Quentin Tarantino's "Django Unchained" is not only a great film but the greatest display of liberalism in movie theaters this past year.
To those whose blood is boiling or eyes are rolling, I don't use that word to refer to the political left in modern politics. Their use of that word was always illegitimate, and their ownership of it has expired.
Liberalism is exactly what its name suggests: a belief that men and women should be free—and therefore equal. And that is a far more fundamental belief than any racial or political one. The film isn't political at all, though its undertones bring to mind gun control, an issue made salient by a recent national tragedy—and its only coherent reading is that when access to guns is unrestricted, tyranny cannot survive.
***CAUTION: MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD***
Of central importance to "Django" is the concept of a law higher than man's. While there is no mention of God beyond an on-the-nose reference to the Norse myth of Brünnhilde, the character arc of Schultz (Christoph Waltz) all but screams for the existence of a higher morality than the state. Schultz is a bounty hunter who kills men because the federal government has deemed their actions worthy of death; he kills for money, not any vendetta.
The movie opens with him purchasing and freeing Django (Jamie Foxx). While he is opposed to slavery, Schultz is no starry-eyed idealist; he's a practical professional who needs a slave to identify a target for him. Django's primary goal is to reunite with his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), but Schultz protests that he doesn't want to risk his life over another man's personal quest.
As he and Django work together and grow closer, Schultz sees the human potential in Django—"the fastest gun in the South," he says—that the world would never have known had he remained a slave. And when the two inevitably track down Broomhilda to an infamous plantation owned by Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), a spoiled boy-king who earns his living primarily from gruesome "mandingo fights," Schultz kills Candie, seemingly unnecessarily.
The two heroes have paid for Broomhilda's freedom, received signed papers to that effect, and all Candie wants is a handshake to make it official in the tradition of the South. Schultz, recalling a runaway slave fed to the dogs on their way in to the plantation, pops Candie in the heart with a derringer, guaranteeing his own death in the next few seconds.
Even though all of Candie's barbarism is completely legal in the eyes of the state, Schultz concludes that he deserves death just as much as the men wanted by the state. The rights of his slaves are inalienable, and to violate their right to life—to kill "innocent people," as he explains to Django while training him to be a bounty hunter—means Candie has forfeited his own right to live.
Demanding a handshake, even after his signature declares Broomhilda's freedom, is a final, petty authoritarian act which incites Schultz to action. If this man can sign a paper to free a woman but force her to stay until some arbitrary demand is met, then she is not and never will be free. Ending that tyranny, Schultz reasons, is worth killing for—and dying for.
And, contrary to all the film's promotion, it turns out Candie isn't the ultimate villain in this story. For Django is the film's real hero, not Schultz, and his foe is found in the person of Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), a house slave decades older than Candie who effectively runs the plantation but has so accepted the social order of slavery that he finds greater offense in Django's treatment as a freeman than does his owner.
The torment of slavery is not lost on Stephen. When Schultz breaks the peace and Django tries to shoot his way through the remaining plantation workers, he is outgunned and has to surrender. While the white workers imagine all sorts of tortures and methods to kill him, Stephen convinces them that the truly worst fate they can bestow on him is to make him a slave again at a nearby mine. He sees just how ugly and brutal it is to live life in chains, but instead of siding with those who would demand their freedom, he has embraced those who claim ownership of men, working his way up to become the greatest of their subservients.
This, according to Tarantino, is the more monstrous evil. It is not the tyrant himself but the house slave—the "useful idiot," for us white folks who cringe a little at the previous term. The man who loves Big Brother gives him power.
Thus, while it may have been more structurally satisfying to see the film end with the explosive shootout following Candie's death, Tarantino saves the climax for a much smaller, low-stakes confrontation between Django and Stephen to make this very point.
And I must stress, while the story is about race on the surface, the themes are far more universal. As Tarantino said in "Inglourious Basterds," the story of "King Kong" is really about the experience of the African slave rather than just a giant ape. In that cheeky foreshadowing of his next project "Django," it's clear that Tarantino always intends a subtextual interpretation of film narrative, and here, it's pretty easy to decipher.
"Django" is about liberalism and tyranny, and the era of American slavery was a perfect illustration of it. There was no law from the government directly limiting the freedom of slaves; it was on a human level—one man telling another, "I own you," and that becoming the established social order.
It explores how tyrants dehumanize their captives. Though its climax takes place in the months before Darwin's "On the Origins of Species" was first published, the same "biological arguments for racism" it inspired, according to Stephen Jay Gould, show up in Candie's obsession with phrenology. He refers to blacks as a separate "species" from whites, and their "submissiveness" can be traced to the placement of a particular trio of dimples in the skull. He kills out of his own sense of ontological superiority, whereas Django and Schultz kill based on men's deeds—the content of their character, one might say (note that Tarantino made Schultz's title and first name "Dr. King").
For those worried by Django's line in the trailer, "Kill white folks and they pay you for it? What's not to like?", this is no racial revenge fantasy. Django's revenge against the men who owned him comes at the end of the film's first act. What follows is a chivalrous rescue mission; his own freedom secured, Django fights through hellfire to liberate his wife when he could have just started fresh.
And for those who would squirm over the film's copious use of the "N" word, Tarantino wisely addressed this within his own script. Django and Schultz must put on an act to reach Candie's plantation, and to make the con credible, Schultz says, they must never break character. That means Django has to treat his brethren with contempt, even stopping Schultz from convincing Candie to show mercy for a runaway slave. Their characters must act in a way they personally find abhorrent in the pursuit of a greater goal.
Tarantino has said that the historicity of this racial slur was the only consideration in its use. No mature viewer could interpret the dialogue as a manifestation of the author's hostility toward blacks or a desire to trivialize slavery. What's actually more troublesome is the anachronistic overuse of "f**k" or "motherf**ker," taking the film out of its setting far more than the soundtrack entries from Rick Ross and 2Pac.
And I must make special mention of the film's use of guns. Though both Tarantino and Foxx have expressed support for gun control in the wake of the Sandy Hook mass shooting, their film undercuts that sentiment entirely. Guns are the equalizer between tyrants and those who would resist them in the world of "Django."
In the film's very first scene, Schultz takes a slaveowner's weapon and gives it to his captors for an obvious purpose. Guns are Django's only method of killing through the whole story, barring one bundle of dynamite at the film's climax. Django only surrenders to Stephen because he runs out of ammunition. In scene after scene, equal or superior firepower is the primary factor protecting those who seek liberty. With its frequent nods to the traditions of blaxploitation flicks, it would take a special level of ignorance for a viewer (or producer!) to come out of "Django" thinking that only The Man should have access to guns.
Its themes aside, "Django Unchained" is some of Tarantino's finest work. It's beautifully shot, flawlessly acted, and it displays an economy of characters and subplots missing from earlier works such as "Basterds" or "Pulp Fiction." It guides the viewer from emotional extremes such as tearing up at a whipping scene to laughing out loud at a white hood gag minutes later. It constantly plays with our expectations but still gives us exactly what we want. While some of the musical choices are disappointingly generic for Tarantino (Johnny Cash's "Ain't No Grave" and some modern western-sounding song by Dege Legg) and the climax feels more like a denouement, these are minor quibbles.
"Django" is an inspiring, original adventure tale from one of this generation's greatest artists, deftly exporing the nature of humanity and the meaning of freedom, and it's not a film you should miss.