(There are spoilers in the review below!)
There is no reasonable argument for human slavery. In the antebellum South, the institution was propped up by biblical justifications and pseudoscientific just-so stories. Both of these myths underpinning slavery appear as footnotes in Django Unchained — a whip-wielding slave-driver wears Bible pages pinned to his garments, while a plantation owner with a flair for the dramatic delivers a lesson in phrenology to his houseguests as they negotiate a slave sale.
But it’s a different myth at the heart of Django’s story, one that functions in a similar way: to demonstrate the dire consequences when mythic thinking overtakes logic and reason.
Django Unchained opens with the start of a new relationship between dentist-turned-bounty-hunter King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) and Django (Jamie Foxx), a slave with the knowledge and ability to help Schultz catch his latest quarry. Once that hunt is over, Schultz and (newly-freed) Django arrange to go on a new quest: to rescue Django’s beloved wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). Their plan? To pose as traders offering an inflated sum for a prize-fighting slave in order to gain access to Broomhilda’s current owner, Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). Once they’ve gained his trust, they can then offer to buy Broomhilda as part of the deal.
Naturally, their ruse gets found out, sparking the ire of the deceived Candie, who nonetheless arranges to sell Broomhilda in place of the prize-fighter. That’s a key point — Candie was receptive to the possibility of selling Broomhilda all along, no subterfuge required. So why come up with such a complicated plot?
If you’ve seen a Tarantino movie before, you know the answer to this one. A complicated plot has the opportunity to crumble in unforeseen ways, leading to a massive bloodbath and a heroic climax, often with an element of sweet revenge. But the characters also need some sort of driving reality to motivate their decision-making. And that’s where mythical thinking makes an appearance.
Early in their friendship, Schultz relates the Germanic legend of Brünnhilde, imprisoned by the god Odin and dramatically rescued by Siegfried. Django obviously identifies with the hero of the tale, and Schultz reinforces the feeling, calling Django “a real-life Siegfried.” Thus, when they begin to plan how they’ll rescue Broomhilda and secure her freedom, they have a mythic mindset informing their choices.
A real-life Siegfried doesn’t approach the fire-breathing dragon who guards Brünnhilde and politely inquire about price. For Django to live out his role as “a real-life Siegfried,” his solution to his wife’s enslavement must necessarily involve some risk, some danger.
Playing the hero comes with a cost. Django hurls abuse at slaves, even allows one desperate runaway to be torn to bits by dogs rather than let his carefully-constructed performance slip. He has to maintain the appearance of emotional disinterest in the plight of slaves in order to deceive Candie successfully. Schultz leads him to offend Candie deeply, triggering the bloodbath the audience has been waiting for. But in the characters’ reality, it’s not a satisfying spectacle; it’s a disastrous deviation from the plan that places their lives in danger.
The conclusion of the movie doesn’t allude to the predictable outcome for a pair of slaves in the antebellum south who have been implicated in such grand-scale violence, but history tells us that Django and Broomhilda would be far less likely to achieve the happy ending implied now that they’re together. An attack this violent, going so heavily against the grain of society’s racial order, would have been punished very severely. The perpetrators would have been sought tirelessly; their chances of escaping to safety would be almost nil. Once caught, they would have been tortured and brutalized as an example to other would-be insurrectionists.
Django’s story is a myth based on a myth. It’s the dramatic story of a slave basing his decisions on a Germanic love story. We accept it for what it is — and I enjoyed it for what it was, an exciting spectacle of violence and action that isn’t meant to be cinematically true to life.
But it’s still worth talking about the reality that, in terms of the characters’ aims, that cinematic spectacle grows out of a very serious mistake: the decision to employ more dramatic tactics than necessary out of over-identification with a myth.
It’s worth talking about because, even in this (relatively) enlightened society, we do the same thing, and without the excuse of cinematic vengeance or glory. We use pseudoscience and religious mythology to justify prejudice and inequality. We choose miracle cures and quackery instead of legitimate medical treatments. We fall short of our potential to change the world when we choose to pray instead of acting. We take myths as literal truths and use them to persecute other people.
If we’re lucky, the consequences are small. Sometimes, however, the unfortunate consequences grow out of control into a bloodbath worthy of Quentin Tarantino. We see it in the news every day.
And as in the case of Tarantino’s runaway slave, too often the consequences weigh heaviest on somebody without the freedom to make a different choice.