Django Unchained Oscars 2013: Quentin Tarantino and His Cinema Of American Ethics

A bounty hunter and his protégé perch high on the bluff, hidden behind a rock. The neophyte aims his rifle at the man behind the plow, and hesitates to take the shot. The target’s son is working at his side and this new bounty hunter is hesitant to shoot a man in front of his family. The mentor reminds him of the crimes that this man is guilty of: murder and robbery, with no thought to his victims. The mentor assures his protégé that what they are doing is not only authorized, in the sense that their job is sanctioned by the law, but that this man brought this upon himself; if he had always intended to pursue a quiet family life as a farmer, he shouldn’t have killed people. He takes the shot.

The scene is a striking expression of the question of the law and ethics. Just because something is sanctioned, is it right? How does one deal with evil? Such ethical quandaries would seem to be the territory of moral philosophy, not of Quentin Tarantino’s film Django Unchained.

Django Unchained is a film that tackles the historically authorized evil of slavery. Tarantino might be one of the last filmmakers that you would expect to hear lauded as creating a cinema of “ethics,” but both Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained seem to mark an explicit turn in his filmmaking toward difficult moral questions. Specifically, they address two of the greatest evils of Western history: the Holocaust and slavery. These audacious and entertaining films tread moral territory because they ask us to fundamentally consider our relation to those histories. 

Part of the challenge posed by Django Unchained is that it isn’t reverential about that history; but it is dead serious about confronting the ugly nature of slavery. The brutality of the film works as a condemnation of slavery; the traditions of the Western genre authorize Django’s apocalyptic slaughter of the slave owners in the film’s finale. Tarantino is a director who understands that genre is not mere escapism, but that genre can provide a frame with which to approach a difficult subject, such as slavery, without clinical distance or sentiment. That frame can make us feel uncomfortable, because it attempts to involve the viewer in the narrative in a way that a standard historical drama doesn’t.

Django Unchained is perhaps the straightest that Tarantino has ever played with genre. In fact, the film has a kind of generic inevitability. The horror of slavery overwhelms any possibility that a final showdown will be avoided. Thus the film cannot elide slavery the way a film like the classic Gone with the Wind does. Confronted with the ugly nature of slavery, the audience roots for Django’s slaughter.

Tarantino’s last two films should fill an audience, cued both to history and genre, with tension, by creating a space for the imaginative retribution for past. Django Unchained, for all its fun, is a film that forces a viewer to explore that ethical tension between moral revulsion at slavery and sanctioned retribution. 

I understand the charges that folks have made against the film of irresponsibility. But the question remains, can the irresponsible and the ethical coexist? Genre offers a safe place to work through historical traumas. Django Unchained uses genre as an imaginative space to right past wrongs.

The New York Times film critic A.O. Scott wrote in his review that Tarantino suggests “new ways of taking movies seriously.” This seems to be what Tarantino is consciously trying to do by making viewers take their movie watching seriously. After the success of Basterds Tarantino noted, “I want to do movies that deal with America’s horrible past with slavery and stuff but do them like spaghetti westerns, not like big issue movies.” Such a stance reveals not disdain for the “big issue movie,” but an understanding that perhaps the genre film is the right place for such ethical questions to be worked out. We accept all kinds of violence in contemporary cinema without question. When confronted with the violence in this film, we feel both uncomfortable and experience catharsis. Perhaps only in imagining the apocalyptic destruction of an untenable system such as slavery can we gauge our own response to the evils of history.