Beneath the surface, though, there are other stories and messages that are equally rewarding and subversive to those who look for such things in pop culture’s racial messaging. Contrary to the conventions of Hollywood, Tarantino allowed the titular black hero (played by Oscar-winner Jamie Foxx) to live through the closing credits. The white sidekick, Dr. King Schultz (played by Christoph Waltz), was a catalyst to the title character’s self-actualization. He wasn’t Django’s savior. It’s a subtle thing, but one that turns the “noble other” motif of black or Native American sidekick on its head.
To be sure, the movie was a send-up of Hollywood—and Italian—westerns. For a convenient reason, those movies rendered black people nonexistent. Slavery was concurrent with the western expansion that undergirded the cowboy theme. Historically, filmmakers didn’t know how to deal with Manifest Destiny and slavery at the same time, so they omitted the inconvenient parts of history. When did anyone see an African-American in a movie or television western with Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, or Audie Murphy?
Tarantino, on the other hand, wanted to put the two together, allowing the improbable storyline of a vengeance-seeking, lovelorn, black cowboy-turned-bounty-hunter, who confronts slavery, racism, and the other unmentionables of the Western genre. I loved that, too.
Movies aren’t always letter-perfect truth telling. To make them so would wring the pleasure out of the story. Veracity often just isn’t very entertaining. But Django Unchained is pure escapism. I found it shared more in common with another Western that featured an equally improbable black-cowboy leading character, Mel Brooks’s 1974 Blazing Saddles—only Tarantino’s film included heaps of blood-spattering violence.
About the violence that has become a hallmark of Tarantino’s films: There’s so much of it and the scenes are so splatter happy that I stopped being alarmed after the first 10 minutes. Of course, there’s a danger in that reaction, especially in these post-Newtown, Connecticut, days. But that’s not a racial issue as much as a contemporary cultural one.
The outlandish shootouts in Django Unchained resemble the scenes of Wile E. Coyote in a Road Runner cartoon being knocked off a cliff, run over by a truck, and having an anvil dropped on his head. When you see the amounts and kinds of violence in this movie, you become desensitized and stop taking any of it seriously. Unfortunately.
Indeed, toward the end there’s an extremely gore-filled shootout that Django amazingly survives. It’s utter fantasy. But wait.… There’s more to come. The closing violence is so incredible as to be laugh-out-loud funny, even if a woman is among those shot dead.
Bottom line: Despite Spike Lee’s objections, Django Unchained isn’t as racially offensive as it is an entertainingly escapist and disturbingly thought-provoking movie. Isn’t that what art is supposed to be?
Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Director of the CAP Leadership Institute. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 project examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.