A Review of Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained: How Myths Make Matters Worse

This is a guest post by Sara Lin Wilde. Sara is a Toronto-dwelling Canadian writer working towards publishing her first novel. You can also find her on Twitter.

(There are spoilers in the review below!)


Christoph Waltz and Jamie Foxx

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.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • eeeee

    The whole point was that they did not want to make that $12k transaction in the first place. They wanted to only make him believe that the $12k offer is true and then buy Brunhilde for a regular price which was a few hundred dollars in other occasions of the movie.

  • Epeo

    As eeee said, they explained in the movie that Calvin Candie would have never considered selling Django’s wife for the mere 300 us$, so they tried to trick him. Of course, the decision of tricking Candie had unexpected and enormous consequences, but the original motivation did make sense.
    All I see in this review is “I went to see a Tarantino movie, and it was not historically accurate nor realistic”. Duh…

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/chidy/ chicago dyke

    i’m going to disagree with this post and say that myth has value. it’s a QT movie, no? well, the author of this post, knowing about his films, went to see it, after all.

    myth is myth. fake, not real, not grounded in logic or science, etc.

    but it also inspires. it moves people. it gives us a chance to have a really good cry. it is the basis for some kick-ass music and really good stories that get turned into movies.

    should we use it in medicine, politics or education? mostly, no. but we can still enjoy it, sometimes. i bet a lot of parents on this blog tell their children about Santa Claus and the tooth fairy, despite the fact that as intelligent adults they have rejected religious belief. is that wrong?

    i enjoy myths and i like telling stories. i’m even writing a book about a fictional character who is a believer in myths. i very much hope people will buy it. myth isn’t always “bad.” yes, it can be hurtful in society. but sometimes, it can be helpful.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Joe-GK/507761207 Joe GK

    I’m not sure how this is you disagreeing.

    Or maybe I’m just not that perceptive today lol

  • Cortex_Returns

    I like your point about how the Bible and phrenology were used to prop-up slavery in the movie. I hadn’t thought about those elements in that context.

    But I do disagree that the story is about myths making things worse. Phrenology was, at least as far as many people in the US were concerned, established science at the time. The way I see it, the dominant forms of American knowledge at the time, science and Christianity, supported the institution of slavery. It took an outside form of knowledge – German mythology, engineering ingenuity (the exploding cart, the up-sleeve pistols, etc.), and rigid adherence to law – to liberate Django by making him aware of the fact that a different reality was possible.

    And I don’t agree that Django and Broomhilda are doomed at the end of the film. They are both legally free with papers and all, and Django didn’t leave any white survivors. The house burned down at the end, so evidence will be scant. I think they’ve got a chance, especially given Django’s intellect and fighting prowess.

  • Rainer Alföldi

    As other commentators have already mentioned: you don’t seem to get the very realistic logic of the plot – even though it is explained in great detail as Django doesn’t get it at the beginning either. Maybe you should “review” the movie before you review it.

  • http://www.facebook.com/abb3w Arthur Byrne

    The implication doesn’t seem to be that myth lacks value, but rather that in excess it has potentially serious toxic side effects. Kind of like salt. Or perhaps arsenic.

  • http://www.facebook.com/cecelia.baines.5 Cecelia Baines

    Oh christ….. Another amateur writer trying to appear erudite and hip by falsely deconstructing something they have no clue of.

  • http://twitter.com/jpmiii James Paul Mccall

    The only chance they would have from lack of evidence is the possibility they would blame the wrong people for it and torture and kill them instead.

  • Gribblethemunchkin

    The thing that struck me most about the movie was the all-pervasiveness of slavery whereas in the vast majority of westerns (and yes, technically, Django is a Southern rather than a western) it is airbrushed out of reality. That something so massive, so important and so critical doesn’t even make the background of most westerns really makes you consider the way that we write our own history. With the brutality of slavery fully on display in Django, it does make you think about the horror and cognitive dissonance that those times must have been rife with.

  • starskeptic

    Exactly right!

  • doctorjonesy

    This comment contains spoilers.

    Um… you really need to watch the movie again. Others have explained the plan’s logic, but I’ll reiterate anyway. They couldn’t just make an offer on Broomhilda because their offer could very well be refused. They had to make an offer that Candie would consider worthwhile and pretty much impossible to refuse. So they pretended they were going to buy a fighter. They told Candie that because it was such a large sum, they would need to go away and return in five days with Shultz’s lawyer and they would pay the money then. In the meantime, Shultz asked about purchasing Broomhilda. Obviously since that was a relatively small sum, he would have bought her then and there and taken her with them. After which they would not have returned. You seem to have missed something in the line of reasoning here if you can’t see that it makes sense.

    The myth is there and it at least provides the catalyst for Shultz wanting to help Django. But none of their logic was influenced by that myth. Obviously from a film making perspective the myth informed the situation and outcomes, but in terms of the characters’ reasoning, they had a sound basis for planning things as they did.

