8 Something Else Besides a Western

Django Unchained's Generic Miscegenations

Paula Massood

Early in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained (2012), a group of torch-wielding Klansmen surround a wagon with the intention of punishing its owner, Dr. King Schultz, for his earlier “indiscretion” of killing three fugitives to collect the bounty on their heads. As Schultz had indicated in the scene preceding the Klan confrontation, both he and his assistant, Django Freemon, were within their legal rights to take the men “dead or alive” (they chose the former). The problem for the threesome’s employer (Big Daddy) and his Klan compatriots is that the pair includes Django, the black man responsible for the deaths of two of the three white fugitives. Earlier in the film, Django had joined forces with Schultz in order to earn enough money to buy his wife’s freedom. For Django, an escaped slave, the operation comes with an added appeal: shooting white people. As the Klan’s ride suggests, this latter perk is not without its perils, at least if one is a black man in the antebellum South.

The Klan’s attack occurs about forty minutes into Django Unchained in what is generally identified as the film’s “Western” section. However, the violence—both actual, in the killing of the three white men, and implied, in the presence of the Klan—takes place on an extensive cotton plantation in Tennessee, a setting more befitting the film’s later “Southern” section.[1] Much of the film’s earlier portions resemble a Western film and include many of the markers of the genre: men on horseback, wide-open landscapes, and frontier justice. The Klan’s existence in this early scene nevertheless suggests that Django Unchained as a whole may be something other, or something more, than a Western. What this something might be, however, has yet to be fully considered. Taking the lead from Tarantino, for example, most critical analysis of the film has focused on its connections to the Western, the spaghetti Western, the African American Western, or Western variations of the blaxploitation film.[2] The film, after all, references Italian spaghetti Westerns from the 1960s, especially Sergio Corbucci’s Django (1966), which serves as Django Unchained’s inspiration. Corbucci’s original, featuring Franco Nero (who makes a cameo in Tarantino’s film), is a violent variant of the spaghetti Western that focuses on a loner seeking revenge on the man who murdered his wife. Likewise, Django Unchained is a hyper- (some would say meta-) violent revenge story, but its location shifts over the course of the narrative from the West to the South, and because of this movement, the film becomes something different.

The film’s border crossing thus extends beyond its settings to its generic referents—a fact suggested by Tarantino himself, who referred to Django Unchained as not really “a Western proper. It’s a southern. I’m playing Western stories in the genre, but with a southern backdrop.” For the director, the film was a “new, virgin-snow kind of genre”[3] that had never been seen before. Tarantino is obviously exaggerating: generic hybridity is not the same as creating a new genre. Moreover, the director did not invent the art of playing with cinematic form. Discussions of the film, however, repeatedly return to the issue of genre, particularly focusing on the intersections of genre film and the form’s ability to accurately depict history. The critical emphasis on history has been less concerned with its Western elements and more focused on the film’s slave narrative. Johannes Fehrle suggests, for example, that “many debates about [the film] circle around questions about the adequacy of Tarantino’s chosen genre for the representation of slavery.”[4] Yarimar Bonilla, likewise, has observed that many have “wondered” whether certain genres are “inherently inadequate for capturing the experience of enslavement.”[5] And Terri Francis argues that, although the film “looks like it could be a historical movie about slavery,” such a possibility is “undermined” by the text’s self-conscious reliance on the Western and the spaghetti Western.[6] While each of these studies offers a compelling analysis of the film, I aim to expand the discussion beyond questions of its generic adequacy to represent slavery in order to examine the ways in which Django Unchained draws from a number of classic American story types, including the plantation genre, the melodrama, the action film, and the comedy.[7] The result is a somewhat schizophrenic film that is simultaneously deadly serious and playfully parodic about how it represents racially motivated violence.

