Django Unchained is less problematic in what it says about race, or violence, than what it contributes to the conversation about justice.

I didn’t see Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. Maybe it was ten minutes into the movie when I saw the first scalping and I bailed, I couldn’t do it. And I sat through all the sword slashing in Kill Bill, parts one and two. There was just something disturbingly visceral for me with the scalping, somehow bearing witness to it left a mark on me and I didn’t want it. My lower self also didn’t think it was my mark to bear, my vengeance to cheer – even if said revenge was meted out only on the silver screen. Tarantino is doing something in his latest series of blockbusters that I’m sure is not going unnoticed, harnessing ill will for box office gold. Where do you start? Nazis of course. Then where do you go? Um, white Southern slaveholders? Where are we off to next? Or better yet, what is the ultimate destination of this journey?

weeds_comiccon_1280x1024I’ve had an “anti-hero beef” with Hollywood for a few years now. Anyone who’s made the mistake of speaking to me at any cocktail reception will tell you as much. I’m fascinated and disgusted by our desire, need even, to create these despicable characters who we love so dearly. You don’t have to go far at all to find them – the weed dealing suburban mom on Weeds, the serial killer who only kills other serial killers on Dexter, the street thugs masquerading as cops on The Shield, the narcissistic plastic surgeons on Nip/Tuck, the narcissistic plastic people on any Bravo reality show – the list goes on for days. On this list though there is not a lot of representation for people of color, except on Bravo sadly, but is it worth the fight? (Basically white people being bad is prime time dappled soft lighting, and people of color being bad is hard-lit mugshots on the 11’ o’clock news.) To be clear the anti-hero list is a canon of characters defined by selfish compulsions and bathed in the cleansing light of Hollywood drama. I don’t really care if there aren’t enough brown people on that list.

Django Unchained is perhaps the most fun I’ve had at a Quentin Tarantino movie ever, and I hate cowboy films. I hate the whole lore, and I despise its manifest destiny undertones. But somehow that made Django Freeman as the gun wielding bounty hunter subversive, just even. And that bothered the crap out of me. Are we finally giving ground on justice equals revenge? Do we even contemplate the question anymore? Django really only spends one scene rethinking his vengeance lust, a sniper shot at a fugitive on his list who is farming with his young son at the time. He ultimately shoots the guy in the head with little fanfare after. It used to be vengeance came with a price, some burden burned into our DNA, and when we went for revenge we did it with eyes wide open. It made the choice almost noble. Without the guilt, the self-reflection, vengeance seems cheaper somehow. Maybe that’s just the little catholic boy in me. (I never really exorcised him!)

django-unchained-empireIt’s clear Django is out for revenge, he is going in search of his wife who has been ripped from him after a brutal whipping during which they are both branded with hot iron for running to freedom. Django gets his revenge. In full color, in stereo, with blood spewing from every imaginable orifice. He even gets to ride off into the distance with his fair lady. And it’s more than beautiful. It is delicious, it is funny, and it moves you. Does that mean we all have a blood lust? Probably not. It is troubling though in the sense that it signals a certain deep rooted sense of helplessness. Django is not a moralistic fellow, he has little to say when a racist Leonardo DiCaprio lets a dog eat one runaway “mandingo wrestler” to death. He is however a man suffering from the post-traumatic stress of a life in chains. One with little belief that he will see the face of any other justice but the one doled out by his own hands, yet trapped in systems that claim the moral high ground of truth, fairness, right – from the law he represents as a bounty hunter, to the heritage of the slaveholding South all blood and handshakes. I could see the interpretation of helplessness there.

So the truly troubling thing about Django Unchained is not a fight about race. It’s not even a fight about violence. It is a small piece of a larger anti-hero storytelling culture that says we all no longer believe in the possibility of a clean fight. The good guy never wins anyway so to hell with it, get what you can get and split. Doesn’t sound quite so noble or epic when you put it like that. Django Unchained is less problematic in what it says about race, or violence, than what it contributes to the conversation about justice. When we make the Django conversation about race, or when we focus on violence, we miss that part.

Does Django get justice for the evils of slavery? No. Does Django get justice for himself and his wife and the evils visited on them? Yes. Is that enough? Well, there’s the question without an immediate answer. But until it’s sexy to have an anti-hero who is also a community organizer or something, I think we’re stuck with justice that is more preoccupied with the individual than it is with the collective good.