    “Schultz leads him to offend Candie deeply, triggering the bloodbath the audience has been waiting for.”

    You REALLY need to watch the movie again. Or I do. Because I just can’t figure out what you’re getting at here. The bloodbath is triggered when Shultz shoots Candie rather than shake his hand. And it’s not because of mythical thinking. There are multiple layers and subtleties in this scene so I’m sure I’m not covering it all, but basically Shultz can’t stop thinking about the injustices he’s seen. He feels guilt over being complicit in allowing a person to be torn apart by dogs. Yes, the deal has been made, but his conscience nags at him. He can’t quite let it go. There is an exceedingly thin veneer of civility when he brings up the author Alexandre Dumas and speculates as to whether he would approve of Candie’s actions/philosophy. He mentions that Dumas was black. Remember earlier when it was pointed out that although Candie likes to be called “Monsieur” he does not know how to speak French and it would not be a good idea to speak it in front of him? This is clearly a man who does not like his ignorance displayed, and clearly that is Shultz’s intent here. Candie would have had no idea that Dumas was black.

    By insisting that they shake hands, at least part of what Candie was doing was trying to regain the upper hand. In terms of his goals, of course Shultz should have just done it. But he is driven by emotion and his intense dislike of the man. His sense of guilt is driving him to seek justice rather than to think rationally. And although he is being heroic in a way, prioritizing that guilt over rescuing Broomhilda is selfish. And it is supposed to be. I won’t go more into that but you should definitely read this article: http://waysofteaandfailure.blogspot.com.au/2013/01/i-couldnt-resist-review-and-analysis-of.html (I hope links are allowed.)

    This part from the article, in particular, captures my thoughts about it:

    “In this respect, “Django Unchained” is pretty much the exact opposite of “The Help”. Rather than be a toothless and utterly safe film about how white guilt makes people better and solves racism, this is a violent and unflinching movie that shows white guilt as a liability and pretty much completely useless when it comes to actually making a difference in regards to racism. Schultz feeling bad about the treatment of the slaves doesn’t mean jack shit and his guilt isn’t enough to stop it. At the end of the day, white guilt exists because racism still exists and we feel responsible by being complacent…”

    All of this is to say, if you didn’t pick up on this stuff, you missed a freaking excellent movie. I am glad you still managed to enjoy it, but seriously. Watch it again. And don’t try to fill up non-existent plot holes this time. I see how you came to your conclusions based on your misunderstanding of the film, but give it another go.

  • http://daniel.bottle-imp.com/ Daniel

    Wait, are you suggesting Tarantino’s plots and stories are absurd on the level of a comic book? That the dialog isn’t natural and the outcome isn’t realistic? THIS CAN’T BE.

  • FatSam

    You say you went to go see something written and directed by Quentin Tarantino, and a movie broke out?

  • BWillie

    The movie lost me after Shultz shoots Candie. Can we really believe that someone who, up to that point, took care to protect Django would suddenly put him in the position to be recaptured, along with his wife, and return to torment and slavery? No one with his intellect, I think, would not have realized the best course of action was to take the deal, retreat, then go back to kill Candie when he wouldn’t know they were coming. They took care of the KKK guys with an exploding wagon without a warrant. Why not burn Candie’s house a month later when they had time to plan and when Django’s wife was paid for, taken away, and safe? Or can we really believe that Django, who has lived as a slave and subsequently known a year of total freedom would give himself up after the gunfight, knowing 100% that they would separate and punish his wife and deliver him to the worst possible punishment they could think of? How, in the real world, could giving up possibly work out well for them as a couple? Aetheists are beacons of logic, and with or without myths, this isn’t logical. If I were Django, I’d let them free my wife from her suffering with a gunshot, then come out pointing the empty gun, forcing them to kill me as well. No way I’d let them take me alive. That’s the real myth. That somehow fate (ie god) will make a way for the good guys. I think a good soldier saves the last bullet for himself when up against such devils as these. But why, why, WHY would Schultz put the two people he freed in that situation to suddenly fend for themselves? He had time to shoot the shotgun guy too! And we know that pistol has two shots from when he uses it to shoot the sheriff. Doesn’t make sense.

  • Morrigan

    Has anyone else noticed that it’s Christianity that is given the brunt of these attacks and not Judaism? Judaism is far more supportive of slavery than Christianity and it’s more apparent in the old Testament. it’s politically correct to attack Christianity but not Judaism.

  • Morrigan

    Dumas wasn’t black either. His grandmother was part black. Dumas himself brought it up because it made him seem exotic in France.

  • Morgan

    You need to watch more Westerns. Most of them take place AFTER the civil war and plenty of the Heroes and Villains are former Confederate soldiers.
    Not to forget that most Western states didn’t have large plantations or even Black populations. That’s why slavery isn’t a big part of Westerns. Timeline and location.