Although Tarantino may believe that the Southern, his “virgin” genre, was his brainchild, variations on this cinematic type stretch back to the beginnings of American film in what has been called the “plantation genre.” According to Ed Guerrero, the plantation genre refers to films that depict slaves and slavery and make manifest the “cinematic devaluation of African Americans.” Guerrero charts three different stages of the genre, starting with The Birth of Nation (1915) and ending in the 1970s with “a sharp reversal of perspective . . . in films such as Mandingo (dir. Richard Fleischer, 1975),” a title that has been linked repeatedly to Django Unchained, particularly because of the latter’s use of blaxploitation tropes.[8] Even though his consideration of the genre ends with the blaxploitation era, Guerrero argues that “fragments of the [slavery] motif still resonate in sedimented themes, metaphors, and icons in the content of many contemporary films,” regardless of whether they are set on plantations.[9] The history of the plantation genre predates The Birth of a Nation—the various adaptations of Uncle Tom’s Cabin provide earlier examples—but there is no doubt that Griffith’s film, itself pulling from multiple genres, codified cinematic representations of race in American cinema for decades to come. Part melodrama, part action film, and part “romantic representation of the Old South,” the film’s images of racial and sexual violence have resonated over time and in a variety of films, including Django Unchained.[10] In fact, I believe that The Birth of a Nation functions as one of the repressed presences in Tarantino’s film.

Returning to the Klan scene from Django Unchained, it is difficult not to be reminded of the last third of The Birth of a Nation, which infamously features an extended ride of the organization presented in heroic terms through powerful cinematography and editing that links together different spaces and plot points. Django Unchained introduces the Klan early in the film through similar devices: The group appears aurally; sounds of galloping horses accompany a black screen before a band of hooded riders becomes visible in the frame. At their appearance, Verdi’s Requiem swells on the soundtrack, providing a chorus to the visuals of men and beasts in motion. The scene then cuts to a black screen, with the Verdi still audible, before the riders appear again on the crest of a hill in a long shot. As they descend the hill and approach the wagon, the pace of the editing increases and the cinematography shifts from long to medium shots. The overall effect is to present the Klan as an overwhelming and terrifying force in an abbreviated form of, though in a similar manner to, its appearance in The Birth of a Nation.

In Griffith’s film, the Klan’s first appearance occurs approximately 140 minutes into a narrative lasting over three hours and spanning the nation’s antebellum, Civil War, and Reconstruction periods. While in nascent form early in the film’s Reconstruction section, the Klan springs into action as a response to Flora Cameron’s death following her near-rape by Gus, a black ex-Union soldier affiliated with the carpetbaggers who have descended on once-idyllic Piedmont, South Carolina. Eventually the Klan, in a filmic climax lasting almost twenty minutes and cutting across three distinct settings, saves Elsie Stoneman from a forced marriage to the mulatto Silas Lynch, rescues members of the Cameron and Stoneman families from black ex-soldiers bent on revenge for past injustices, and liberates the town from a gang of marauding African Americans.

Much has been written of the technical virtuosity of these scenes, especially the ways in which Griffith utilized editing and shot structure to build suspense, communicate action, and create an overall sensory experience for spectators, transforming them from passive audience members to engaged participants in a kinesthetic event. The film’s successful combination of spectacle and melodrama can be linked to the action film—a genre that, in its earliest iterations, “regularly stake[d] out obvious moral oppositions between heroes and villains . . . trade[d] in culturally disreputable but thoroughly popular sensational material, and . . . feature[d] the suspenseful races depicted through parallel editing.”[11] The Birth of a Nation not only advanced narrative and cinematic form; it also contributed to the transformation of the plantation genre, a story type usually associated with melodrama (again, Uncle Tom’s Cabin), into an action film. Likewise, Django Unchained combines historical fiction, spectacle, and melodrama (particularly in Django’s quest to be reunited with his wife, Hildi) in what is as much an action film as it is a plantation film or a Western. Could it be, then, that its generic similarities with The Birth of a Nation create certain expectations for its treatment of slavery?

