In both music and cinema, country and western tends to be the genre most resistant to blackness. Whether they take place before the Civil War or after the Civil War, westerns tend to erase any real sense of black-white conflict in the United States, either by deflecting it into the conflict between straggling Union and Confederate soldiers, or into the conflict between white Americans and First Nations. As a result, revisionist westerns have tended to situate themselves in the midst of the Civil War, as occurs in Ang Lee’s Ride With The Devil, or to restore black Americans to centre stage, as occurs in Unforgiven. Regardless of whether they sympathise with the Union or Confederacy, though, the vast majority of westerns tend to avoid focusing on the question of slavery as a cornerstone of the Civil War.
As a result, the black cowboy is almost a contradiction in terms in American culture. Imagining a white cowboy means breaching one of the most hallowed of American mythologies – the west – and revealing that westward expansion depended partly on the economy of slavery in the Deep South. In 2019, Lil Nas X has fused the black cowboy with the gay cowboy, envisaging a gay black cowboy, coming out as gay shortly after “Old Town Road” reached its maximum exposure. Yet Lil Nas X’s success also demonstrates that the black cowboy is always, in some sense, a queer figure. Since the western has been used more than any other to testify to the longevity of white American masculinity – and the capacity of white America to set the terms for masculinity – envisaging a black cowboy means conceiving a new kind of masculinity, and a new approach to gender more generally.
Quentin Tarantino’s seventh feature, Django Unchained, is a similar attempt to envisage the black cowboy as a provocative contradiction in terms. The film takes place two years before the Civil War, when the South is at its most defensive in the face of pressure from the North to bring the institution of slavery to an end. That situation is condensed to the experience of Django (eventually Django Freeman), a slave played by Jamie Foxx, and Dr. King Schultz, a German bounty hunter played by Christoph Waltz. After King liberates Django to help him identify a trio of criminals, he offers to help Django track down his wife, Broomhilda, played by Kerry Washington, who has been sold to one the most notorious of all slave traders – Calvin Candie, played by Leonardo DiCaprio. Candie lives on a massive plantation in Mississippi known as Candyland, where he raises slaves for Mandingo tournaments – wrestling battles in which two black men are forced to fight to the death. Before arriving at Candyland, Django and King come up with a scheme to extract Broomhilda, but they are thwarted by Stephen, Candie’s loyal house slave, played by Samuel L. Jackson, who becomes Django’s main adversary after King, Candie and most of Candie’s men are out of the picture.
Before we even arrive at Candieland, however, much of Django Unchained follows Django and King as they make their way across the South, moving from one bounty to the next. More of the film is shot outside than any of Tarantino’s previous films, while the outdoor sequences are more lyrical and poetic than any of his films apart from Jackie Brown. In fact, Django Unchained often feels like a spiritual sequel to Jackie Brown, since in both films Tarantino confronts black machismo – which has always galvanised his career – head on. Both films feel like good faith gestures, compared to some of the weird ways in which black masculinity is figured in his earlier films, and both feel more relaxed and languorous for that good faith approach, allowing Tarantino ample time and space to question his status as a white director whose films are nearly always driven by tropes imported from Blaxploitation. This expansive viewpoint tends to be associated with Django in particular, and the black cowboy more generally, since it’s only once Django gets on a horse for the first time, and only as he settles into the saddle, that the film’s panoramic aspirations come into focus. It is as if Tarantino is trying to show us that the widescreen vistas of the western, which are virtually always devoid of black people, are unthinkable without the role that black people, and the institution of slavery, played in America at the time the west was being conceived.
That’s not to say, of course, that Django Unchained rushes over the issue of slavery either, although the film has been criticized for the way in which it – supposedly – trivializes slavery as both an institution and experience. These criticisms intensified after Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave was released the following year, since the two films diverge dramatically in their depictions of slavery. Undoubtedly, 12 Years a Slave has a veracity and an authority that Django Unchained can never match, since it’s based on Solomon Northup’s slave memoir, and is directed by a black man, whose insights into racism must be light years beyond anything that Tarantino can muster. Yet as a director whose career has nearly always aestheticized the experience of white fragility, Tarantino is also well-placed to capture the fragility, banality and bathos of the people who perpetuated slavery, which turns out to be one of the main concerns of Django Unchained. Time and again, Tarantino’s rapid zooms hone in on the hyper-sensitivity of white people towards black people who seem out of place, taking us through one comic tableau after another in which the white overseers of slavery are subsumed into an infantile, abject and regressed state of existence. When Django rides into Candyland, nobody is quite so awed as Candie himself, who stares at him with a slack-jawed, quasi-romantic wonder, intimidated and entranced, despite himself, by the surfeit of black machismo he has worked so hard to suppress and to control.
