Django Unchained and Awkward Southern Feelings

Regionalism, like a mythic beast stirring from the Ocean’s restless depths, pops up sometimes in unexpected places.


cinema studies

Django Unchained owes far more to the Spaghetti Western than any representation of the Antebellum South in any respect you’d care to name. Its love of cinema, in this case the film history, mythos, and baggage of the Western, is palpable in every frame. It’s strange to say this about a man who chose to riddle Hitler’s corpse with machine gun fire, but I find his films disarming. The intension is, if not wholesome or tasteful, meant all in good, exploitive fun. Such full-hearted enthusiasm somehow tames – for me, anyway – Tarantino’s more stylish idiosyncrasies and lusty embrace of ultra-violence.

This brings us to Django Unchained, which I went to so ready for this film to continue Tarantino’s cycle of revenge fantasy, giving women, Jews, and now African Americans their due chance to blast the fuck out of the asshole white men who’ve kept them down. What I did not expect was to feel a sudden, primal upsurge of Southern pride –  especially in a work that so successfully lays bare all its hateful, callous cruelty.

This was the scenario: On his way back to Candyland to wreck revenge for the death of his partner and to finally rescue his wife, Django surprises a cabin filled with white-trash – the plantation’s overseers. Filthy, mangey, hide-clad, one of them predictably naked in a barrel tub and one, hilariously, painting a birdcage, Brother Dege’s “Too Old To Die Young” comes on the soundtrack just before Django kicks open the door, and blow the hillbillies all to hell. In this moment, heavy with the promise of righteous vengeance, a feeling occurred to me that perhaps was supposed to, but for the wrong reason. I thought, “Fuck yeah.”

This is terrible. I mean, objectively terrible. How can a short, Jewish, liberal arts-educated person all but froth at the mouth for Western justice to come down on these hicks who so richly deserve it, but also feel a deep, stirring kinship for the same place and folk? How can you be proud of anything that’s being shown onscreen at that moment? There’s a disconnect between the smooth, explorative cinematography and unhurried editing pattern of the moment and the propulsive beat of the score, and occupying the space in between these things gives a viewer leisure to do some ponderin’. Of course, the viewer’s also just been treated to Django riding through the dust on a beautiful palomino steed so ideally it’s his immanent arrival in the cabin you should be anticipating.

film theory

Sound is the unintentional culprit for guiding me in a different direction in this case. Something about those steel strings and slide guitars and Dege’s mournful, defiant drawl, in a weird way, has this mystical tie to the feelings of blooded dignity and fierce belonging that so color Southern pride to the exclusion of historical perspective or any sort of embarrassment or guilt.  Basically the entire bent of another ‘Southern’ this year, Beasts of the Southern Wild spends a lot of time exploring that vicious, desperate need to stand up against the Universe and say, “This life, this place, these feelings: they are mine. I won’t give them up for nothing. I won’t be moved.” It’s a way of expressing that, for lack of a better phrase, luminous beings are we, not this crude matter; we aren’t owned by time or circumstance.

It’s an impulse that overrides all manner of sins. It’s why I, very quietly, feel luckier than my friends from the North to have been born where I was – that because of my culture I understand, I own a little piece of a big, big universe in a way that they can’t. That culture I’m hooked at the navel to is pretty awful: arrogant, bloated, backwards, superior, hypocritical, and cruel. It is what makes the revenge fantasy of Django Unchained so enjoyable in the first place. Django, oppressed by that culture, finds actualization and inclusion and truth in the mythos of the Western hero; it’s what makes him that 1 man in 10,000, able to blow Candyland to Kingdom Come. He journeys out into the wilderness, finding a place in which he can stand upright; the report of a revolver, the smooth stride of horses, and buckskin hats become the physical components of that strength.

Not that I don’t revile the ugliness, the refusal to acknowledge crime and complicity excused by blanket, unthinking ‘Southern Pride,’ not that I didn’t spend the entire movie completely aligned with Django, rooting for bloody death to every single antagonist, but there was that one niggling moment in which those hillbilly moans sparked something: a  sense of rightness, a primal pride of place. This isn’t certainly business as usual for reactions to a Tarantino flick. But I love it when a movie brings up a complicated something I need to examine more fully.

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