post. The “edit” key is not available; that is why I am posting these corrections in the “reply” box.

    2. Whatevs dude. I think it was one of his best.

      Please point to another movie that has a story like this. What I like about Django is that Tarantino is now answering to no one and doing whatever he wants because he can. That cannot be said for many other directors.

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