Short Fuse: “Django Unchained” — History Dumbed Down

There is so much of a certain kind of violence here—the kind you’ve seen in Tarantino movies before—that it in a sense takes the violence out of violence.

By Harvey Blume.

When I left Django Unchained, in something approaching cold fury, I wrote (roughly) this:

It is a stupid movie.
The plantation South, in which cotton was king, becomes a boxing arena.
Leonard DiCaprio, major Mississippi plantation owner, is in effect, Don King. (The guy with the big hair, once Tyson’s manager.)
His fortune rests, so far as you can tell, on “Mandingo fighting”—slave v. slave matches, which spring out of Tarantino’s imagination and his addiction to all manner of genre movies.
Spike Lee is right not to have seen it.
It does insult and defame his past.
Not only his, all pasts.
Tarantino has run out of steam. . .
Too bad this movie (a la a long Henry Louis Gates interview with Tarantino) is garnering serious attention.
For all those n-words.
That’s faux controversy.
Django Unchained doesn’t merit attention.
It merits avoidance.

Later, with more thought, I wrote this:

I’d like to qualify my view about Django Unchained in one way, namely by acknowledging that Tarantino is consciously trying to counter the racist polemic of D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation. Hence the scene of buffoonish Ku Klux Klansmen complaining their hoods don’t fit right; they can’t see through the eyeholes. No matter that there was no Klan in 1858 when Django Unchained is set—the Klan arose after the end of Reconstruction in 1876—Tarantino wants to mock its portrayal in the hugely influential D. W. Griffith movie, which treated Klansmen as heroic, the only force between the South and black savagery.

That scene reminds me of the Nazis tromping around in The Great Dictator, idiotically singing, “We’re Aryans Aryans Ary Ary Ary Ary Aryans.” Of course, the Chaplin movie was made in 1940, when there were still plenty of Nazis marching around.

None of this makes me fundamentally revise my initial pan of the movie. There is so much of a certain kind of violence—the kind you’ve seen in Tarantino movies before, but unimproved—that it in a sense takes the violence out of violence. But some violence has to remain effective, has to gain purchase, in movies that are essentially revenge fantasies. There’s plenty of effective violence in The Godfather, for instance, a revenge masterpiece of film.

DJANGO UNCHAINED — Spike Lee was right to boycott this film.

There’s another problem with Tarantino’s revenge fulfillments, as enacted in Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. The revenge climax in both is too total. In Inglourious Basterds, the whole leadership of the Nazi party is annihilated in one fell, unconvincing swoop. It’s a smug and simplistic conclusion. So much for Hitler, the Holocaust, World War II. That was fun; let’s move on. Same thing in Django Unchained: Django wipes out—with a combo of bullets and bombs similar to the armament in Inglourious Basterds—not only one huge Mississippi plantation, leaving none of the whites connected with it alive, but by extension the whole plantocracy. How neat. To what will Tarantino turn his exterminationist fancies to now? What has he pegged for annihilation?

By the end of Tarantino’s Kill Bill, the Bride (Uma Thurman) has revenged herself on an entire cast of enemies, working through them over the course of the two-part film one by one, in individualized encounters. The violence, however stylized and cartoonish, is innovative and—dare I say so?—brilliant, in the way it joins and customizes genres. There are parts of Kill Bill I admit to fetishizing just the way Tarantino, that supreme fetishist, wants me to. But the plot of Kill Bill makes no pretense of being historical.

History seems to dumb Tarantino down, dull his imagination. The revenge, unfortunately, is on history, which in the process gets painfully dumbed down.


  1. Fred Owens on December 30, 2012 at 12:34 pm

    Hard to write a good review about a bad movie. Your message is “don’t go.”

    And we hope Tarantino gets a message too — and we hope he makes more movies

    • Horia Chiorean on February 25, 2013 at 4:54 pm

      It’s nice when you see a zebra escape a lion attack, even break a lioness’ jaw. But making a movie about a single zebra killing a pack of lions…that is stupid.

  2. Harvey Blume on December 31, 2012 at 6:02 pm

    fred, i think it’s hardest to write a mixed review. pans & raves are easier.

    tarantino will no doubt continue making movies. best if they leave history alone.

  3. navot on January 1, 2013 at 6:38 am

    I have seen Inglourious Basterds a few times for several reasons other than its stylish cartoon like manner and humor. Tarantino seems to me to be a great cinematic lab, and that is the main reason for me to watch his films. I am curious to watch Django Unchained soon when it arrives in Israel. I want to consider your point of view and discuss it, especially given the context of the Holocaust.

