The Amorality of 'Django Unchained'

Quentin Tarantino's forthcoming film raises ethical questions, and then pointlessly takes a shotgun to them.

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Standing before the stars assembled at the New York premiere of his new, proudly controversial film, Quentin Tarantino began with a question.

"You guys ready for some Django Unchained?!"

The screaming query, like so much in Tarantino's latest ahistorical revenge fantasy, assumed a lot of its audience.

The crowd roared. But let's start with the obvious. America was not ready for Django before the mass murder in Newtown, and it's even less ready now. That is a good thing.

During the two hours and forty-five minutes that Tarantino takes to tell this unlikely story—of a freed slave turned freelance bounty hunter on a quest to save his wife—some intriguing ideas do pop up. But like an arrogant professor who can't help insulting his audience, Tarantino's offenses overwhelm his insights.

The problems begin with the script. The n-word is not a bug here. It's a feature. It is the connective tissue of the screenplay. It is the epithet setting the opening scene. It is the relentless insult that follows Django, played with abiding intensity by Jamie Foxx, from slavery to freedom. And it is the recurring personification of the antebellum South's racist hierarchy, as white and black characters alike say they've never seen a (black man) on a horse.

That alone will leave many people cold, even if audiences recall the n-word's ostentatious use in classics like Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown, and, most chillingly, as the trigger of the climactic hostage scene in True Romance, when Dennis Hopper used the word to bait Christopher Walken into a rash murder.

Tarantino, of course, has long argued that his dialogue simply reflects reality. (The Gangsta Rapper Defense.) It is one thing to reflect a tragedy, however, and another to revel in it. And that tick goes way beyond the rhetoric in this movie.

While Django Unchained presents a morally stark universe, where people do and say evil things with no remorse, it also luxuriates in the license that such evil provides.

We are invited to cheer on the slavish killing of men and women, black and white, because they are implicated in an evil institution.

The comparisons to Inglourious Basterds here are unavoidable. Who could begrudge an uprising for freedom, or a squadron of Jewish soldiers seeking justice against Nazis?

Initially, Inglourious Basterds faced a suspicion that the Nazis were used for the same reason they figure prominently in so many video games—they make for "easy" killing. (Many popular American video games are premised on gruesome Nazi hunting, such as Wolfenstein, Battlefield 1942, and the Call of Duty franchise, which has sold over 100 million copies.) In other words, if you want to peddle violence, just find people worth killing.

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Ari Melber is an attorney and Nation magazine correspondent based in New York.

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