This bathetic vision of slavery culminates with Tarantino’s depiction of the Ku Klux Klan, which produces some of the silliest and most slapstick moments in the film. Robbing the Klan of all their hubris, Tarantino presents them as a series of incompetent idiots who can’t even get their costumes correct. It’s no coincidence that Jonah Hill makes a cameo during the main Klan sequence, since at this point he was mainly known for teen comedies, lending the activities of the Klan a similarly adolescent vibe as they plan a raid that the audience knows will never come off competently. Poking fun at the Klan is not a difficult thing to do, but Tarantino also pokes fun at the role of the Klan, and the South, in the American film canon. Scary as it sounds, celebrations of the Klan are fundamental to American film language, since the first and most canonical instance of cross-editing – at the end of D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation – accompanies a glorious Klan raid on a slave revolt. By quoting individual shots from this sequence within his own Klan parody, Tarantino offers a vision of the Klan, and the South, that is disinterested in the tasteful appreciation and canonization of American film, which has also often been a tacit approval of Southern values. Here, the Klan becomes an inane, enjoyable spectacle for King and Django, rather than an instructive lesson for the audience, or the platform for a lecture in film aesthetics.
Tarantino’s vision of slavery also takes aim at Gone With The Wind, another moment in American film history where black bodies have been sacrificed to the evolution of film language – in this case, the emergence of Technicolor, rather than the development of cross-editing. Candyland, in particular, takes the Technicolor South of Gone With The Wind to its sickly conclusion, reveling in the same multicoloured marvels, but centring them on a spectacle that is only ever implicit in the 1939 film. During dinner, at the height of “civilized” conversation, Candie brings out Broomhilda to show Django and King the scars on her back. This is not intended as a cautionary tale, or as a mere exercise of power, but as an aesthetic achievement: “Look at it doctor, it’s like a painting.” In Tarantino’s vision, the desecration of black bodies is not merely a key part of the aesthetics of the South – it is the greatest aesthetic achievement that the South can conceive, and the spectacle that lies beyond all the most brilliant and breathtaking moments in Gone With The Wind’s Technicolor majesty.
In that sense, Django Unchained is a riposte to the American film canon as much to the institution of slavery, presenting the film canon as a way of continuing to legitimize slavery in the present as an aesthetic and technological spectacle. Yet the aesthetics and technologies of slavery are central to what make slavery so perverse to begin with in Tarantino’s vision. While Django Unchained frankly presents slavery as an economic institution, this economic element isn’t really what interests Tarantino. Instead, Django Unchained is focused on slavery as an institution of pleasure, or an institution of sadism – a way of assuaging a white fragility that has evolved and continued into the present. Since this fragility still exists, the film seems to suggest, the impulse to enslave black people has never gone away, but has just been deflected into other forms of social coercion that allow white people to eviscerate black pleasure. It feels apt, then, that Tarantino captures this space between present and past through the ahistorical institution of Mandingo, the blood sport in which a slave owner turns slaves on each other to fight to death as violently as possible.
While Mandingo never existed as a discrete or institutionalized sport, that’s not really the point of how it is used in Django Unchained. Rather, Tarantino uses Mandingo to capture the deeper libidinal structure of slavery – as a sadistic institution first, and an economic institution second. During the Mandingo games, slavery becomes a sport, a way of disposing of black bodies, and a site of infantile enjoyment, encapsulated in the most brutal Mandingo scene, which culminates with the loser having his eyes clawed out while a bowl of jelly beans spills out and careens across the floor. These multicoloured jelly beans replicate, in miniature, the broader palette of the film, which is easily the most colourful in Tarantino’s career – Kill Bill included – and strives to exceed the Technicolor marvels of Gone With The Wind. No film in Tarantino’s career is so beautiful to look at, so atmospheric to bask in, and so pleasurable to experience, and yet this very pleasure is complicit in the atrocities taking place within it. You might almost say that Django Unchained is Tarantino’s greatest aesthetic and technological achievement – his most ambitious screenplay, his most sustained narrative, his best pacing – but that it also presents the contemplation of aesthetic and technological achievement as complicit in the way Hollywood has massaged slavery into a principle of its film canon, and so permitted it to percolate across the present.
