Django Unchained begins with the forced march from Tennessee to Texas of seven newly bought slaves. When one of the slaves, the eponymous Django, is bought by the German-American bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz, the movie begins to turn insistently back toward the American southeast. That reversal of direction is more than just the vagary of plot—it is also an acknowledgment of how the transformation of the West into a genre of story about American history has directed us away from what was going on in the South at roughly the same time.
Why not “the Southern”? Why not a popular genre of movies, that is, focused on the shifting politics and culture of the American South in the transition from the Plantation to the Reconstruction? The answer that the South was a losing proposition seems obvious, but only in hindsight. In 1915, when the Western was still getting its footing, the depth of the scars left by the nation’s reluctant abolition of slavery was as yet unmeasured, and the unsuitability of the Southern by no means given.
That’s the year that D.W. Griffith released The Birth of a Nation, the movie that might have otherwise launched the Southern as a genre, just as it demonstrated the commercial viability of long-form narrative movies. Birth of a Nation was a socio-political drama with adventure elements, and a massive box-office success. It was also the subject of widespread controversy, banned in some markets.
Griffith, you must understand, was no growling demagogue. He was an entertainer and a pioneer in film narrative technique. In terms of influence, innovation and box-office instinct, the closest modern day analogue might be James Cameron. Griffith’s movies stretched the boundaries that had hitherto constrained cinema, but they were, at the same time, shameless crowd-pleasers. We’d probably still bite our nails over the chase sequence that crowns Birth of Nation if the ostensible heroes weren’t Clansmen rescuing a Congressman’s daughter from a mulatto abolitionist.
The Clansman, as it was original titled, was the film adaptation of a popular novel and stage play by Thomas Dixon, Jr., a Southern Baptist minister and white supremacist. The novel, second of a trilogy, was billed as “an historical romance of the Ku Klux Klan.” Griffith’s film version featured white actors in blackface portraying freed slaves as libidinous savages. That he failed to anticipate the controversy it would provoke is an index of how gradually attitudes had changed.
A populist to the core, Griffith was deeply shamed by the charges of racism that followed the film. The next year, he set out to produce a preachy historical romance that spread its redemptive theme across four different epochs, like the prescient marriage of David O. Selznick and Cloud Atlas. The result, pointedly named Intolerance, was one of the most expensive public apologies ever made, and its failure at the box office bankrupted Griffith’s production company. He continued to make films, but after Intolerance, the productions were smaller, the aims more modest.
The Hollywood A-list would not embrace the South of the plantations and Reconstruction again until the thirties. Shortly after Intolerance, Dixon went on to produce his own adaptation of The Clansman‘s sequel, but to little success. As a popular genre, the Southern was a one-off. The Western, on the other hand, was just gaining steam.
That’s the metaphorical point in our march to Texas where Quentin Tarantino interjects Dr. King Schultz and starts us back on the march east. That he would do so in a movie that takes its cues from the ultra-violent Westerns and exploitation films of the 1970s is only fitting. For decades, the Production Code had restricted depictions of violence in movies. On paper, that might seem to doom a genre defined by its setting in one of the most violent eras of American history. Instead, the constraints threw much of the emphasis on the spread of civilization and the purported moral code of the Old West.
When the Production Code was retired at the end of the 60s, the sudden liberty filmmakers felt unleashed a flood of so-called revisionists Westerns that cast doubt on the long-accepted vision of a morally redemptive American West. That renascence was driven in part by the rapid refinement of craft. Cinema was still in its infancy when public sentiment turned against violent movies. Visually, depictions of bodily harm had 30 years of catching up to do. Even as the corpse of the Production Code grew cold, A-list director like Sam Peckinpah and Arthur Penn had already begun experimenting with slow motion gun play and explosive squibs.
It’s the sort of shift that has long fascinated Tarantino. His critics have frequently interpreted that fascination as a slavish devotion to schlock. It is, rather, an intense, almost scholarly interest in the way genre works. By elevating, say, Hong Kong action cinema to a level at which we become conscious of his ability to turn its conventions to artistic ends, he makes an argument for the entire genre. Homage becomes a tool for pointing to the rough-hewn artistry that showed in fits and starts from the very beginning of the genre. Django Unchained demonstrates is his ability to go beyond homage, employing one genre in order to critique another.
