In Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino’s alternate history unleashed fantasy revenge on Hitler’s regime. In Django Unchained, he brings it to the slavers.

With the help of the only good white guy in the South – a German bounty hunter Dr King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) – Django (Jamie Foxx) sets out to rescue his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) from a brutal plantation owner, Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).

An appreciation

Overall, I would have to say I enjoyed the film, despite not being one who generally goes for ultra-violence*. This is in large part due to the screenplay, which offers plenty of surprises throughout, and Oscar-winner Christoph Waltz who steals every scene. Leonardo DiCaprio was also off the chain here, bringing an energetic, intense and melodramatic performance. Jamie Foxx was also good, but for a movie named ‘Django Unchained’, I felt the main character’s part was slightly underwhelming. Will Smith felt something similar.

For me, Django Unchained is really Waltz’ movie. His character Schultz is fascinating and fun, with his own character arc. First, he’s just so likeable, and cool, with heaps of funny lines. We like how he goes about freeing Django, but then as the story develops he shoots a sheriff and you just think where is this story going?! He’s fatherly and empathetic towards Django. Sure, at times he’s largely concerned with collecting bounty and if he can both collect bounty and help Django all well and good. Perhaps he’s a pragmatist, until he is ultimately confronted with the horrors of Candieland, and can no longer endure Calvin Candie’s hubris.

A love story

The very heart of Django Unchained beats out a love story. A love that desires, longs and gives all things; a love that is jealous for the other, desiring that no-one else own or possess the other because they belong to each other. There’s a righteous jealousy and a righteous anger borne out of an exclusive relationship.

After Schultz and Django discover Broomhilda’s whereabouts, they plot her rescue – to play on Candie’s greed, offering a ridiculous $12,000 for a mandingo fighting slave and then in the course of the transaction offer $300 for Broomhilda on the pretext of company for Schultz because she speaks German, and so buy her freedom. But Stephen, Candie’s head servant (memorably played by Samuel L Jackson) figures that Schultz and Django are here for Broomhilda. Candie doesn’t like being deceived and he makes them pay the $12000 to save Broomhilda life – Schultz willingly pays the ransom money for Django’s wife, because she’s worth it.

A blood story

As Schultz waits for the paperwork, he recalls to mind the atrocities he’s witnessed at the hands of Candie. Candie delivers one final insult to seal the deal, when he demands that he and Schultz shake hands like gentlemen. Disgusted, Schultz breaks his ordinarily charming and professional character and kills Candie, but is then killed himself.

While I felt the final act was somewhat gratuitous action-wise, Schultz break of character is the beginning of Django’s transformation from slavery to autonomy – Django must now save his lady without Schultz i.e. he is finally his own man, independent, autonomous, free. In that sense, it’s essential to the plot but in other ways the whole ending sequence feels somewhat indulgent. Of course, it probably wouldn’t be a Tarantino movie without some level of creative blood-letting, and at times the film is self-aware.

At other times, however, violence is used to harrowing effect. The mandingo fighting scene at Candie’s city room is one such scene. While this scene contains (relatively) little blood, our imaginations and sound effects give us enough idea to be sickened by what we are witnessing. There was no TV back then but it is clear from the arrangement of the room that the fighting is serving in its place. Tarantino, as he did in Inglourious Basterds, is drawing attention to we the viewers if we’re alert to it – we are watching people watching violence, and being entertained by it. While some of us may have come along expecting to be thrilled by on-screen action, Tarantino twists it into something truly ugly, pushing his story beyond mere distraction to something truly horrible. Suddenly we’re involved in it. The ordeal leaves *us* needing a drink, like Candie’s buddy there.

And so when it comes to Django’s unchaining – are we supposed to be delighted or disturbed? Are we meant to be celebrating his victory? If nothing else, the scenes show that context is everything – the way in which story, character, motivation frames our response to violence.

A slave story

Tarantino set out to make a film about slavery, but does he say anything of significance? Personally, I think he does, even if its hard to see through the red clouds.

Early on in the film, Schultz and Django ride side by side into a small town. All the townsfolk are shocked that a black man would be riding a horse and worse, a white man would be with him. They are outraged but we think its hilarious and the townsfolk are so stupid. But when Schultz shoots the sheriff, suddenly, we are shocked – on the first level – he just shot a sheriff, and secondly – how is this helping Django’s quest? But what appears to be immoral and shocking actually has the full authority of the law. And suddenly we feel all better about Schultz as a good guy, and amused at the way our perception is manipulated. But the same applies to slavery.