In that sense, Django Unchained sets out to desecrate The Birth of a Nation and Gone With The Wind as mainstays of the American film canon, both by presenting their version of the South as a perversion, but also by pairing their aesthetic aspirations with lowbrow, exploitative flourishes. For Tarantino, an exploitation film is suited to the subject of exploitation, and there’s something to be said for a film that turns slavery into such a pulpy spectacle that you can’t really congratulate yourself for watching it. Exuding the same playful irreverence that he displayed in Inglourious Basterds, Christoph Waltz feels less like a point of white identification than a site where the audience’s need for a sympathetic white figure is disrupted and deflected. This isn’t because King is evil, but because he is so campily German that he doesn’t really belong in the world of the South, alternately refusing to provide white American audiences with a white American savior, but also parodying the need for a white American character who is somehow “different” enough to stand outside the system. The sheer improbability of King’s character, and Waltz’s presence, undercuts the fantasy that the mere act of watching the film exonerates white audiences from the ongoing legacy of slavery. Like the giant wobbling tooth on top of his dentist’s cart, King offsets Tarantino’s stately vistas with a silliness that prevents the audience ever being able to settle into the historical and critical distance with which white folk usually regard slavery.
It’s no coincidence, then, that Waltz’s character is named “Dr. King,” since his presence plays on the way white audiences have usually been flattered, in films about slavery, into believing that they can channel the spirit of Dr. King simply by extending their sympathy to the black characters on the screen before them. Since there is already a white character in Django Unchained named after Dr. King, and since this character is absurdly out of place to begin with, no aspect of the South is exempted from the vision of slavery that Tarantino unfolds. All white men in the South are here presented as either braindead hicks or perverse sadists, while there are no exceptions to the rule – no “special cases” of humane slave owners, or plantation owners, who manage to achieve humanity despite owning slaves. These “special cases” form the bulk of white films about slavery, so by removing them, and equating the white population of the South with the institution of slavery, Tarantino ensures that slaves are never normalised or naturalized with his mise-en-scenes. Finally, since these “special cases” of humane Southerners typically square the circle between past and present in films about slavery, Tarantino’s refusal to grant any such special exemptions means that slavery feels like a contemporary phenomenon in Django Unchained, a white pleasure principle that is still present, albeit in different forms, in the milieu that the film addresses.
For Tarantino, the struggle between slave and slave owner in the present is encapsulated in the contrast between the word “n-er” and the word “n-a.” Both of these words have played a particularly pronounced role in Tarantino’s own filmography, where the evolution of “n-er” into “n-a” has often been seized upon as the burst of energy needed to restore a white cinematic machine that has long since descended into pastiche and self-parody. From the earliest scenes of Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino set out to try and reinvent the language of white masculine cinema with the same urgency with which black culture has reinvented the word “n-er.” This produced an uneasy and often questionable “alliance” with Blaxploitation that has been most compelling when Tarantino has tackled it head on, as in Jackie Brown, and now in Django Unchained. By fixating on the space between “n-er” and “n-a,” Tarantino not only testifies to the ongoing legacy of slavery within the present, but the ways in which his own cinematic proclivities might be complicit in this very situation.
Django’s journey can therefore be understood as his gradual discovery of what it means to be a “n-a,” as he gradually embraces a gangsta approach to black masculinity. This gangsta aesthetic is nascent in the earliest scenes of the film, such as when Django shrugs off his shawl, like a boxer taking off a rob, to remove a back covered in scars, anticipating the elaborate back tattoos that would become such a hallmark of gangsta masculinity. Django also grows more flamboyant in his dress sense with each new plantation that he encounters, finally donning his most colourful and luxurious outfit when he arrives at Candyland. In the process, gangsta bling is framed as an ongoing response to the sheer extravagance of plantation life, and the spectacles of wealth, luxury and aesthetic abandon that were erected upon the desecration of black bodies. By revelling in ever more hyperbolic visions of wealth, the gangsta aesthetic desecrates the plantation aesthetic that emasculated black men in the first place, explaining why Django often seems to identify more with the style and sweep of Candyland than Candie does himself – a gesture that intimidates and fascinates Candie more than anything else that he encounters in the movie.
