There’s a lot to chew over in Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino’s bloody slavery epic, and the second in a planned trilogy of revenge movies, the third of which will be about black World War II fighter pilots. There’s the movie’s worship of cool masculinity, even as, like Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln it marginalizes the role black women played in the fight for their own liberation. There’s the reaction to a black man, first killing white people for money, and then to eradicate the forces that have consistently brutalized his family and denied him his humanity, something that’s been rightly demolished by other critics. But as I’ve thought about the movie in the weeks since I’ve seen it—and I needed that time to really consider Django Unchained—it strikes me that it’s as interesting a movie about whiteness, solidarity, and how best to achieve social progress, as it is on any of these other questions.
And it’s impossible to consider that element of the movie without thinking about it in context of Lincoln. Like long-term abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens’ decision, on the floor of the House, to moderate his stated views on the equality of black Americans to win support for the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment in Spielberg’s film, a crucial moment in Django Unchained comes when German bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a newer advocate of equality, is offered an opportunity to avoid violence and advance the cause of equality with social moderation—except that in this case, he chooses purity, radicalism, violence, and ultimately his own death.
Where Stevens is a long-standing participant in the struggle for black liberation, Schultz is a newcomer to radical action against slavery, and a rather accidental one at that. Though he initially approaches Django, when the other man is imprisoned as a member of a slave-trading caravan, in a tone that makes the white men transporting uncomfortable enough to tell Schultz to “stop talking to him like that,” by which he means as if Django is a man possessed of agency and opinions, he treats Django as an equal only as in so far as he treats him like someone who can be of use to Schultz. Schultz clearly thinks slavery is wrong—he tells the other member of Django’s caravan that they should “Make your way to a more Enlightened area of the country. Oh, and if there are any astronomy aficionados among you, the North Star is that way.” But at least at the beginning of the film, he appears to view the institution as a particular American backwardness rather than a moral abomination that requires urgent opposition, and Schultz is willing to hold Django’s freedom over him until he gets what he needs from the other man. “On the one hand, I despise slavery,” he explains to Django. “On the other hand, I need your help…In the mean time, I’m going to make this slavery malarkey work for me.”
Schultz’s radicalism comes from his increasing ability to place Django, the first slave he’s ever known personally, into the tropes that for him seem to define humanity. “Do most slaves believe in marriage?” he asks Django when he finds out his traveling companion is married. “Me and my wife do,” Django tells him. And when he discovers that Django’s wife (Kerry Washington) is named Broomhilda, Schultz is able to fit Django into a cultural framework that he understands, seeing him as the legendary hero Siegfried. “I’ve never given anyone his freedom before,” Schultz explains to Django when he decides to stick around and assist in Django’s quest to rescue his wife. “And now that I have, I feel vaguely responsible for you. And for a German to meet a real-life Siegfried, that’s a big deal.”
Where Schultz feels vaguely responsible to a specific slave, of course, Stevens feels very specifically responsible to black Americans both particular and general. As Stevens and Lincoln discuss in the kitchen during Mrs. Lincoln’s party, Stevens has a vision for the reintegration of the seceded states back into the Union that will reorder the nation’s economy to give the people who once were property in it a foothold they can lever into independence. At the end of Lincoln, the movie suggests that there’s a specific woman of color who motivates Stevens’ vision, the housekeeper he can’t bring to the White House, Lydia Smith (S. Epatha Merkerson). But in both cases, Stevens wants to reshape the world so he can live in it in a fashion more to his liking, with the woman he loves in particular, and in what he believes to be the true state of nature beyond his domestic affairs.
Schultz has the fire of a recent convert, but not the experience of America’s past and the things to gain from its reformed future that animate Stevens. And so when, after securing the freedom of Django and Broomhilda during a tense dinner with Broomhilda’s brutal owner, Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), Schultz has a chance to end the interaction in the kind of tense show of comity Stevens engages in for the greater good, Schultz takes the purer, but more dramatic path. After pointing out that Alexandre Dumas, an author Candie admires enough to collect, and to use as inspiration for naming one of his fighting slaves, D’Artagnan, after the hero of The Three Musketeers, was black, Schultz refuses to shake Candie’s hand. And then he shoots the other white man, explaining to Django, “I’m sorry. I couldn’t resist.” That act of self-indulgent purity sets off an orgy of violence that endangers Django and Broomhilda’s ability to escape: it’s the act of a crusader who is more concerned with his own ability to get and stay right than with whether or not he achieves the freedom of the people he initially intended to help. I’m not sure whether Tarantino intended to make that point, or if Schultz’s indulgence is merely a way to set off a spasm of cool that gives Django the opportunity to free himself and to claim the mantle of a badass rather than having Schultz do that work and get that credit for him.
There’s no question that Hollywood could do more to let people of color be the heroes of their own stories, but I don’t think any of us would deny that it would be better if they didn’t end up in peril because white people made self-regarding decisions that placed them in great danger and difficulty. Stevens’ willingness to compromise may mean he gets credit that is not available to black characters in Lincoln. But he also doesn’t endanger the people he claims to represent and care about for the sake of his own pride.
In Tarantino’s world, it’s possible to have both, the shootout and the triumphant escape, to put Broomhilda through the tortures of slavery, while also preserving her radiant beauty as an inspiration to Django, to portray a weirdly sanitized vision of plantations full of well-clothed slaves working in immaculate fields, while still condemning the institution as an affront to human decency. But while Lincoln eschews Django Unchained‘s fondness for gouged eyes and gouts of blood in favor of a single, muddy battle scene and wars of words, it’s Spielberg who ultimately has the tougher vision of what it takes to achieve substantive social progress. Revenge may be more fun than reform. But it’s ultimately more self-indulgent.