  4. Harvey Blume on January 1, 2013 at 4:33 pm



    i agree tarantino is a special cinematic talent. but though i enjoyed parts of inglourious basterds it bothered me. i reviewed it ( but i don’t think that review got close to what really bugged me.

    i see now that what really bothers me is that inglourious basterds, like django unchained, flattens history out. i’m not really satisfied at the end. i feel like i’ve been cheated, had.

    • navot on January 2, 2013 at 8:06 am

      As we speak of history flattened by Django Unchained, we must remember that those who have righted history’s wrongs have often erased the inconvenient parts of their actions, which were often shameful. The latter perpetuates social and religious injustices, a fact makes me much sadder than Tarantino’s amusements.

  5. Tony Wallace on January 2, 2013 at 11:53 am

    The problem with Tarantino is greater than the historical inaccuracies or oversimplifications. The problem is that he is an extraordinary case of arrested development, a technically brilliant film director with the mentality and emotional depth of a middle school boy. Mr. Blume is angry, and he has a right to be angry, but let him be angry at the juvenile culture that supports this nonsense. I’m shocked that a truly grownup intellect like Henry Louis Gates Jr. would interview Tarantino, which seems to imply that he takes him seriously–but I have not read the interview. Spike Lee’s response seems to me the only sensible one–why encourage bad behavior?

    I understood in Pulp Fiction that the subtext was something like, “This is pulp and you like it, this is cheesy and you like it, this is all the cultural junk food you ever wanted to eat, and you love it–admit it!” Well, I did admit it that one time, but since then my response to Tarantino has been, “No, you admit it. You don’t speak for me, for my cultural or historical sensibility, for anything concerned with me. Do everybody a favor and grow up!” Unfortunately, what he does seems to resonate with many people, both here in Satan America and abroad.

    That last was just a little Ayatollah joke, ha ha, but let’s not be surprised when Mr. Tarantino takes his box of Crayolas to the essentially lighthearted topic of Islamic Fundamentalism: cool Lawrence of Arabia robes, lots of scimitars lopping things off, Uma Thurman behind a burqa, and one bad-ass bomb aimed straight at Tel Aviv. The soundtrack: “They say that cat Ahmadinejad is one bad mother — Shut yo mouf! Only talkin’ ’bout Ahmadinejad. Right on!” Ben Kingsley as the Israeli Prime Minister whose response to impending annihilation is a darkly comic, “Niggah, you crazy!”

  6. Harvey Blume on January 2, 2013 at 5:47 pm

    navot, i’m not sure what you mean; i have to guess. let me get at it this way. as i said, i think tarantino’s basic impulse in film is to depict and draw on the energy of revenge. i’m not discounting the satisfactions of revenge. nor do i think the need for it can or should be wiped from our hears. but revenge doesn’t clean things up. it’s never final. and tarantino can never look beyond it. for him, history stops with it.

    tony, except for not following that last cracked scenario you depict, i agree with you about tarantino’s arrested mentality. he has said all movies are genre movies & sub-genre movies. for him, history is merely another kind of genre movie. you only learn so much about history working in a video store, his native habitat. don’t see him reading too many books. not sure he’s remotely able to grow out of male adolescence. wonder if all he thinks he knows about slavery comes from blaxploitation, that’s too bad.

    yeah, it was weird to find henry lous gates, for whom i have a lot of respect, dignifying django unchained with his 3 part interview with tarantino. it’s possible to interview someone while arguing, challenging. gates didn’t do it. much too much discussion about the “n-word”. its use is not what brings django unchained down. it’s a false debate, even childish, to make so much of that word and hardly talk about the rest.

    i would have to say, beyond pulp fiction i have enjoyed parts of kill bill, with guilty pleasure, many times. there is some brilliant filmmaking there. guess that’s the good side of growing up in a video store — you get to be a maven on the genres that turn you on, in his case the all the micro & mini genres that pertain to the sword fight, the gun fight, the samurai cum gunslinger lust for revenge.

    i will say, too, that i like his love for movies as evidenced in bringing back actors like john travolta and pam grier.

    none of that changes how smug & dumb i think inglourious basterds and django unchained ultimately are.

    to quote clint eastwood: a man should know his limitations.

    tarantino has no idea (& gates missed a chance to help him along with that.)

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