Tarantino thus follows the logic of gangsta rap by presenting the “n-er” and “n-a” ahistorically, as two states of mind that any black man must negotiate and navigate. While a “n-er” is a black man who is still bound by slavery, a “n-a” is a black man who has started to fight back against slavery, by way of the gangsta aesthetic that gradually starts to dominate the film. This space between “n-er” and “n-a” is most fluid around Mandingo, since the bloodsport is designed to provide Candie with a titillating glimpse of what “n-ers” could do if they were permitted to become “n-as,” while simultaneously keeping them in their place as “n-ers.” Django’s own use of the word evolves closer towards “n-a” each time he gets on his horse, and peaks with the countrified gangsta rap that enters the soundtrack as he finally rides into Candieland. Here, he starts using the word to refer to other slaves, which amuses Candie, but what Candie doesn’t realise is that Django is now saying “n-a” rather than “n-er,” hiding in plain sight as he prepares an ambush from within. Accordingly, Django adds the last ingredient to his gangsta outfit at this point – a pair of startlingly modern sunglasses, which entice and deflect the scandalized white gazes of Candie’s henchmen, but also speak to the gangsta coldness necessary to survive the shadow of slavery, as when Django dons them and turns away from an escaped Mandingo “player” being torn apart by hounds and then set upon by a posse of hicks brandishing axes.
It makes sense, then, that when Django and King arrive at Candieland, the motor engine of Candie’s empire is his butler Stephen, an intensified version of the “house n-ers” of classical Hollywood. The struggle between “n-a” and “n-er” is condensed to the struggle between Django and Stephen, who quickly figures out that Django and King are there to rescue Broomhilda, and informs his master accordingly. For Tarantino, the perverse domestic proximity between Candie and Stephen, and between slaveowner and “n-er,” is the motor engine of slavery as a sadistic and libidinal institution. While I often find DiCaprio a bit mannered in his acting, this domestic backdrop produces one of his most understated and unsettling roles, especially in his interactions with Stephen, where he is alternately threatening and cajoling, keeping him in his place while also reiterating, time and again, that the ultimate indignity for a “n-er” is to take orders, and be put in his place, by a “n-a. As a result, the final standoff in Django Unchained is between Django and Stephen, “n-a” and “n-er.” While Candie and King are both killed in the penultimate showdown, there’s no catharsis to Candie’s death, or pathos to King’s death, since both are eclipsed by a bloodbath in which Django takes out most of the other white characters on the plantation, starting with Candie’s inner circle, and then moving to the farmhands and labourers. During this scene, hip-hop starts to dominate the soundtrack – or the scene becomes a hip-hop music video, scored to gangsta beats delivered by Foxx himself, which blend with Django’s voiceover to fuse present and past, diegetic and non-diegetic ambience.
While the film could have ended here, Tarantino includes one more act to make it clear that the “n-er,” as embodied by Stephen, isn’t merely a discrete antagonist in and of himself, but a confluence of white forces of coercion and control. Similarly, Tarantino’s final act indicates that slavery is bigger than any one slaveowner, embedded too deeply in the way that the South conceives of pleasure to be reducible to any one representative. In that sense, the last of Django Unchained moves away from slavery as an institution of individuals, and instead focuses on slavery as a mechanism of pleasure. After being shot during the standoff at Candyland, Django wakes up to find that he is hanging upside down,where his penis is being held by Billy Cash, one of Candie’s last sidekicks, played by Walton Goggins. Billy is holding Django’s penis to make it easier to castrate him – a tableau that speaks brilliantly to the compulsion to quantify and experience black virility, along with the need to compensate by castrating black male virility, that drives so much white fragility. Rather than slavery being an institution driven by individual slaveholders, it is now framed as broader way of structuring white pleasure by castrating black masculinity and inducing black men to remain “n-ers” by castrating each other, and so sparing white men the work.
Django’s gangsta strut, and “n-a” attitude, therefore has to be strong enough to withstand this castration, especially since it turns out that the act of castration is inadequate to the white need for castration. Billy explains to Django that, if he literally castrates him, he will bleed out and die in a few minutes, which will only provide a limited amount of pleasure, when what Billy actually wants is a symbolic castration that will last for Django’s entire life. Normally, this symbolic castration would be slavery, but since Django has managed to assert himself as a “n-a” despite slavery, Billy sells him to a mining company that takes the perverse pleasures of slave owners to an even more extreme level. Transported by cage to the mines, Django will have his tongue cut out if he disobeys, and will be hit in the head with a hammer and thrown in a hole when past his prime, although it’s unlikely he’ll live that long anyway, since his body will be gradually coated and suffocated by coal and smoke.
