The Very Possibility of Justice
I recently watched the movie Django Unchained in a room containing nine white people and two people of color (including myself). As the credits rolled, I turned to my one black friend in the room and began gushing and overanalyzing, as I frequently do. She agreed that the movie was good, and kept repeating the same word as we spoke. “It’s just so satisfying,” she said. “I feel satisfied with that movie!” Many people who have seen the movie agree that it’s good, but what exactly is it that makes the movie so important and, yes, satisfying, for black people?
Django is 165 minute parable that shows how slavery can be paid back. On the surface, it’s the story of a slave named Django granted his freedom by a white German man so that they can rescue Django’s wife, shooting everyone who stands in their way. But what is it that makes Django so uplifting? First, every wrong done to Django is undone in the most vicious way possible. Overseers whip Django’s wife, so he whips them to death. A white plantation owner makes slaves fight each other, so he gets shot. Django tells the audience that every cruelty has an equal and opposite reaction, and every racist will get what they deserve. Part of the power of Django is the idea of basic retribution, but the subtext of the movie goes further still.
Tarantino tricked white moviegoers into seeing a movie they did not expect to see. In the trailer, Django looks like an ordinary action movie, a spaghetti western about a white man who frees a slave. But once butts were in theater seats, Tarantino gave it to them with both barrels. Django effectively flips every racial film cliche on its head: It’s the wise old white man who is killed to give Django something to fight for; there are only two archetypes available for white characters—the rich arrogant slave owner or idiot hillbilly; and by the end of the movie, every white person is assumed to be evil, and all the while, we finally see a black protagonist who’s above the rules of society. Django shatters expectations, and leaves white theatergoers without a conciliatory “not all white people are bad” character to lean on.
The power of the film is in the quiet way Tarantino plays with the expectations that decades of white-led movies have instilled in us. At the beginning of the movie, the audience is continually given assurance that the white people who die deserve to be killed, starting with the Brittle brothers. The audience is told, through flashbacks, of the crimes the brothers committed and the torture they inflicted on slaves. In fact, the eldest brother is about to whip an enslaved woman right as Django kills him. From then on though, the justification for Django’s killing gets slimmer and slimmer, until he shoots an unarmed white woman named Lara, as she comes home from her brother’s funeral. Her death is portrayed as a positive moment in this film, but it’s significant because Lara is never shown being cruel to a slave. Her death is portrayed as being just as redemptive as that of the slavers, and in this, the audience is asked to assume that she was evil, with no more justification of it than the fact that she is white. In this moment, Tarantino has completely flipped racial rhetoric, making white skin a crime worthy of death.
By the time the credits roll, black audience members are left with the powerful feeling that racial wrongs from their pasts can be righteously and satisfyingly corrected, just like Django’s. This movie shows us a world where justice is possible, and is owed to us for every time we were mistreated because of our skin color. Django is disguised as a mindless spaghetti western, but at its core, it’s an ode to black power and the idea that justice will eventually be given to the black community.