In an interview with Henry Louis Gates Jr., Tarantino does not dispute the scholar’s claim that he “deconstructed The Birth of a Nation” in Django Unchained, yet neither does he identify any direct references to Griffith’s film. In fact, Tarantino argues that the Klan is not even the “Klan yet” in the film (he calls them “Regulators”).[12] It is difficult, however, not to see the film’s treatment of the hooded mob and its racially motivated violent acts without being reminded of the group’s actions in The Birth of a Nation, and a comparison of the Klan’s ride in each of the films supports such an analysis. In Django Unchained, for example, the Klan’s ride occurs at night. The riders first appear on a hilltop, before approaching and encircling Schultz’s wagon, which is positioned below them at the bottom of the hill. The group appears in a long shot, as an illuminated line of moving bodies positioned in the top third of the frame. The sky behind them is black, and the landscape is likewise shadowed, thus focusing spectators’ eyes on the illuminated men and beasts positioned near the top of the frame. As they ride over the crest of the hill, they move to the left, yet the proportions of the shot privilege the right side of the frame (fig. 8.1).

 

Still from the Klan ride (screen capture by author).
Figure 8.1 Still from the Klan ride (screen capture by author).

The composition of the shot in Tarantino’s film closely matches that of a similar shot from Griffith’s film as the Klan members are gathering before their ride. In The Birth of a Nation, as in Django Unchained, the band of riders appears in a long shot in the upper third of the frame, the image taken from a low angle. The riders are backlit as they move over the crest of a hill that is itself shadowed in black. The sky, at least in most prints, appears to have been tinted red (and thus is brighter than the dark figures on the hill), adding to the excitement and foreboding of the scene by having the riders stand out against both the background and the foreground. The riders move to the right, and the proportions of the shot favor the right side of the frame. Even with almost a century’s technological differences between the films—including color stock, sound, and digital editing—the two shots share a surprising number of visual tropes: the Klan is presented as a powerful, frightening, and anonymous force that starts out small on-screen and becomes larger over the course of the scene.[13]

Another, less direct example of the connections between the two films can be found in the cinematic presentation of the culmination of the Klan’s ride. In Django Unchained, once the band moves over the hill, the pace of the editing increases and the composition shifts from long shots of the multiple riders to medium shots of individuals. The Verdi accompaniment continues through this section of the scene, which lasts five minutes. The overall effect is to present the riders as a dangerous force as they surround the wagon. At first glance, the scene from The Birth of a Nation appears to be dissimilar. The Klan’s ride, for example, is much longer in duration, lasting over twenty minutes. It also intercuts different spaces, cutting from exteriors to the interiors of a house in Piedmont and an isolated cabin, locations where marauding black people surround members of the innocent white Stoneman and Cameron families. Yet similarities exist between the two, particularly in the increased pace of the editing and the variations of compositions—from long to medium shots—used during the ride. As in Django Unchained, the overall effect of the Klan ride in The Birth of a Nation is to present the band of outlaws as an intimidating and invincible force.

Although these similarities are noteworthy in that they suggest that The Birth of a Nation was a significant influence on Django Unchained, the differences between the scenes are even more telling for what they say about the function of genre in each film. As The Birth of a Nation clearly suggests, the Klan’s function is to reinsert order into a region torn apart by war and bruised by the indignities of Reconstruction, offering, argues Amy Louise Wood in a slightly different context, “visual authenticity to [white supremacist] rhetoric.”[14] Griffith’s heroic presentation of the Klan not only provides a satisfying resolution to narrative conflict as each of the film’s protagonists is rescued by the riders, but the film also symbolically suggests a reunification of the nation through paternalistic and heteronormative tropes of white masculinity and womanhood. The Birth of a Nation’s not-so-repressed sexual obsession was, in Griffith’s own words, “to prevent the mixing of white and Negro blood through intermarriage.”[15] Moreover, the film’s kinetic combination of melodramatic narrative and form made it an entertaining and powerful political tool in the organization’s recruitment efforts during the 1920s.

Tarantino’s version of the Klan’s ride, on the other hand, appears early in Django Unchained, and the group’s narrative function is less clearly delineated than it is in Griffith’s film. Once the riders surround the wagon, the scene cuts to a discussion between Big Daddy, the plantation owner and employer of the dead fugitives, and members of the gathered mob. After the rapid editing of the earlier action shots, this sequence is cut in a classic shot-reverse-shot pattern, the switch in pace both within and across shots suggesting a change in tone even before the dialogue begins. Big Daddy initiates his speech by warning the riders to avoid shooting either Schultz or Django. Such a fate, according to the plantation owner, is too good for the pair. Instead, he has other plans for the men: “We’re gonna whup that nigger lover to death. And I’m going to personally strip and clip that gaboon myself.” Unlike the previous shots of the Klan’s ride, where the group’s menace is suggested through visuals and sound, this moment directly references the organization’s history of terrorist acts—including flogging, mutilation, and lynching—against African Americans and their supporters. Schultz, already marked as an outsider by virtue of his clothing and his accent, is considered to be a traitor to his race, an irony given his German nationality. And Django is guilty of two even more outrageous crimes: acting like a free man rather than a slave and killing two white men. At this point in the narrative, the Klan’s words align well with the group’s impressive introduction to the scene.