Tarantino hinted at as much when, early during production, he started referring to the film as a “spaghetti Southern.” That hint grew into sharper focus more recently in an interview with Henry Louis Gates Jr. for The Root. In a discussion of how D.W. Griffith’s infamous Birth of a Nation inspired one of the more talked-about scenes in Django Unchained, Tarantino turned to the reputation of John Ford, who directed many of the most iconic Hollywood Westerns and is rumored to have appeared in Birth of a Nation as a hooded clansman. “To say the least,” said the always trenchant Tarantino,
I hate him. Forget about faceless Indians he killed like zombies. It really is people like that that kept alive this idea of Anglo-Saxon humanity compared to everybody else’s humanity—and the idea that that’s hogwash is a very new idea in relative terms. And you can see it in the cinema in the ’30s and ’40s—it’s still there. And even in the ’50s.
That repudiation of one of the most emblematic directors of traditional Westerns raised hackles across the cinematic community. Some were so riled that they all but missed the transition to the broader cultural critique. What Tarantino finds repellant in Ford’s work, as well as in similar movies from the era, is the underlying assumption that civilization bears an Anglo-Saxon trademark—that the ethical framework we call “humanity” is essentially the intellectual property of whites. And while that assumption may not have been a consistent feature of every movie Ford made (The Searchers, in particular, is notable for how it deals with the Anglocentrism of its characters), nor of other films of the era, it is nevertheless true that decades would pass before race became a consistent topic of exploration in American cinema.
At times, the Western played a direct role in advocating the myth of white moral superiority, but even when the didn’t the genre as a whole could be credited with directing our attention away from the signal moral challenge of the era. After all, the stories depicted in Westerns are roughly simultaneous with any number of a stories that could have been told about the South—stories of slavery and Reconstruction. But those stories would have challenged the Western’s underlying theme of the struggle to spread an essentially humane Anglo-Saxon civilization. To make Southerns would have been to grapple directly with the inhumanity in burgeoning American culture. By focusing on the West, the genre indulged a historical blind spot.
That act of misdirection is more potent when taken cumulatively. That is to say, a single Western by itself is just a story about the West. But Hollywood produced thousands of Westerns during the genre’s heyday. Movies about race relations in the South are rare by comparison. That rarity is precisely the point.
When classical Hollywood did make movies about the South, they tended to focus on morally redeeming episodes. The majority are Civil War stories, allowing filmmakers to focus on the redemptive act of emancipation, without dwelling inordinately on the conditions that made emancipation necessary. Civil War stories thus end up being their own genre—not really stories about the slave-roiled South so much as stories about its chastening by the North. It is, in that regard, fitting that Django Unchained finds itself competing at the box office with Steven Spielberg’s version of the Lincoln story, Lincoln having historically served as sacrificial cipher for the white America’s humanity toward its black slaves.
Otherwise, when major studios have delved into the history of the South, they have only reluctantly focused on the central problematic of the culture itself. Even when an anomaly like Gone With the Wind turned attention to Southern plantation owners, it did so not on Birth of a Nation‘s terms—that is, as an adventure set against the moral and political upheaval of abolition—but as a love affair upset by the crisis brought to genteel white society by the onset of war.
By the late 60s and 70s, that had begun to change, but mostly among exploitation movies. Particularly at the fringes of the Blaxploitation genre, there were forays into historical drama that could be seen as the delayed revenge of the Southern genre. The movement even surfaced at the mainstream box-office with the release of Mandingo, which Tarantino cites as one of only two times that a major studio produced “a full-on, gigantic, big-budget exploitation movie.” No wonder it and its sequel, Drum, are such assertive reference points in Django Unchained.
What Tarantino has staged with that movie is a genre inversion roughly equivalent to the spaghetti Western’s gritty revision of classical Hollywood Westerns. Not beholden to the allegiances of American identity, Italian directors like Sergio Leone and Sergio Corbucci were free to use the typology of the Western to craft parables of moral ambiguity and social malaise. En masse, the films they made serve as a critique of the classical Western genre. But even when they touch on the Civil War, as in Leone’s The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, the ugly rarely depicts the inhumanity of the American slave trade.
Django Unchained grapples with that ugliness head-on. In doing to, it becomes the spaghetti Western equivalent not only to the South of The Birth of a Nation, but also to the preponderance of major studio movies that have, by the accumulated weight of their self-congratulations, pasted over the moral ugliness of the American South ever since.