With the help of a German bounty hunter, a freed slave sets out to rescue his wife from a brutal Mississippi plantation owner.
Tarantino does not shy away from the viciousness of slavery. Slaves are bought, sold, whipped, branded, made to fight and kill one another, raped, locked in “hot boxes” underground, torn apart by dogs, and (almost) castrated. Tarantino also acknowledges, in some interesting ways, the precariousness of freedom. Django is a slave, then free, then performs both slavery and freedom, is enslaved again, and then frees himself. Documents of slavery and freedom, of life and death, are everywhere, tucked into pockets and secured in saddlebags. There are receipts, handbills, warrants, free papers, and slave trade ledgers; these documents play a vital role in the bounty hunting business, and in the transactions of the slave trade. Such a proliferation of paper seems to suggest that Tarantino is as interested in the legal and economic nature of slavery as he is in its embodied experiences.
What he is not particularly interested in are women, which is strange given his demonstrable devotion to strong heroines who take up their own swords of vengeance, as in Jackie Brown and the Kill Bill films. Broomhilda appears first as a ghost—a memory and a hallucination—and when she finally materializes in the flesh she barely speaks. When she does it is softly, and mostly in German. We know she is feisty—the whip marks on her back attest to her misbehavior, as does Django’s nickname for her, “Little Troublemaker.” She picks up a rifle but only near the end; she does not use it. “Django Unchained” is not a romance, nor is it a family drama; it is a story of black and white men, of slavery and masculinity. Django’s love for Broomhilda drives the plot but she and the other female characters in the film are not agents of their own futures; they are objects of desire and exchange.
Most of the action takes place in Mississippi (played in the film by Louisiana) but the movie begins in Texas and stays there a while, then veers off into Wyoming, where Django trains with Schultz to become the “fastest gun in the South.” These are overt homages to the spaghetti westerns of the 1960s and ‘70s (including Sergio Corbucci’s “Django” of 1966), and Spike Lee and others have criticized Tarantino and boycotted the film because of this approach, arguing that it is disrespectful to the memory of those who lived and died in slavery. But this, to me, is what is most interesting about “Django Unchained”: its status as a “postmodern slave-narrative western,” as Henry Louis Gates Jr. has described it. Are American audiences willing to watch a feature film about the buying and selling of human beings, but only if these actions are depicted through the conventions of well-known (and loved) genres: the war movie (“Glory”) or the political thriller (“Lincoln”) or in this case, the hyper-violent western? There is an honest and compelling movie about slavery somewhere here amidst the jokes and the B-movie cuts and the blood spraying the walls. But “Django Unchained” is itself a scheme as elaborate as the one Schultz and Django devise to rescue Broomhilda; its cartoonish violence and its western characters, costumes, and plot get us inside the Big House and into the history of American slavery, which are mired in the muck of human depravity. That there should have to be such schemes, refractions of the South through the lens of the West, is emblematic of the ways that Americans may have acknowledged slavery in history books but have not fully reckoned with it in our memorial landscapes, museums, civic rituals, and popular culture.