Big Daddy’s plan to lynch the partners also connects Django Unchained to the Western and the plantation genres (the latter of which, as mentioned, has one of its canonical models in The Birth of a Nation), both of which have historical links to representations of mob violence. According to Wood, for example, cinematic scenes of lynching can be traced back to the earliest American films, starting with the Edison Company’s Lynching Scene from 1895. During this early period, lynching contents tended to fall into one of two geographical categories: those set on the Western frontier or those set in the South and featuring “southern-style vigilantism.”[16] As Wood argues, early Western films were less racially marked than their Southern counterparts, and films like Cowboy Justice, an early Western from 1903, tended to project “images of mobs punishing crime and establishing moral justice with speed and precision, providing a thrill for audiences fearing crime in modern life and frustrated by the slow wheels of judicial bureaucracy.”[17] Victims were often murderers or horse thieves, and their punishments were frequently wrought in territories with little legal representation.

Whereas this strain of vigilante justice runs throughout the early Western, later films in the genre began to present lynching as a sign of the frontier’s lawlessness and lack of civility. Such violent behavior becomes a problem to be eradicated, and this is most often accomplished with the help of a lone hero who rides into town and aids in restoring order (in lieu of an effective sheriff or marshal).[18] In the Western’s moral universe, therefore, lynching becomes an avoidable wrong that needs to be made right, especially when it is not specifically connected to race discourses (as it was in southern films). One of the earliest versions of this sort of frontier justice, for example, appeared in Owen Wister’s 1902 The Virginian, a novel that tells the story of a man who reluctantly takes part in the lynching of a cattle thief (one of his friends), an act that haunts him through the remainder of the story. The novel was adapted for the screen multiple times, including two silent versions (dir. Cecile B. DeMille, 1914, and dir. Tom Forman, 1923), two sound versions (dir. Victor Fleming, 1929, and dir. William A. Wellman, 1946), a made-for-television version (dir. Bill Pullman, 2000), and a long-running television series that aired on NBC for nine years (1962–1971). Likewise, The Ox-Bow Incident (dir. William A. Wellman, 1943) tells the story of two drifters who help a posse identify a group of cattle rustlers who are accused of murdering a local rancher. Once the outlaws are located, they are lynched by the posse.[19] Only after the men are murdered does the posse learn that they killed the wrong people. In these examples, lynching is a response to a clearly defined criminal act: cattle rustling and murder. Even so, it is not without its problems, as the protagonists involved in the violence are roundly haunted by their actions. Although the remorse felt by the Western hero conforms to the character traits of the genre, it also suggests that the Western had rapidly altered its outright endorsement of lynching.

