The line on Django Unchained, the latest from Quentin Tarantino, is that it's a companion piece to his previous feature, Inglourious Basterds. Both are genre pieces that function as racial revenge fantasies: the war movie Inglourious Basterds shows Jewish-American soldiers slaughtering Nazis in occupied France, and the western Django Unchained follows a freed slave in the antebellum south as he guns down hillbillies, plantation owners, and Klansmen. Both movies play fast and loose with history: Inglourious Basterds ends with Hitler being assassinated, and Django Unchained, set in 1858, is filled with implausible characters and events. Tarantino may be a stickler for period details—most of the rooms are candlelit, most of the characters have terrible teeth, and excess beer foam is wiped off with a stick—but his vision of the south also includes rap tunes, a German bounty hunter, and Australian bad guys who seem to have stepped out of Crocodile Dundee.
Despite this questionable history, though, Django Unchained has deep roots in the American literature of the 1850s. The most popular book of that era—aside from the Bible, of course—was Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe. Published in 1852, it had sold a half million copies by 1857, when it was flying off shelves at the rate of 1,000 a week. Today most people are less familiar with the book than with the racial epithet it spawned: in the 50s and 60s especially, "Uncle Tom" became synonymous with blacks who changed their behavior or appearance to ingratiate themselves with whites. Oddly, this epithet is far removed from Stowe's conception of the character as a Christ figure, which was a radical notion in antebellum times. Django (Jamie Foxx) is more like the Count of Monte Cristo, to name another character from 19th-century literature, but the history of Uncle Tom's Cabin can tell us a lot about Django Unchained.
In the book Uncle Tom is a middle-aged slave sold downriver again and again until finally he ends up the property of Simon Legree, a monstrous plantation owner who forbids him from reading the Bible and commands him to thrash other slaves. When Tom refuses, he's beaten to death by his overseers but expresses his forgiveness just before he expires, which moves them so powerfully that they convert to Christianity. The character turned out to be remarkably elastic: as Linda Williams reports in her book Playing the Race Card, traveling theater companies created their own dramatizations of the novel, know as "Tom shows," and each subsequent version strayed farther from the book. By the turn of the century, there were versions of Uncle Tom's Cabin that had hardly anything to do with Stowe's story; some portrayed Tom as a foolish, old minstrel-show character, and others ended happily, with Tom surviving.
These distortions only continued when Uncle Tom's Cabin hit the big screen. In the first known movie version, from 1903, the aging, potbellied Tom is played by a white actor in blackface, and black actors playing slaves dance merrily at the beginning of each scene. A later version, from 1914, departs radically from the novel when another slave, whose life Tom has spared earlier, returns the favor by stalking and killing Simon Legree. So Tarantino's great innovation—creating a tale of black vengeance in the antebellum south—hasn't only been done before, it was done nearly a hundred years ago, and under the aegis of Uncle Tom's Cabin, no less.
The other major American literary trend of the 1850s was the growing popularity of dime novels: cheap, throwaway stories that favored action over introspection, fantasy over reality, and directness over metaphor or symbolism. The pulp fiction of their day, dime novels were responsible for many of the western archetypes that filtered into the movies, including the spaghetti westerns that inspired Django Unchained. Django escapes from slavery after his owners are killed in a bloody shootout with Dr. King Schultz (Dr. King—get it?), a German dentist turned bounty hunter who's played by Christoph Waltz. The doctor wants Django to lead him to a gang of killers he's pursuing, and after hearing the story of Django's lost love, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), he offers to help rescue her from Candieland, a notorious plantation run by the brutal Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), a lover of Mandingo fighting.
Django Unchained may be entertaining and occasionally funny, but its ideas don't really hold up. The characters' racism is supposed to be shocking, but we've all seen this sort of stuff in countless dramas and historical documentaries. Strip away all the hip music and spaghetti-western set pieces and you're left with True Romance (1993), which Tony Scott directed from a Tarantino script. When Candie compares the skull of a black man to that of a white man, his monologue is nearly identical in content, tone, and delivery to a conversation between Dennis Hopper and Christopher Walken in True Romance. Django's frequent visions of Broomhilda are reminiscent of Christian Slater's fantastical conversations with Elvis in the earlier movie, and the penultimate shootout in Django Unchained recalls the bullet-riddled finale of True Romance. The opening credits of Django Unchained are virtually identical to those of Jackie Brown, with the protagonist walking in profile to bombastic, orchestral soul music.
Jackie Brown is Tarantino's best and most lasting film; its characters are the richest and most fully formed, and their motives grow deeper and more nuanced with each viewing. But since that movie Tarantino has largely abandoned character development and introspection; the people in his more recent movies often register as props or caricatures, which can make their motivation seem sketchy. Schultz is presented as a mercenary, yet he agrees to undertake the likely suicide mission of freeing Broomhilda because she speaks beautiful German. The supposedly formidable Candie fails to grasp that Broomhilda and Django know each other despite the fact that they both have the letter R branded on their faces. Yet Tarantino doesn't seem to care; the whole story is absurd anyway, so who needs rounded characters?
The only complex character in Django Unchained turns out to be Stephen, Candie's trusted old slave hand, played by Samuel L. Jackson. Ironically, Stephen is a classic Uncle Tom—the stereotype, not the actual character—and whether or not Tarantino understands the implications of this, Jackson obviously does. Balding and white-haired, shaking uncontrollably and hobbling around on a cane, Stephen epitomizes the way blacks were portrayed in the early days of cinema. But appearances are deceiving, and the revelation of Stephen's true self is the biggest surprise in an otherwise unsurprising film. The only other actor who acquits himself admirably here is DiCaprio, who seems to revel in the film's silliness, donning eyeliner, sipping strange cocktails out of coconut goblets, and growing giddy over white cake.
When Inglourious Basterds was released, Daniel Mendelsohn wrote a scathing Newsweek essay in which he argued that Tarantino, by creating a film in which Jews exact revenge on Nazis, was equating the victim with the victimizer. No one should be surprised that the director would construct another movie on this cracked ethical foundation, but that doesn't mean Django Unchained has anything important to say about race, or that anyone should use race to attack or defend it. The real problem with Django Unchained is not race hatred but Tarantino's predictable and uninspired treatment of it.