[Chock full of spoilers]
There’s an odd inaccuracy in several reviews of Django Unchained. In summarizing the plot, reviewers write that the deal German dentist turned bounty hunter King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) offers Django (Jaimie Foxx) is that the doctor will help Django find and free his wife, in exchange for help identifying the Brittle brothers, three fugitives on the run. But this isn’t actually the deal the two strike. In fact, Schultz barely offers Django a deal at all. Shortly after purchasing him, Schultz tells Django that, despite his hatred of slavery, he is willing to use it to his advantage in this case, though he would prefer that Django cooperate with him voluntarily. He tells Django that he will give him $75 ($25 for each Brittle brother), a horse, and his freedom. Django has no reason to refuse this offer, but Schultz has made it clear that refusal is not really an option anyway. It isn’t until later, when Schultz asks Django what he will do with his freedom, that Schultz even discovers that Django has a wife. Schultz responds with disbelief, “Slaves believe in marriage?”
Still, Schultz hasn’t committed to anything beyond supplying Django with the means—freedom, money, and a bit of target practice—to free his wife. Only when Schultz tells Django the story of his wife’s namesake, Broomhilda (played by the stunning but virtually silent Kerry Washington), does the relationship between the two men change.
Schultz begins telling the story in the tone of someone who lost interest in the characters and their trials and triumphs long ago. But as he continues, he sees Django react as someone hearing it for the first time—the woman trapped on the mountain by a tyrannical, powerful villain, the hero who loves her enough to face the impossible to save her—and the characters receive new life as they are transformed from German clichés into flesh and blood people living in times of real life monsters. The solitary and jaded Schultz, whose hatred of slavery previously extended right up until the point at which he found it useful, is inspired by the plight of a slave whom he has just now come to see as a man.
Of course, Django is himself an archetype, the wronged man come to wreak vengeance on his enemies with a quick draw and a witty line. Like Schultz, we are invited to find the humanity of actual human beings through the telling of a story of archetypes. The portrayal of a slave as a John Wayne-style gunslinger removes him from history, rooted in a particular context (not just that of slavery but of the entire history of race relations in the United States up to the present day) and remakes him into a quintessentially American representation of heroism.
And yet, despite self-conscious wallowing in the archetypes of both the spaghetti western and the blaxploitation flick, the black characters of Django feel more varied and more nuanced than any portrayal of slaves I’ve ever seen in a large budget film. The system of slavery treated black people as a mass of undifferentiated beasts of burden, and film depictions rarely do much better, offering up a collection of noble victims and desperate uncle toms. By contrast, the slaves in Django make choices, each developing a unique response to the horrors of the system they are trapped in, a combination of protected spheres of individuality and surrender. That range is best showcased in the brutal mandingo fight scene. As plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo Dicaprio) cheers his fighter on with a disturbingly matter of fact ruthlessness, everyone in the room reacts—the bartender watches the fight with a mixture of compassion and disgust; Candie’s black mistress, Sheba, seems gratified by the distinction preserved between her and the bloody beasts writhing on the floor; the victorious fighter grips at what’s left of his humanity even as his own sense of self-preservation requires him to tear another human being to shreds.
Even Samuel L. Jackson’s villainous old house slave Steven is more than meets the eye. He has carved out an identity for himself as the indispensable right hand man of his master, Candie. Like Sheba, he has sought to remove himself from the lowest indignities suffered by slaves, recasting himself as a confidant and co-conspirator and reimagining himself as something distinct and unrelated to the unfortunate beasts left bloodied and broken in the muck of slavery. He is not a pathetic uncle tom, but the clear-eyed, intelligent villain who drives most of the action.
The film also deals surprisingly well with the ways in which slavery and class privilege interact. When one of his slaves asks whether she should treat this free black man the way she would treat a white man, plantation owner Big Daddy quickly demurs and explains she should treat him like Jerry, the “peckawood boy from town” (that is, a low class white man) who occasionally comes by to fix the windows. The destitution of Candie’s white servants would seem tragic if we saw it simply placed alongside the grandeur of Candie Land. But instead, we see it alongside the atrocities suffered by Candie’s slaves. It is of course no accident that the lot of Candie’s whites is elevated by a comparison to the lot of Candie’s blacks. Even Candie’s lawyer, clean and groomed and seated at the table in the Big House, simpers in Candie’s direction with a dedication that rivals Steven’s.
In the end, the film ends the way a western is supposed to—villains dead, victims avenged and heroes victorious. And, also in keeping with the formula of westerns, the main female character has little to say and even less to do, beyond operate as an object to motivate the hero. There are reasons why I don’t love westerns, and they are all more or less summed up in those two sentences. But Django Unchained is remarkable precisely because it manages to combine a near-flawless execution of the genre with a smart and unflinching portrayal of slaves and slavery as something both more brutal and less pat than many “serious” films that have come before it.