In the plantation genre, on the other hand, lynching plays a different and far more symbolic role in the narrative, lending “visual authenticity to pro-lynching narratives and political rhetoric which typically characterized the African American victims of lynching as drunken, unmanageable, and depraved, and white mobs as a united front of honorable, solid citizens.”[20] In The Birth of a Nation, for example, Gus’s mutilation and murder is one of the Klan’s first actions, which aids the group’s transformation from a disparate mob of unhappy former Confederates to an organized force intent on protecting Southern property (here in the form of white womanhood). Until its kidnapping and murder of Gus, the organization is seen only through symbolic objects: the robes and hoods sewn and secreted away by the Cameron women. In the film’s initial version, Gus’s lynching was shown in full, but as a result of protests and threats of censorship, the film’s more explicit footage was cut.[21] Instead, we see Gus first hiding from the mob and eventually being found and dragged away by Klan members (fig. 8.2). When audiences last see Gus alive, he appears in a medium shot with hooded Klan members surrounding him on three sides and more on horseback in the background. It is clear from Gus’s frightened facial expressions (and the red tinting of most prints) that he knows his fate. Later in the narrative, Gus reappears when his dead body is deposited on the steps of the Stoneman’s house. In this shot, his body appears in a medium close-up, lying prone with eyes and mouth open. Attached to his body is a sheet of paper bearing the image of a skull and crossbones, and a “KKK” inscription (fig. 8.3). Despite the fact that Gus’s death occurs offscreen, this portion of The Birth of a Nation clearly links racial violence to the maintenance of borders, most immediately as they pertain to sex and the threat of miscegenation and more symbolically as they apply to African Americans knowing their social, political, and economic place in American society. In Griffith’s version of the plantation genre, therefore, lynching is presented as the right and righteous response to uncivilized behavior, one that restores “social and moral order.”[22]

 

Gus surrounded by the Klan (screen capture by author).
Figure 8.2 Gus surrounded by the Klan (screen capture by author).
Gus’s lifeless body (screen capture by author).
Figure 8.3 Gus’s lifeless body (screen capture by author).

From The Birth of a Nation onward, explicit footage of lynching was, if not banned outright, then off-limits in American film. This situation did not change until the late 1960s, when the Motion Picture Production Code was replaced with the Motion Picture Association of America film rating system, thus enabling US films to include previously prohibited content.[23] One of the first post-Code examples of lynching in the plantation genre appeared in Mandingo (1975), a film that, like Django Unchained, borrows from and revises a number of genres, including the action film and the plantation genre. As Guerrero suggests, by the 1970s, Hollywood’s “plantation myth” began to “collapse and reverse its ideological direction.” Mandingo contains several “ideological reversals” in, for example, the presentation of relationships between the master and slave, themes of miscegenation, and the representation of racial violence, particularly lynching. These reversals, according to Guerrero, “echo with other insurgent voices and influences [and] mediate the militant thinking, language, and aspirations of the Black Power movement of the time.”[24] In one scene of the film, for example, a runaway slave is lynched, but not before he makes a speech indicting those in the mob (black and white) for their involvement in chattel slavery:

Cicero, to the slave who helped catch him: “You killed me. . . . Niggas like you just prove what the peckerwoods say. We’re just beasts. Willing to do anything. Kill each other. No mind. No feeling. . . . Leastwise I ain’t gonna die like you gonna die. Like a slave!”

 

Cicero, to the assembled crowd: “You peckerwoods was oppressed in your own land. We was free! And you brought us here. In chains. But now we here. And you just better know this is just as much our land as it is your’n. And, after you hang me, kiss my ass.”

Such content not only revises The Birth of a Nation’s and other films’ representations of lynching by providing its victim with a voice but also asks audience members to consider slavery’s myriad mental and physical crimes. In Mandingo’s rendering of Cicero’s end, lynching is just one act in a long chain of racially motivated violence.

Django Unchained also reinterprets the social and cinematic history of racial violence, but its tone differs from both The Birth of a Nation and Mandingo.[25] As mentioned, the Klan raid suggests the film’s first threat of lynching and castration. Once Big Daddy addresses the mob about his intentions to “strip and clip” Django, the group dons their hoods and prepares to attack the pair. Before they can begin, however, Big Daddy mutters, referring to his hood, “I can’t see fucking shit out of this thing.” His words begin an extended discussion among the riders about the impracticality of the Klan’s hoods for successfully accomplishing their goals. After a period of humorous complaining and finger-pointing, which ends with one member angrily riding off because of insults directed toward his wife, the group decides to continue with the raid while wearing the hoods. As they surround the wagon, believing that their victims are inside, Schultz (who has been hiding in the hills with Django) sets off explosives, killing and maiming most of the riders. Afterward, Django shoots Big Daddy as the plantation owner tries to escape, adding another white man to his roster of victims. With this obstacle eliminated, the pair continue on their journey. As mentioned, the Klan scene occurs early in the film, and its purpose is to establish the character traits of each protagonist: Schultz is cunning and experienced with explosives, and Django is a skilled and patient marksman. The specter of lynching is raised—and in this way Tarantino relies on spectators’ familiarity with this aspect of American history—but it remains a threat that isn’t acted on at this point in the narrative. Still, the Klan’s presence suggests the ways in which Django’s audacity in killing white men must be met by humiliation and mutilation, just like Gus’s desire for Flora was met with castration and death in The Birth of a Nation and Cicero’s desire for freedom was met with a noose in Mandingo. The difference is that Django survives—a fact I will return to momentarily.

