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Django Unchained – a Genre Reformed

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The classical western genre of film came into Hollywood as a response to world war two; a time when the United States of America needed to feel empowered after the atrocities witnessed during the war. It was the first uniquely American film genre and as such, relied on classical narrative structures while also incorporating certain ideologies, social values and concepts of nation or national identity of the time. In the classical era, the Hollywood Western dominated a large part of the Hollywood landscape and was very much shaped by the state of social values of the time. Due to Hollywood cinema’s colonial perspective of the post WWII, the classical western was very problematic in regards to the societal other. Furthermore, as with most films in the classical era of Hollywood, the white protagonists were portrayed as the living embodiment of order on the western frontier while any none white characters were the embodiment of chaos on the frontier, or in some cases relegated to background characters that did not serve any immediate purpose to the film. Order vs chaos, or lawman vs Savage, was a very prominent theme that ran through the classical western, and the idea of order triumphing over chaos stemmed from the American mentality of being optimistic in the land of opportunity in a post WWII world. Many years post classical and revisionist western, came a new form of western sub genre, with a completely new social context; one that empowers the societal other while also reminding audiences of America’s violent history. Enter, Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained. Through the use of specific narrative structures, a careful attention to historical fact, and a soundtrack that spotlights and celebrates African American creativity an artistry, Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained is able to craft a new form of Hollywood western that both pays homage to a classic genre while also reinventing it for a contemporary cultural context. 

The film follows the story of a freed African American slave-turned bounty hunter Django Freeman, who with the help of a German bounty hunter named Schultz, embarks on a quest to rescue his enslaved wife Broomhilda from the clutches of a sadistic plantation owner, Calvin Candie. On a completely narrative and structural level, Quentin Tarantino is able to immediately bring the societal other to the forefront. With the character of Django and the film as a whole, Tarantino both parodies and pays homage to spaghetti westerns and the western genre. Django is the film’s valiant hero but he is not exactly a carbon copy of the protagonists found in the classical western genre. Where as many of the protagonists in traditional westerns are clean shaven, law abiding (or law enforcing in most cases) frontiersmen, Django is completely different. Django is an unshaven African American tough guy with a grey moral compass, much more in line with Clint Eastwood’s “Man with No Name” from Sergio Leone’s spaghetti western The Good The Bad and The Ugly. What sets him most apart from traditional western protagonists, however, is the fact that Django begins the film as a slave and is then freed sometime later. He is the literal representation of the oppressed societal other, and Tarantino intended on Django to be exactly that, as a kind of tribute to the spaghetti western’s unconventional hero. Tarantino frames the films narrative around slavery to directly address issues regarding race within the western genre and most importantly, today’s current socio-political climate. According to her essay titled History Unchained, University of Chicago professor Yarimar Bonilla stated that, “Tarantino’s film attempts to be a self-conscious meditation on the links between the past and the present. His film is part of a larger debate, not just about what happened then, but about what is happening now, what the past means today. What relationships it authorizes, what words can and cannot be used to describe it, what accrued meaning these words carry, and what injuries they perpetuate in the present.” Tarantino was clearly playing on the idea of social change in the United States, at a time when the country’s first African American president was elected for a second term. From a purely narrative perspective, Tarantino specifically writes the film’s script to not only serve as a historical western tale but, to also spark a conversation about race issues amongst its audiences. His idea for the film seems to be to showcase America’s brutal history of violence towards African Americans with the intention of reflecting on the social lessons that can be learned from the past, so that history, in a contemporary context, does not repeat it self. 

In regards to historical fact, Tarantino has garnered significant controversy over the film’s use of the “N-word”. In an interview with critic Henry Louis Gates Jr, Tarantino defends his use of racial slurs in the film stating, “Well, you know if you’re going to make a movie about slavery and are taking a 21st-century viewer and putting them in that time period, you’re going to hear some things that are going to be ugly, and you’re going see some things that are going be ugly. […] I don’t want it to be easy to digest. I want it to be a big, gigantic boulder, a jagged pill and you have no water.” Tarantino simply suggests that his reason for excessive use of the “N-word” in his film is a matter of historical accuracy of the time period with which the film is set. His notion of inserting modern audiences into the time period of the film and not holding back any of the brutal atrocities that African Americans were subjected to, truly showcases his attention to the audience – film relationship, as well as historical fact. Yarimar Bonilla also, however, surmises that as much as Tarantino created the film after taking inspiration from today’s political present, he is also directly concerned with challenging the western genre as a whole: “He is more concerned with questioning the genres, traditions, and thematic canons of cinematic practice than in debating the historical record of slavery.” And this rings true, when taking into consideration both the similarities and differences between Tarantino’s western and Classical and Revisionist westerns. He brings Django Unchained into it’s own sub genre, one that exists in a contemporary world while maintaining the core aspects and aesthetic of more traditional westerns.

While the film serves in some aspects as a horrific reminder of America’s violent past towards African American slaves, however, it is also a showcase of African American creativity and artistry. Specifically, through the film’s use of a soundtrack compiled of songs written and performed by contemporary African American hip hop artists. The film embraces hip hop culture and serves as a celebration of black identity. The film features the original song 100 Black Coffins by Rick Ross, and many others by RZA, John Legend, and Anthony Hamilton; large figures in the world of hip-hop music. Django actor Jaime Foxx also features on the former’s song. Having the actor that plays the titular character feature within the soundtrack, showcases Tarantino’s commitment to the celebration of black expression. Kendra N. Bryant Ph.D of the University of South Florida states that the film: “identifies Django as a Western-Negro-superhero-savior whose natural abilities, or ‘creative genius,’ frees both himself and Broomhilda from the confines of slavery.” This broadly suggests that the genius of African American creativity is what led to Django succeeding in attaining his goal in the film. Bryant continues: “…Django’s flamboyant style reflects facets of African American culture, particularly hip-hop culture, wherein clothes often ‘make the man’.” This Further enforces the idea of celebrating African American artistry while displaying a different kind of protagonist for this particular type of western. In regards to music and the western genre together, Tarantino does not fully alienate his film from the rest as he enlisted Ennio Morricone, famed composer of many other spaghetti westerns as yet another homage. 

In conclusion, it is abundantly clear that while Quentin Tarantino keeps what makes up the foundation of Traditional Classical western in regards to setting and the formal structures, at play within the genre, he changes what breathes life into the world he’s created within the confines of a western. The reversal of what is meant to be seen as ‘Natural’ is a result of the current socio-political climate of today’s contemporary world. This type of reversal skillfully chooses to pay homage to a classic genre, while fundamentally changing what made the classical form of the genre so problematic in the first place. Tarantino is able to reinvent the western to fit a contemporary cultural context, by paying close attention to historical fact, putting a spotlight on African American Artistry and appropriately changing the narrative structure, to cement his film as the standard with which all westerns going forward will be judged and compared to, especially when using African American slavery in the south as a backdrop.

Bibliography

  • Bonilla, Yarimar. “History Unchained,” Transition No. 112 (2013): 68-77 https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2979/transition.112.68
  • Bryant N, Kendra. “The Making of a Western-Negro-Superhero-Savior: Django’s Blue Velvet Fauntleroy Suit,” Studies in Popular Culture, Vol 38 (2015): 65-83 https://www.jstor.org/stable/44259585
  • Helfield, Gillian. “The Western,” Film 2230: Film and Television as a Social Practise, Lecture 5, 2019.
  • Ross, Rick. “100 Black Coffins” Recorded 2012. Track 12 of the Django Unchained Soundtrack. May Bach Music. Def Jam Records. Warner Bros. Records. Film Soundtrack.

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