In other words, Billy aims to castrate Django by blackening him further, coating his skin and lungs with coal residue until he dies. Using blackness as an agent of castration, and setting up black men to castrate each other, is thus the ultimate aim of slavery, which is little more than an institutionalized version of Mandingo. Rather than the Mandingo tournaments framing Candie as an outlier, they embed him at the centre of the slave business, which subsists on the pleasure of seeing black men destroy one another. This, in the end, is the libidinal basis of slavery, and the reason why racism continues into the present, at least according to Tarantino’s vision, which suggests that black-on-black violence is exactly what conservatives want, and indeed a supreme source of conservative pleasure. For Django Unchained doesn’t merely present the castration of black men as a side effect of slavery, or an added bonus of slavery, or a mechanism used to assist slavery. Instead, Tarantino testifies, in ways that possibly only a fragile white man can, that slavery, as an institution, was successful precisely because it satiated this need to castrate black men, and to force black men to castrate each other in order to assuage the anxieties they raise for white men.
By the time that Django returns for a final standoff, Django Unchained has moved away from slavery as a historical institution to a more ahistorical vision of the plight and challenge of the “n-a” and “gangsta” throughout American history. On the one hand, the “n-a” needs to combat the ongoing legacy of slavery, since slavery is here extended to any social institution that encourages black men to revert to “n-ers” by castrating each other in the way that white supremacists desire. On the other hand, the sheer scale of the machismo needed to combat this threat of castration runs the risk of consuming and competing against other black men, thereby conforming to the logic of the “n-er” once again. Black men thus need to ward off the constant threat of white castration without castrating each other – and it is on this note that Django Unchained ends, as Django’s victory over Stephen is uneasily paired with precisely the country and western tropes that tried to coerce him into playing the role of “n-er” in first place, now used to celebrate his new “n-a” strut.
Of course, there is still a lot to criticize in Tarantino’s vision, not least the fact that this is such a male-centric vision of slavery, almost entirely devoid of any interest or insight into the situation of female slaves, which would become a key focus of 12 Years a Slave. Yet there’s also something powerful about the way Tarantino links slavery to white male fragility, especially since that fragility has played such a key role in his own body of work, making Django Unchained his most reflective film after Jackie Brown. Throughout much of his career, Tarantino has leaned on Blaxploitation tropes, and black machismo, to rehabilitate his own fantasy of white masculinity. Yet the opposite happens here, in some ways, as suggested by the role that the Siegfried myth plays in the broader symbolic narrative of the film. As a key figure from the Siegfried myth, Broomhilda formed a pivotal role in the way this myth was received by German nationalists in the buildup to the Nazi period, and plays a particularly prominent part within Wagner’s Ring Cycle. Here, however, that white power narrative rehabilitates a black power narrative, rather than vice versa, as Dr. King notes that: “When a German meets a real-life Siegfried, that’s kind of a big deal – as a German I’m now obliged to help you on your quest to find your beloved Broomhilda.”
Throughout Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino contemplated how this same German nationalist rhetoric sat alongside the American film industry as a vehicle for white pride and machismo. Yet whereas Basterds ended up trying to compete with Nazi rhetoric, and even absorb the conviction of the Nazi party into the virility of the American film image, Django presents it as the starting-point for a more systematic dissection of white fragility. In Basterds, Waltz’s campy presence was differentiated from Nazi ideology – Colonel Landa was opportunistic, and disinterested in ideology – but the two are effectively combined here, as Dr. King both aligns himself with German nationalism, but is playful enough about it to use it as a springboard for an assault on the institution of slavery. In that gesture, and that revision of Basterds, lies one of Tarantino’s most compelling white characters, prepared to play second fiddle to Django in the same way that Forster’s Max Cherry plays second fiddle to Pam Grier’s Jackie Brown. And no film in Tarantino’s career has approached the majesty of those closing minutes of Jackie Brown like Django Unchained, since in no other film has Tarantino turned his camera so mercilessly and probingly upon his own sensibility.