In many ways, Django Unchained is an obvious choice for a series of articles. It is, after all, one of the most talked about movies of the season, helped in no small part by the thorniness of its subject matter. So obvious a choice, in fact, that I might not have written quite so much about it, had it not been for a woman in the front row.
She came to my attention during the D’Artagnan scene. D’Artagnan is a slave kept by plantation-owner Calvin Candie as a Mandingo fighter, but he’s a slender scrap of a man compared to the other fighters we’ve seen. When the movie introduces him, he’s been treed by dogs in an escape attempt. Candie’s retinue happens to be passing by on their way back to the plantation. With them are Django and Schultz. The procession halts and Candie descends from his carriage to try and recoup his investment. That, he makes absolutely clear, is how he sees D’Artagnan—as an investment from which he expects a certain number of fights, each of them to the death. He coaxes D’Artagnan down from his tree, attempts to talk him into manfully facing his lot, then turns the dogs on him when it’s clear that the man has been entirely demoralized.
Quentin Tarantino rarely writes scenes so straightforward, though, and this one is woven with a snare. Candie’s speech to D’Artagnan is also a test to feel out the sympathies of his guests. Before the dogs are unleashed, Schultz nearly stumbles, offering to pay off D’Artagnan’s debt. Before he can, though, Django intercedes. Let Candie dispose of his own slave, he says in effect; they didn’t come all that way to buy a whipping boy.
“Mm-hmm,” said the lady in the front row, loudly enough for everyone in the theater to hear. “Play your part.”
I’m still not entirely sure what to make of that. It was, of course, an echo of earlier dialogue from the film. More than once Schultz had exhorted Django to adopt a persona and adhere strictly to it until the bounty is secure. That was so clearly what Django had in mind that it hardly needed announcing to a theater full of people who seemed to have no problem following the plot.
Was she approving of his callousness? After all, playing his part means letting D’Artagnan die in one of the most gruesome scenes in an already gruesome movie. Buying Hildy, even in a scam played at Candie’s expense, means leaving dozens or hundreds of other slaves of Candieland to the fates ordained to them by the institution of slavery.
The role of hero, it turns out, is a complicated one. The part Django is called to play is modeled on a traditional Germanic hero, Siegfried. Tarantino pushes us toward that interpretation by having Schultz recount an abbreviated version of Siegfried’s rescue of Brunhild, and to make the telling more enchanting, more plainly archetypal, he has Schultz tell it against a virtually prehistoric campfire backdrop. It’s the sort of scene that, in the hands of a more guileless director, we’d be safe in accepting as the pattern of events to come. Tarantino has a proven track-record when it comes to guile, though. The campfire story is a set-up.
Not that the movie fails to replay the Brunhild legend. Brunhild, after all, is the explicit namesake of Django’s wife, here bowdlerized to “Broomhilda.” But there’s no guarantee that we’re safe in treating it as—and the pun there cuts close to the point—a master narrative. That’s what Christopher Benfey does in the New York Review of Books when he describes Schultz retelling as “foreshadowing the ring of fire that will eventually encircle Broomhilda’s place of imprisonment, and Django’s avenging raid, rifle in hand, to free her.” The expectation is that the achievement of Django’s desire to free Hildy will come as a result of his having successfully played the part of Siegfried.
As it happens, Django and Schultz do enact something like the three trials endured by Siegfried, though it’s possible to misidentify them. The first is Django’s introduction to Candie; the second, the demonstration he gives of his “badness” to Candie’s henchmen and slaves. The third is the test that ends in the death of D’Artagnan the slave. Each is a test of the part he has agreed to play—of his callousness, his lack of servility, and ultimately, his disloyalty to the underclass to which he once belonged.
But you see the problem: those trials are won in short order, dispensed with in the opening scenes of the third act. Primed to expect the archetype, we tend to think that reenacting those trials as allegory will resolve the central conflicts of the story, but there’s at least another half-hour of movie after that. And yet, the movie itself seems to suggest that they’ve completed of the Siegfried story as Schultz told it. Having passed those three trials, Django arrives at Candieland to see his Hildy liberated from the hotbox that stands in for Brunhild’s ring of fire. So how do the events that follow fit the master narrative?
The best answer is that they don’t. The rescue of Brunhild is the pattern Schultz wants to force onto their mission, but that doesn’t make it Django’s story. As I argued in “The Audience’s Revenge,” supposing that it does is a confusion that comes of mistaking Schultz as Tarantino’s mouthpiece. It’s a pattern that the movie goes out of his way to upset. Having reunited Django with Hildy, Tarantino turns to the brutal business of forcing him to find his own narrative.
In the meantime, though, there’s this business of playing his part. It is, it turns out, messy, complicated business. Playing the part of Siegfried, the archetypal Teutonic hero, means inverting his heroism. That is, first of all, a function of Django’s extreme visibility—whereas Siegfried had a cloak that rendered him invisible, Django’s appearance on a horse never fails to present itself as a social affront. His second test on the way to Candieland centers on his refusal to walk with the slaves.
More than that, though, there’s the violation of our ethical expectations, cued visually by Django’s adoption of shades straight out of Cool Hand Luke and made unavoidable by the D’Artagnan scene. Playing the part of Siegfried means playing the part of a black slaver. That’s a point Schultz particularly stresses in hatching their plan. He, Dr. Schulz, will pose as a bored entrepreneur looking to get into the business of managing Mandingo fighters. In an inversion of their pupil-mentor relationship, Django will in turn pose as his expert adviser, paid to evaluate the worth of slaves that are, by virtue of their status, doomed to brief, brutal lives. The notion is so abhorrent that he double-checks to make sure that’s actually what Schulz means. After all, says Django, there’s nothing lower than a black slave trader, not even the head house slave.
Hero, mentor, slaver—Django Unchained employs genre and narrative even more deviously than you might immediately recognize, but this is by far the most devious of the movie’s tricks. It isn’t turning to the long-foreshadowed rescue of Hildy that finally defines the film’s narrative arc, but rather the hero’s transformation into the lowest possible character on a spectrum defined by lows. In interviews, Tarantino has spoken about directing Foxx to portray Django’s transformation from undistinguished slave to forerunner of Blacksploitation heroes like his presumptive descendent, Shaft, but this is by far the more remarkable transformation. It is, as it turns out, literally remarkable, as the woman in the front row proves—not merely because Schultz has the gall to propose it, or because Django is so intent on rescuing Hildy that he agrees to it, but because he is so damn good at it.
It’s a complexity I was already mulling over in my mind when the woman in the first row spoke out, but until she declared, “play your part,” I was unaware of just how complicated the audience’s reaction might be. In the past month, I’ve read nearly every piece of criticism about Django Unchained that’s come within arm’s reach. The movie has provoked a torrent of opinions, ranging over its historical accuracy, its prodigious use of language, and its depiction of physical violence. Many have been spectacularly off-base, some have made quite clever observations, but few of the critics I’ve read have given more than a passing mention to the strange triple role that Django ends up playing. I honestly cannot fathom why not. The only explanations that occur to me are (1) that the point is so obvious that I’m a bit dense for leaning on it here, or (2) that it’s so subversive that the movie’s audience hasn’t yet come to grips with it.
That may also explain the woman’s outburst at my screening of the film. Maybe Django is so good at playing his part that she needed, or thought the rest of us needed, reassurance that it really is just a part. That, I would say, is a doubt worth entertaining.