Another example of the Django Unchained’s lynching discourse occurs near the conclusion, after Django surrenders during a gun battle at the Candie Land plantation, where he and Schultz have gone to rescue Django’s wife, Hildi. Once Django is captured, he again faces the threat of lynching and castration as punishment for killing more white men (and for not knowing his place in Southern society). The scene opens with an overhead medium shot of Django’s nude body, with his legs and genitals exposed. He has been strung up with a rope and is hanging by his ankles from the rafters of a horse barn. The only sound accompanying the image is the creaking of the ropes holding his hanging body as it sways back and forth.[26] The film cuts to a medium close-up, and the camera tilts downward and tracks around Django’s head, in the process revealing his scarred back and manacled face, his body acting as a palimpsest for the experiences of the enslaved.[27] One of the plantation’s overseers then enters the room and prepares to castrate Django with a red-hot knife, thus fulfilling Big Daddy’s desire to “strip and clip [the] gaboon.” Django’s crime, according to his torturer, is being a “black man paid to kill white men.” The scene lasts a mere two minutes, but during that time, Django’s defenseless body is humiliated, threatened, and tortured. Here, like the earlier moments with the Klan, the danger of lynching and castration remains nothing more than a threat: at the last moment, Django’s life is spared so that he can be sold to a mining company, yet the camera lingers over Django’s nude body, hanging helpless in the barn.

To understand the effect of this moment, it seems important to return to the film’s handling of the earlier scene with the Klan. While the riders’ demise may provide a satisfying resolution to a plot point, the scene, like the later near-castration scene, troubles the parameters of the plantation genre, but not in the ways that Tarantino may have intended. The director’s films have often presented people in positions of power alternately as threats or fools, and this strategy has often contributed a political, if not necessarily satirical, component to a film’s humor, whether concerning Nazis in Inglourious Basterds (2009) or drug dealers in Pulp Fiction (1994). There’s no doubt that this was the intention with the Klan ride in Django Unchained, which was shot and structured to present the mob as a formidable and frightening force, only to reveal that it consists of clueless nincompoops lacking any real plan. Such a strategy can deflate the group’s importance by offering, in Gates’s words, “an opposite extreme of The Birth of a Nation.”[28] Tarantino’s mob is not only ineffectual at restoring order but also suffers the consequences (violence and death) of its members’ shortcomings, whereas Griffith’s riders are the narrative’s heroes. But generic volte-faces and cinematic self-referentiality do not necessarily equate with political critique or cohesive filmmaking, and in the same interview with Gates, Tarantino stresses the film’s adherence to the conventions of the spaghetti Western, the Western, and the comedy—the latter of which functions, according to the director, “to bring [audiences] back from the horrific.”[29] It comes as no surprise, therefore, that the Klansmen are the victims of Schultz’s ruse; the once threatening mob is reduced to Wile E. Coyote-like victims of their own stupidity. Once a threat, the Klan and its racist intentions are left behind in the narrative.

Django Unchained’s humorous treatment of the Klan may offer some release in a film overflowing with racial violence (or its potential), but it sits uncomfortably next to quotations from Griffith’s film and the plantation genre (and the related lynching film) as a whole. It also sits uncomfortably near other scenes, including Django’s near-castration. The later scene of Django’s humiliation is not played for comedy, despite the fact that it occurs after a hyperviolent shoot-out that takes on laughably comic proportions: blood spatters, bodies fly through the air, and walls are riddled with hundreds of bullet holes. Once Django is captured, the self-consciously comic tone shifts, and spectators are asked to participate in the graphic spectacle of his mental and physical violation—hung and tied by his feet, he is defenseless against a man kicking him in the face and grabbing his testicles. The imagery used in the scene—particularly near its conclusion, when we see Django hanging in profile in a medium long shot—visually references more than a century of lynching photographs and lynching films. In this moment, Django Unchained steps away from its hyperreferential generic play to acknowledge a national legacy of racism and violence that continues in the present in ongoing acts of police brutality and the rise of white nationalist groups.[30] But, as with the earlier Klan scene, which starts as an analysis of the history it conjures, this moment raises the topic only to push it aside with a happy ending that sees Django and Hildi ride off into the distance.

