With Quentin Tarantino’s latest and 9th feature film, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, releasing later this month, I thought this might be a good time to revisit a portion of his locally shot Southern epic, Django Unchained. For years, the finale of this movie about an ex-slave in the days before the Civil War searching for his wife with the help of a bounty hunter has left me confounded and with many a curiosity. Django dresses up as the main antagonist slaver, kills the henchman one by one, and proceeds to dynamite the plantation to hell before riding off in the night with his now rescued and free wife. Something about the decision to wear the slavers clothes bugged me in a “why?” kind of way.
Why dress up as the master of the plantation known as Candyland?
There is, of course, the literal interpretation of this visual. That Django has now become a master in his own right. A master of his own destiny and fate, a master at avenging the oppressed, a master in and of itself. The wearing of the clothes (which must’ve been a tight or awkward fit) represents not just his ascension in this role, but also his mockery of this and all slavers, and those that follow such men and women. He takes a long drag from the former plantation owner’s decadent cigarette holder, before lighting the string that will fire the dynamite into a blast of revenge and meaning.
Perhaps too, Tarantino might be saying something beyond the story. Something about the direction we were heading in and are now living in. At the time of release, President Obama was in office. Throughout his presidency, the man faced many a racist name-calling and hurtful treatment from “friends” across the aisle, not to mention comments and protests from upset and ignorant citizens across the nation. When Trump ran his campaign and won, the rabble-rouser rode a wave of anger to a tainted victory, which has only emboldened racists to act on their impulses in increasingly dangerous ways.
Years prior, Dave Chappelle did a skit on his Comedy Central show Chappelle’s Show called “The Time-Haters”, where professional men of hating would travel through time and attack history’s worst people. For Hitler, they slap him around and make fun of his Momma. For slavers, they call them crackers and, in a moment that caused the audience to go quiet, shoot them point blank. In response, Dave laughs and says “If I could, I’d do it every episode!”
Is it our both-side-isms that caused such a silence among the crowd? To accept Trump as a leader and all? I don’t believe that our “side” is perfect, but I do believe that the alternative is rotten to the core. Enabling the most base and horrible parts of humanity is downright (to use a word most infamous) deplorable. How do we handle it?
Light them up with dynamite.
Figuratively, of course. Protests and activism took down the New Orleans Confederate monuments. Slowly but surely, we’ve seen that change can happen when people get together and demand it. Back during the Nat Turner slave revolt, such actions – seen as extreme now – were comparable to the conditions slavers were keeping their human property under. In Django Unchained, the blowing away of the oppressive home of evil exploitation was a final exclamation point and good riddance. It wouldn’t and couldn’t wipe off the stain from history, but it did ensure that these individuals wouldn’t harm anyone anymore.
I don’t think that Tarantino was calling for mass domestic terrorism or Punisher level acts – and neither am I – so much as he was putting a dramatic touch on his tale, one that worked very well, both visually and subtextually. What would be the democratic equivalent? I like AOC’s fiery tweeting. I enjoy independent media outlets throwing in mission-related context to important news stories. I love the men and women taking to the streets and outside offices to assertively demand justice.
That, my friends, is dynamite. That, my friends, is masterful.
Bill Arceneaux has been an independent writer and film critic in the New Orleans area since 2011, working with outlets like Film Threat, DIG Baton Rouge, Crosstown Conversations, and Occupy. He is a member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association and is Rotten Tomatoes approved. His latest project is an independent film-centric publication focused solely on the New Orleans area. Follow him on Twitter: @billreviews