#511: Django Unchained

Quentin Tarantino’s scripts aren’t the cleanest — but his slavery-and-revenge epic is a modern legend among revisionist westerns

june gloom
6 min readMay 12, 2023

Initial release: December 25, 2012
Director: Quentin Tarantino

Here are three facts, independent of one another:

Fact one: Chattel slavery was a defining feature of American life for nearly a century since the nation’s founding, an indelible stain upon America’s moral standing. The legacy of slavery has cast a long shadow on America for over a hundred and fifty years since its abolition. Though times have changed, and the specific issues people of color face are (mostly) different now, America as a nation will likely never fully be able to escape its dark history.

Fact two: White supremacy is such a hideous, odious ideology, creeping insidiously into the everyday conscious via an unrelenting firehose of propaganda both subtle and not, that when media depicts its loudest and most vicious of adherents getting their just desserts, it feels good to watch. Why else do we enjoy watching Nazis getting laid out on the street? Why else did we applaud when that one guy got a faceful of Twisted Tea? Nazis, the Klan, the modern-day “MAGA-chuds” who terrorize schools and attack infrastructure — all of them are considered acceptable targets for violent catharsis.

Fact three: Quentin Tarantino loves three things: revenge tales, feet, and the N-word.

Django Unchained is like all of Tarantino’s movies: a love letter to schlock. His films are all, to a one, pastiches of bygone days of forgotten B-movies, but with his personal stamp that (ostensibly) includes sharp, snappy dialogue, occasionally absurdist humor, some truly visionary shot composition, an eclectic score of mostly licensed music often picked out by Tarantino himself, and the occasional bout of stylized ultraviolence. In short, it’s like if you took the contents of the sleaziest, dirtiest video store you ever visited (assuming you’re old enough to remember them,) put them into a blender with some hip-hop and funk records, poured the resulting goop into a VHS-shaped mold, and sold the results as somehow a brand new movie.

Beginning with lurid red titles right out of a hundred westerns of the mid-century, Django Unchained is a classic Tarantino mashup: a revenge tale set against the backdrop of slavery and white supremacist depravity in the antebellum South. Jamie Foxx is Django, a former slave working with Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a quirky, loquacious former German dentist turned sanctioned bounty hunter who tracks down the worst of the bad men across the southern United States and brings their corpses in for money. While Django certainly is happy with the opportunity to kill (bad) white people and get paid by the government for it, his ultimate goal is the rescue of his wife Hilda (Kerry Washington), who was sold separately after the pair were caught running away; Schultz, revealing himself to be a killer with a heart of gold, agrees to help. Unfortunately, she’s currently owned by Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio, in a role so charismatically evil that DiCaprio, a seasoned player of villains, was deeply uncomfortable.)

Candie is as talkative and elegant as Schultz, but where Schultz is a goodhearted, if pragmatic man, Candie prefers to use his language skills (and the skull of a former slave as a prop) to effortlessly champion phrenology, a discredited science that was a favorite of 19th century racists. Candie is also a fan of “mandingo fighting,” a largely fictional practice of pitting slaves against each other in a fight to the death; we are introduced to him intently watching a furious and bloody fight in one of his own sitting rooms, gleefully encouraging his fighter, and eventually handing the man a hammer to finish his opponent.

Alongside Candie, however, is doddering old Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson, looking positively decrepit,) the head house slave and effective ruler of the Candyland plantation, a master manipulator (in every sense of the term,) loyal to Candie but also knowing how to work Candie’s ego to his favor, effectively running the plantation himself while Candie is off drinking and watching fights, at one point explicitly describing how he simply lets his masters think they came up with the ideas he feeds them. It’s Stephen who demolishes Django and Schultz’ attempt to trick Candie into selling them Hilda; it’s Stephen who serves as the film’s final villain.

While Django Unchained does try to ground itself in the realism of a revisionist western, it never really gets away from the fact that it’s ultimately a violent revenge fantasy against a white supremacist hegemony, sometimes bordering on the cartoonish — witness Candie’s sister simply being yeeted out of the room as if pulled by a stagehook upon being shot. The final act of the film is awash in blood and smoke, akin to the violent crescendo of Tarantino’s World War II anti-Nazi revenge flick Inglourious Basterds as the snappy dialogue abruptly comes to an end — at least for a while — and everything devolves into furious violence.

There’s been a lot of hash about Tarantino’s use of the N-word in his films; he seemed to reach a peak with Django Unchained and its N-word count of close to a whopping 110, the word being used as often as a descriptor or title as a slur. While Spike Lee called the film disrespectful, Foxx and Jackson have both come out in defense of the script, arguing that it’s reflective of the realities of the era, and of Tarantino’s legacy with the word. (Pam Grier, who saw her career revived with Tarantino’s best film, Jackie Brown, has said that most instances of the word in Tarantino’s films are improvised by Jackson.) But Jackson especially isn’t going to talk shit about the man whose films made him an international superstar. I as a white person don’t feel comfortable making a value statement on this either way, except to say that after Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight maybe Tarantino should take a break from poking at white supremacy and focus on feet for a while.

I can only really focus on the technical qualities of the film, which are unimpeachable; Tarantino has a talent for pacing and shot composition, drawing from a century-plus of film for inspiration, though it does feel like that in the decade-plus since Grindhouse came out he’s focused more and more on presenting reformulated 1970s exploitation cinema. On some level he’s always done that, but as his career has progressed it’s become perhaps his most defining quirk as a filmmaker. Even the big gunfight scene feels like it was lifted straight from the nastiest Italian westerns like The Specialists, with a body count that grows exponentially in a matter of seconds, walls being painted in blood.

Love it or hate it, Django Unchained is an embodiment of the revisionist western, brutal and uncompromising, an unflinching portrayal of the evils of slavery in a way that either feels illuminating or exploitative, depending on who you ask.




june gloom

Media critic, retired streamer, furry. I love you. [she/her]