“Kill white folks and they pay you for it? What’s not to like?” That will be the line that most stands out from the first trailer for Quentin Tarantino’s upcoming slavery revenge flick Django Unchained. But from even the brief glimpse of the movie we get here, I think it’s going to be a richer, weirder text than I initially expected from the plot outlines:
It looks like Django Unchained will be less geographically specific to the South than I expected. We see cotton bolls mostly so we can see them sprayed with blood. But much of the landscape that Django and the man who freed him ride through is framed as Western rather than coded as Southern, whether it’s drought-stricken land, men riding horses down small-town streets into the sunset, or wide open spaces instead of trees heavy with Spanish moss. There’s something powerful about giving a slave the chance at a new start that’s traditionally allocated to former Confederates. It’s not a new idea—Hell on Wheels tried, but it looks like Django Unchained might do it while letting a black man be as violent and hardbitten as the Confederates he’s replacing.
Then, there’s the nature of the bargain between Django and Dr. King Schultz, the bounty hunter played by Christoph Waltz. Schultz promises Django that once he’s helped Schultz track down his targets, he’ll free Django and help him free his wife. It’s an inherently exploitative bargain: the reward Schultz offers is so valuable, that I’d imagine he feels he can ask Django to do almost anything to live up to it. The movie may turn out to be an exploration of how much Django enjoys the work he’s meant to do to earn his freedom, but there’s something uneasy about suggesting that slavery under one set of conditions is unbearable while under another it’s sort of awesome. But Django Unchained might be a more interesting movie if it explores what it means to hold a man hostage against his liberty, and what you’ll do to achieve it.