To read Anthony Lane's recent review of Quentin Tarantino's "Django Unchained" is to read more about Lane, perhaps, than the film he has his eye on. He is clearly uncomfortable, even as he attempts an even-handed take. Though at first it's not entirely clear why Lane misses the point of the film so confidently.
And then it dawns on you: Lane wanted a tidier morality tale based on morals he subscribes to. Although he doesn't directly state what his moral framework is, there are sentences that provide clues to his qualms. Here are a few lines from Lane:
- If only Tarantino made films during "a straighter age."
- Tarantino is "snared in a tangle of morality and style."
- Tarantino is "dangerously in love with the look of evil, and all he can counter it with is cool--not strength of purpose, let alone goodness of heart, but simple comeuppance, issued with merciless panache."
One would almost think Lane wanted to say "uppity" instead of comeuppance. To expect of Tarantino an easier and more palatable liberal morality of a different and "straighter age" is quite far off the mark. This is Tarantino. Pop stylist of killers. And this is a pop movie with a grim moral interest to show us a spectacular and fictional super hero in Django (Jamie Foxx) who is equal to the task at hand. Does Lane think that it would have made sense for Django to preach nonviolence from a pulpit? To merely and politely tell Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) or those around him in Candyland that he is wrong to make men fight to the death, wrong to engage in incest with his sister, wrong to enslave thousands of people and kill with impunity? In a different film, we might have seen and cheered the rise of a peaceful deacon preaching universal brotherhood, but not here.
Why? Because Tarantino's morality is elsewhere. He's not interested in a pure leader with a certain moral vision, a Christ who turns the other cheek. Tarantino is interested in justified killing and revenge in the spirit of the Old Testament. In "Django Unchained," he gets both: Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) has the law on his side and Django is morally justified to save his wife. In this realm, Lane completely effaces what amounts to a significant display of slavery's complexities for whites and for blacks. I would argue that Stephen the Uncle Tom (Samuel L. Jackson) deserved to die miserably. It's not that his life wasn't difficult or that he had to make difficult choices. He certainly did. But he was a terrible person who witnessed and all but admits to torturing and killing thousands of people. To make this point, Stephen tells Django that he knows how long is takes for a castrated man to bleed to death.
Redemption for Stephen would have been ridiculous and it would have hurt the film. This Uncle Tom had to die. And he deserved what he got, however cruel that may seem to Lane. In contrast, Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom "should have lived" because he was such a sentimentally good man. It's part of the power of Tarantino's film that he flips this established stereotype. Imagine how awful it would have been if Stephen lay dying and somehow "forgave" Candie for his cruelty, as Stowe's Uncle Tom forgave Legree's brutal overseers. It can't even be stomached.
And yet, on a lighter and more cynical note, Tarantino is our contemporary artist of pop killers, in the tradition of Sam Peckinpah and others. And he always has been. Grim revenge on a hated character, or the death of an admired one, is what it's all about. In hindsight, you could have seen Stephen's death coming from miles away. And Tarantino certainly helps us thirst for his gruesome end. You might find this particular act of an artist distasteful, or even immoral, but to expect anything different of Tarantino is naive and perhaps willfully blind to the genre's reality and maybe even our history.
And then there's the white woman. Lane sat uncomfortably in the audience and was "disturbed by the yelps of triumphant laughter... as a white woman was blown away by Django's gun." Well, that just about tops things off. Lane never mentions being disturbed by the scene of a man being eaten by dogs, perhaps one of the most difficult deaths I've seen on film, but the hilariously portrayed boomerang-of-a-killing of a slavery-colluding white woman just gets under his skin. Even though we "should not laugh," Candie's sister gets flicked like a pea into another room when she's shot, practically bouncing off screen.
The one insight that Lane gets right is the superficiality of Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). Unfortunately, her character is rather flat due to the script, and it didn't have to be like that. Washington does well with what she has, but I was secretly hoping that Broomhilda would join in the melee as an echo of the Kill Bills, an idea to which, I suspect, Lane might take exception. It's a legitimate critique to ask Tarantino why he didn't give Broomhilda more strength of character and maybe even a little revenge.
So, what's up? For me, the essential underpinning of Lane's liberalism in this article is his need to see black heroes as morally superior; to which, I would say, we all (adults, in this case) have a right to the spoils of this very violent pop culture, sometimes deep, sometimes hilarious. In this way, Django is not exactly freed from the chains of "mid-nineteenth century America," as Lane would have it, but freed from being a hero who might too easily settle us with an uncomfortable past. Django reminds us of the terrible blood bath that it was.