The point is that there was a certain level of public acceptance of the practice because it was legal (and vice versa). Candie generates wealth through his entertainment business, and he and his cohorts and others think nothing of it. It’s just business. It was the normal and done thing in the South, and history and the film Lincoln tell us the economy seemed to depend on it, though today we consider such practices to be immoral and abhorrent (if the film is to be believed that everyone back then in the south thought it was okay). Yes – what is legal is not necessarily moral.

Candie, though, gives his justification – in the dinner table scene which is altogether gripping, funny, and disturbing, the pseudoscience of phrenology explains why that biologically, the slave is submissive, and so presumably exploiting them is okay. But Stephen clearly serves Candie as much more than head servant, drinking his fine alcohol and tipping Candie off to the tricksters. As Django is an extension of Schultz, so Stephen is an extension of Candie. Stephen is Candie’s brains, far more clever and perceptive than Candie would admit publicly.

Stephen is doing pretty well out of Candieland too, and Stephen’s problem, self-interest, explains Candie’s exploitation of slaves for profit and the Brittle brothers delight in punishing slaves. Self-interest leads to exploitation. So with Stephen’s death you could say that in order for slavery to end, in order for people to be free, self-interest must be destroyed. Not a bad message really.

A human rights question

Now, there’ s probably nothing too controversial about much of this. We’re enlightened 21st century people. Of course, slavery is wrong. Slavery is the forceful ownership of one person by another. But as we assume today that it was wrong, why do some assume that it was okay? Ever thought about what’s really wrong with slavery? Whose to say what a human is worth, or which rights are valid? Where do rights originate? Even if we may disagree with what constitutes human rights, I want to suggest the idea of human rights is more consistent with a theistic worldview than a naturalistic one.

Under naturalism, humans are ontologically indistinct from all other matter. There is no concept of value within nature – whatever is, is. Feelings of injustice are just that – the illusion of socio-cultural conditioning or chemicals reacting in our brains. And because all truth necessarily falls into the same category, human rights can only be arbitrarily defined. No-one can say anyone else is wrong about anything, especially not how we ought to treat one another.

Under Christian theism, humans bear the image of God, i.e. they have innate worth and qualities bestowed upon them by a Creator who makes us out of his divine love and for his pleasure, for relationship with Himself and with others.  When our hearts ache for others in outrage, compassion or empathy, we are responding to impulses derived from a divine law-giver. Ever had the feeling that things ought to be different? Theism’s affirmation of the innate worth of humans provides a basis for moral action, the unique worth of humans expresed in human rights, as well as being emotionally satisfying.

The Gospel: a slave story, a blood story and a love story

The exploitation of others and the perversion of justice we see in the world is a result of our rejection of God’s rightful rule over us. We are rightfully his by virtue of him creating us, but we belong to another, enslaved by our own self-rule (Romans 6:20).

Not to be confused with envy, which arises from a desire to have something that someone else has, the emotion of jealousy is better understood as the protection of a rightful relationship from a rival. The Old Testament describes God as a jealous God:

for you shall worship no other god, for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God, (Exodus 34:14)

As Django is jealous for his wife and so sets about saving her, so God is jealous for people too: until we are rescued by Jesus, our “Siegfried”, our “Django”, as one driven by deep compassion for one dearly loved. But in this redemption, Jesus embraces not violence but submission, putting aside self-interest and choosing the humiliation of a Roman cross in order to set slaves free (Philippians 2:3-11).

And so Christ rescues a bride out of a corrupt Candieland world because “she”, i.e people are worth it! The death of Jesus on our behalf is God’s redemptive love in action and a model of how we ought to treat one another – to seek their good. Rather than exploiting people, we care for them; we honour them as dearly loved creations bearing the “image of God”, we don’t abuse or treat them like commodities. We serve others in love as ‘slaves to righteousness’ (Romans 6:15-23).

Final thoughts

Django Unchained is an entertaining and confronting story of dramatic rescue driven by a passionate, longing, self-giving love against a backdrop of terrible suffering. In this way, Django’s love for his bride Broomhilde dramatcially illustrates Christ’s love for all people (Ephesians 5:25-33). The film also highlights the difference between legality and morality and the corrupting power of self-interest and self-rule.

The film then blurs much of these distinctions in a final act which is as much about self-interest, i.e. personal revenge, as it is freeing a bride – Django does what is illegal to achieve what we are led to think is an appropriate punishment. Django is not as bad as the slavers, right?

While there were plenty of funny moments, I was hoping for one little surprise: that somehow through all this, perhaps Stephen might have shown some remorse, or have been shown some mercy. It would have been a nice little twist. As it is, none of the redemption we hope for Django and his bride is extended to any of their captors.

* The film is certainly not for the squeamish.