Recently I watched Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, and after a brief review of the movie I am going to link it to my discussion of systems and modern villainy.
Consider this your final SPOILER WARNING. If you are on the fence about the movie, go watch it ASAP.
Django unchained is a monster of a movie. It is brutal, thought provoking, tense, and often hilarious. I am particularly impressed with Mr. Tarantino’s use of violence. The action scenes are tremendously bloody, often cartoonish, with explosions of gore and jokes abound. This is a marked contrast to some of the other forms of violence in the movie, like a slave being mauled by dogs, the hotbox, or the brutal “mandingo fight”. The former acts as a release for the later, as Tarantino masterfully builds his tale with his hallmark scenes of tense, building dialog and characterization scenes. Trust me, When Jamie Foxx finally whips out his gun, it comes as a much needed release.
The best scene of the film for me, was the “mandingo fight”. It perfectly juxtaposes the decadent, opulent lifestyle of a rich plantation owner with some of the most depraved practices of slavery. The horror on big Fred’s face as he beats the other slave to death while the two plantation owners watch on, wallowing in luxury, is etched into my brain. Nicely done.
The acting was phenomenal from leads, to supports, to extras and cameos. Everyone gives their all in this one, and it shows. Samuel L Jackson and Leonardo diCaprio are especially impressive, but I will get to them after the review. Christoph Waltz continues to impress me; his Character, Dr King Shultz is an oddity, reminding me a little of his role in Inglorious Bastards and a little of Doc in Tombstone. It is a unique and interesting role, the outsider, observer, and mentor. He works well with Jamie Foxx, who has a tough role, a straight laced slave turned cowboy in a movie that is frequently over the top. Foxx plays it well, with subtle growth throughout the movie, finally acting as the much needed instrument of vengeance, presiding over the destruction of an evil institution. His showboating after blowing up Candieland is exactly appropriate, because it is what almost all modern folk would do after scoring a blow against slavery.
So, I liked it. Yeah. I’ve had some enjoyable conversations about it as well.
How does this relate to systems as villains, you ask? Well, slavery is a pretty good example of a villainous institution. As much as some people might try to argue that it had some positive aspects these days, it is responsible for death and misery on a titanic scale. Tarantino does a decent job of reminding us just how nasty and downright evil slavery could be.
Calvin Candie (Leonardo diCaprio) and his head slave, Stephen (Samuel L Jackson) do a superb job playing the agents an beneficiaries of this wicked system. Mr Candie is the slave owner. He grew up around slaves. He makes his living off of the labour of slaves. He uses the slaves for his entertainment, and sexual gratification. He does it because the institution taught him that his slaves are his to do with as he pleases and enforces his rights of ownership He betrays some youthful curiosity, questioning why the slaves don’t revolt or wondering about Django. But he is too comfortable with his life to go beyond the easy answers provided by justificational sciences like phrenology or social Darwinism. Tradition makes him comfortable with slavery, and his own brutal entertainments ensure that he continues to support the institution; after all if he had to admit to himself that men like D’Artagnan and Big Fred as as human as himself, how could he reconcile his treatment of them. DiCaprio plays Candie with impressive humanity, deftly avoiding caricature but still leaving little doubt that this is a man who is very comfortable with the ugly institution that he is the prime beneficiary of.
And yet, in some ways Calvin Candie’s evil pales in comparison to that of his favoured slave, Stephen. While Calvin is the slave-owner and the real beneficiary of the system, Stephen has spent his life working and worming his way into a comfortable position. He is able to question/sass the master, give orders to the slave trackers, and manages the plantation. The other slaves fear him, and even the master listens to him. He has learned to wield tradition like a weapon, invoking it to give him a modicum of control over the younger Calvin when they are having private discussions (What would your daddy think, Master Calvin?). And Calvin respects him, because while Calvin Candie is the king of the Candieland plantation, Stephen is his chief minister. He almost seems like the high functionary of slavery, a priest of sorts. I find Stephen fascinating, not only because Samuel L Jackson does such a brilliant job playing him, fawning and laughing overt the master, plotting in private, and terrorizing the other slaves, but also because he is the greatest agent of the very institution that makes him a slave, and he seems to be very much aware of this.
The final showdown is precipitated by Stephen informing the master that Django and Dr King are not what they seem. Ask yourself why he does this. Is it really loyalty to the master? Is it really that much of an issue if they buy Broomhilda (Django’s wife, sold to a different owner, played by Kerry Washington) and get away with it? Why does Stephen care if they fool Calvin to buy a slave’s freedom? Stephen cares because his comfortable life and the authority which he wields over the slaves and lesser whites comes from the master and the institution of slavery. He has bought into the system, dedicated his life to gaining as much as possible from it, often at the cost of his fellow slaves. Without slavery, he would be in a much more tenuous position, due to age and the dislike of the other slaves (Django points out that most slaves really hate slaves like Stephen). Thus he hates Django from first glimpse, because the actions of this freeman threaten the assumptions of the system that he upholds. He makes every effort to discredit and eliminate Django because of this.
In some ways Stephen is admirable. He’s made the best of a very limited hand, gaining power and prestige in a system that is made to oppress his people. On the other hand, when that system, which gives him his power, is threatened he reacts with rabid viciousness. He is too invested in the institution of slavery to allow any challenge to it, and is willing to commit evil acts in order to preserve the system and his role within it. Hats off to whomever wrote the role and to Mr Jackson for playing him so well.
Interestingly it is Stephen’s need to bolster his position that leads to him making a fatal mistake, choosing to torture Django so that his fate acts as a warning to anyone who would challenge the system, instead of killing him quickly and efficiently. This is a frequent theme in history as well, time and time again, from the inquisition to Batista, when a system is challenged the functionaries of that system respond with gruesome executions and torture, hoping to scare off any challengers.
Slavery is an excellent example of a system as a villain. Django unchained is a great example of how characters can become invested in the system, and how they will perpetrate truly evil acts in order to uphold the institution that gives them power and authority. I’d love to see more Fantasy books that follow this path; a corrupt system creates engaging antagonists while remaining as untouchable as Sauron in his tower.
Now if the modern villain is a Javert or Stephen, who upholds a broken system, then the modern hero is the one who challenges, changes, or destroys a broken system. Food for thought.