While Django Unchained’s unbridled borrowings from a wide swath of genres—the Western, the African American Western, blaxploitation, the southern, the plantation film, the action film, and even the comedy—provide a rich and appealing mix of references for the director’s fans, it has led to confusion regarding its narrative treatment and visual rendering of slavery. In my opinion, it is a mistaken, and losing, enterprise to question whether the film’s genre adequately captures the historical realities of slavery, especially when such subject matter has its roots firmly entrenched in melodrama. Tarantino’s film may be melodramatic at times, but it draws from multiple genres, resulting in shifting tones over the course of the narrative. In the end, Django Unchained’s generic polyphony provides little guidance for spectators reading the text’s various references, and it points to the implications of a mere surface retelling of the nation’s and film’s racial past. It is not so much a “new, virgin-snow kind of genre,” as suggested by its creator, as it is a generic mash up that lacks a cohesive identity or message. So, to assume that it will adequately represent slavery, or the Western, or any other genre, is ultimately an incorrect approach to a film that offers a little of everything, at least on its surface.

 

Paula Massood is Professor of Film Studies at Brooklyn College, City University of New York. She is author of Black City Cinema: African American Urban Experiences in Film and Making a Promised Land: Harlem in Twentieth-Century Photography and Film.


  1. Tennessee became a state in 1796 and adopted the slave code from North Carolina, which had previously administered the region. The state formalized its own slave laws in 1857, the year before Django Unchained is set. (And the film not-so-subtly stresses the links between racial violence and the plantation economy through its inclusion of shots of blood-spattered cotton plants following the death of the third fugitive.)
  2. A brief sampling of discussions of genre and the film include Johannes Fehrle, “‘And I Would Call It A Southern’: Renewing/Obscuring the Blaxploitation Western,” Safundi: The Journal of South African and American Studies 16, no. 3 (2015): 291–306; Michael K. Johnson, “The D Is Silent: Django Unchained and the African American West,” Safundi: The Journal of South African and American Studies 16 no. 3 (2015): 256–266; and Terri Francis, “Looking Sharp: Performance, Genres and Questioning History in Django Unchained,” Transition 112 (2013): 32–45.
  3. Charles McGrath, “Quentin’s World.” Interview with Quentin Tarantino. New York Times, December 19, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/23/movies/how-quentin-tarantino-concocted-a-genre-of-his-own.html.
  4. Fehrle, “‘And I Would Call It A Southern,’” 291.
  5. Yarimar Bonilla, “History Unchained,” Transition 112 (2013): 69.
  6. Francis, “Looking Sharp,” 44.
  7. The film also pulls from the buddy film and the road film, but these genres have a less influential presence in the narrative.
  8. Ed Guerrero, Framing Blackness: The African American Image in Film (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1992), 10.
  9. Ibid., 40.
  10. Daniel Bernardi, “Integrating Race into the Narrator System,” in Film Analysis: A Norton Reader, ed. Jeffrey Geiger and R. L. Rutskyu (New York: W. W. Norton, 2013), 84. A recent example of The Birth of a Nation’s ongoing influence can be found in Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation (2016), a film based on the biography of Nate Turner. Here Parker makes ironic reference to Griffith’s film by reinterpreting the earlier film’s fear of African American violence.
  11. Scott Higgins, “Suspenseful Situations: Melodramatic Narrative and the Contemporary Action Film,” Cinema Journal 47, no. 2 (Winter 2008): 78.
  12. Henry Louis Gates Jr., “An Unfathomable Place: An Interview with Quentin Tarantino,” Transition 112 (2013): 52. The term regulators refers to different sorts of pre-Klan police groups. According to Daniel R. Weinfeld, regulators refer to different groups that used a “variety of names.” “The goal of all these groups,” argues Weinfeld, “was to re-impose the dominance of white southerners in states where blacks, beginning to assert their civil rights had voted Republican administrations into power.” Weinfeld, The Jackson County War: Reconstruction and Resistance in Post–Civil War Florida (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2012), 65. Groups of regulators existed before the Klan, which was not fully established until 1866, but they were similar in terms of intent and tactics.
