Half a year later, now on Blu-ray and DVD, Django Unchained is still kicking up shit, this time via cross-media trickle-down. TV’s LL Cool J, not long before declaring Confederate flag apparel A-OK with him, dared to express in “Accidental Racist” one hard-edged complaint about the life of a black man in America today: “I feel like a newfangled Django dodging these invisible white hoods.”
Brad Paisley, too, has cited Quentin Tarantino’s 2012 slave-vs.-masters hit as an inspiration for “Accidental Racist,” evidence that this is the rare, stubborn film that isn’t retreating from the culture just because its marketing campaign has ended. Still, now that the furor it stirred has settled, and now that the film is available for easy revisiting, Django stands more clearly as what it actually is: a brave, moving, funny, sometimes tender interracial buddy comedy eager to jab its thumbs into America’s sorest of sore spots. It’s kind of like “Accidental Racist,” except not godawful.
Its most moving scene — and probably the most moving scene Tarantino has yet filmed — exemplifies all this. But first, let us briefly consider the three main Django controversies, which seem even more ginned-up now than upon the original release, when the easily outraged at least had the luxury of not having the chance to see the actual film.
The common complaints:
1. Django Unchained makes frequent use of the word “nigger.”
So did your grandpa. So does 42 and Lincoln. So do half of all YouTube commenters. In Django the word is never used to make characters look “slick,” the word Spike Lee chucked at Tarantino over the use of “nigger” in Jackie Brown. Instead, it’s like the smoking on Mad Men: an artistic device to demonstrate how alien and upsetting the past is to us today.
2. Django Unchained is a violent revenge fantasy, and quite possibly irresponsible in gun-mad America.
So are Justified and G.I. Joe: Retaliation and most video games and the Bush administration. Look, I’m not unsympathetic to this argument. The climactic bloodbaths are the film’s least interesting sequences, and they’re not enlivened enough by Tarantino’s prankish wit, his zeal to surprise. That said, it’s dispiriting to hear complaints that this particular movie is the instance where Hollywood has at long last gone too far: seriously, just as soon as it’s a black guy killing white folks?
3. Django Unchained is racist against white people.
If you worry that white Southerners saying “nigger” in a movie set on antebellum plantations makes the real-life white people of today look bad, well, the problem is with white people today. “Kill white folks, get paid — what’s not to like?” Django muses at one point. That line — and Jamie Foxx’s joking about it on Saturday Night Live — spurred the professionally outraged shouters of the rightwing blogosphere to deem Foxx himself a white-hating racist. That reaction exemplifies a point our Inkoo Kang made online earlier this week: why Hollywood always prefers to try to sell the Non-Threatening Black Man (NTBM) — exactly who Django dared to unchain.
The most affecting sequence of the film — or of Tarantino’s career — was entirely overlooked during the winter’s shitstorm. It comes a third of the way in, after Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) has freed Django, collected the bounty on the Brittle Brothers, and in a quiet campfire scene offered to “partner up” with Django for the winter. That scene ends with a handshake, a white hand and a black hand on a bitterly cold night. Schultz, in anticipation, removes his glove early; Django, still skeptical of white aid, slips his own off only after asking “Why you care what happen to me?” Touchingly, it’s Django who extends his hand first.
Then comes the scene. Tarantino cuts to a storefront from which Schultz and Django emerge, Django at last in his bad-ass freeman’s jacket and cowboy hat and bearing a gorgeous new saddle with his lone initial, “D,” burnt into the leather. Pop music kicks in, but not the blaxploitation soundtrack ringer you might expect from Tarantino. Instead, it’s the gentle folk of Jim Croce’s “I Got a Name,” a perfectly pleasant highway song that suddenly takes on urgent meaning: Here, a man most of the characters in the movie call “boy” or “nigger” or “jimmy” not only has freedom and economic independence. He has a name — and proof of it on his saddle and his freedom papers.
“I carry it with me like my daddy did,” Croce sings of his name, but the one-named Django, of course, can’t do this — did Django ever know his father, or his father’s name? The next line, though, sung as Django mounts his own horse in a stable, speaks for both, beautifully: “But I’m living the dream that he kept hid.” The stable doors burst open with the chorus; as Croce sings “moving me down the highway” we see Django and Schultz, partners, hit the road. The ensuing montage — snow-packed mountains, wandering bison, a vision of Kerry Washington — could only be more moving if it weren’t truncated.
Originally, in the theater, I found Django Unchained thrilling but thin, its plotting straight-ahead and somewhat predictable, especially Tarantino’s choice to pin Django’s story to Wagner, German legend, and Super Mario Brothers — a princess in a castle!
But that simplicity now seems the best possible choice. Django’s fights are for the basic rights that today we’re fortunate enough not to have to fight for: a name, a family. (Gay Americans are still too often denied that second one.) Most movie heroes have the luxury to fight for what they’ve lost; Django has to fight even for the right to be a hero.