  13. Spike Lee has also wrestled with the cinematic and political resonances of The Birth of a Nation, particularly its depiction of the Ku Klux Klan. Malcolm X (1992), for example, includes a moment from Malcolm’s childhood when his family’s Michigan house was surrounded by torch-wielding and hooded white supremacists (made to look like Klan members) unhappy with his father’s outspoken political beliefs. Although it only loosely echoes Griffith’s film in style (it is a very short scene, and the participants are not on horseback), it’s thematically connected to the earlier film. Moreover, it suggests that organized racial violence was not confined to the South or the West.
  14. Amy Louise Wood, “The ‘Vicarious Play’ of Lynching Melodramas: Cinema and Mob Violence in the United States, 1895–1905,” in Violence and Visibility in Modern History, ed. Jürgen Martschukat and Silvan Niedermeier (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), 120.
  15. Robert Lang, The Birth of a Nation: D. W. Griffith, Director (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1994), 17.
  16. Wood, “The ‘Vicarious Play,’” 118.
  17. Ibid., 125.
  18. For more on lynching in the American West, see Michael J. Pfeifer, ed., Lynching beyond Dixie: American Mob Violence outside the South (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2014); Michael J. Pfeifer, The Roots of Rough Justice: Origins of American Lynching (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2013); and Ken Gonzales-Day, Lynching in the West: 1850–1935 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006).
  19. The film is an adaptation of Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s 1940 novel of the same name. The film adaptation was a Western with noir-like elements (particularly in its damning resolution).
  20. Wood, “The ‘Vicarious Play,’” 120–121.
  21. Bernardi, “Integrating Race into the Narrator System,” 91.
  22. Wood, “The ‘Vicarious Play,’” 122.
  23. Compare The Birth of a Nation, for example, with Gone with the Wind (1939), a post-Code plantation film. With the latter, Producer David O. Selznick made sure to cut from the screenplay scenes justifying the Klan and lynching, both of which appeared in Margaret Mitchell’s original novel.
  24. Guerrero, Framing Blackness, 33.
  25. In many ways, Django Unchained references the blaxploitation film, one of the recurring generic references in Tarantino’s oeuvre. In many of his films, such as Jackie Brown (1997), the director calls on blaxploitation as an homage to 1970s popular culture more generally. In Django Unchained, Tarantino utilizes blaxploitation’s powerful black male heroes and action sequences, but the political emphasis of the earlier films is diluted by multiple generic references. Is Django modeled after a blaxploitation hero? A Western hero? A spaghetti Western hero? A slave hero?
  26. A similar audio/visual combination appears in Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave (2013), in which Solomon Northup is hung by his neck and left hanging in the yard as a warning to other slaves. While the camera swings around his body in a medium long shot, the sound track consists mostly of the sounds of the rope and Northup’s toes scratching against the ground in an attempt to ease the tension in the rope.
  27. Terri Francis makes a compelling case for the connections between Django’s scar and the scars on Gordon, an escaped slave and Union soldier whose photograph was used to support abolitionist causes. Francis, “Looking Sharp,” 34.
  28. Gates, “An Unfathomable Place,” 51.
  29. Ibid., 58.
  30. In my opinion, the film is most successful at communicating the horrors of slavery in a scene in which Schultz and Django first approach Candie Land Plantation. They encounter a group of overseers and an escaped slave (one of the “Mandingos” forced to fight for the plantation owner). The slave’s punishment for fleeing is to be ripped to shreds by the slave hunters’ dogs. Although audiences see little of the violence, enough is shown—in combination with the sound of the man’s agonized screams on the sound track—to communicate the man’s gruesome fate. The scene is played for what it is: a rendering of the inhumane results of the plantation economy.