Social Practice in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained

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Our day to day activities in today’s society studies and defines a form of measurement of social practice in everything we do, within our relationship with one another, connected by the ideas and institutions around us. In many aspects, “Film and Television as a Social Practice” can be described in more ways than one as we dig deeper in the contexts of the social, political, cultural, environmental, economic, and industrial part of these media. As simple as a research of “going to the movies” or “watching television” provides results, in which are considered as a form of social practice that fluctuate according to time and date. Essentially, adjusting consumer behaviour is important to cutting down the environmental effects of industrialized societies. With that being said, the principle behind this social practice supports a cohesive approach to accepting consumer behaviour. This paper will include a series of examples through the Western film genre of Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained (2012), supporting the correlating link between ‘practice’ and ‘context’, along its emphasized commitment to change. In order to illustrate and analyze how culture is read, any cultural artefact can be taken, be it a literary text or a film among others. This work will focus on a particular cultural artefact, not concerning historical events as events, but paying attention to the ways in which these events are interpreted. Moreover, this paper will try to unveil the social conventions, cultural codes, and ways of seeing the world that underlie the particular meanings this production displays.

The cultural artefact this paper intends to study is the film ‘Django Unchained’, a 2012 American Western film written and directed by Quentin Tarantino. Set two years before the civil war somewhere near Texas, the film follows a freed slave trekking across the United States with a bounty hunter with the purpose of rescuing the slave’s wife from a cruel plantation owner. Dealing with controversial issues such as slavery and racism, the film has received positive reviews from critics and was nominated for five Academy Awards. What this work seeks to unfold, then, is how ‘Django Unchained’ departures from the historical accounts on which it is based and how that will constitute an interpretation of the historical events it represents. More precisely, the focus will be on how this cultural artefact articulates its interpretation of the institution of slavery from a contemporary point of view. This study will follow the question of whether the film is about a black man regaining freedom or about a white man feeling ashamed and still responsible as an instrument in the service of colonial power, taking into account how certain cultural practices are presented and interpreted by characters and the audience. In order to unfold the main question of this paper, whether the film is about a black man regaining freedom or about a white man feeling ashamed and still responsible as an instrument in the service of colonial power, it renders necessary to go over certain crucial aspects of it. For instance, if we take the concept of culture into account, we might see the three main characters of the film (Django, Schultz and Candie) immersed in the production and struggle over power; in Giroux (2005: 24) words, different languages, histories and experiences overlap. Then, as Grossberg (1997: 248) mentions, this power is understood not necessarily in the form of domination, but as an unequal relation of forces where we can see the plantation owner, the bounty hunter and the free slave arguing for their particular interests. This would be, as a result, the articulation of culture to the colonizing and imperialistic structures of modern society, where the characters of Schultz and Django are trying to change the context. In Grossberg’s (1997: 256) words, they struggle to understand relations, to locate the relations that can be disarticulated and to then struggle to rearticulate them – as in owner- slave, white man- owner, and free black man- owner relationships.

In this context, colonization becomes a central concept to analyze. As Sarup (1996: 159) explains in his book, colonization constructed white and black as totally opposite races, where white represents the sovereign law and black its transgression – white is good and black is evil. From another perspective but on the same line, Europe brought about civilization but the colonized were ungrateful, which leads us to the concept of Orientalism, which is a style of thought based upon an ontological and epistemological distinction between ‘the Orient’ and ‘the Occident’. This concept of Orientalism can also be defined as a corporate institution for dealing with the Orient – a Western style for dominating, reconstructing, and having authority over the Orient. Orientalism relates to the institution of slavery in North America due to the fact that neither the Orient nor the slave were free subjects of thought or action. The distinction here, then, will not be between the Orient and the Occident, but between the slave and those in which power resided. Through Orientalism, the European culture was able to manage the Orient politically, sociologically, and ideologically in the same way owners controlled slaves. In this tension of the binary, there are interests, passions, pleasures and powers entailed, which will be explored later on.

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From Orientalism to Imperialism, where interests and powers place the Western men and women with the obligation to rule the inferior people, language being a central tool in doing so. It is through language that culture organizes and sustains communal memory, and when colonizers forced colonized to use their language, these last two points seemed to be lost. In order to be able to communicate and transmit their needs, colonized had to learn the colonizer’s language and this also affected deeply these people’s identities in many different ways, and characters in this movie are not exempt from this. Schultz character, for instance, uses German quite often during the movie, which demonstrates his place of origin and helps construct his identity as opposed to the others. As regards Imperialism, Sarup (Sarup, 1996: 161) also suggests that the colonial subject might also become the paranoia and fantasy on the part of the colonizer, and that the latter performs certain strategies in order to maintain power and domination. No matter which plantation or town did Schultz and his free black partner visit, everywhere white people disregarded Django’s freedom and didn’t want him to get close to their slaves for fear of them reveling against them at seeing a black man riding his own horse. Giroux (2005: 12-13) also explores Imperialism and mentions in his book that imperial centers of power are a monolithic authority wielded through representations of ‘brutal institutional relations’ and claims of universality. The important element that comes up again is that of identity and how it is constructed in the relations between each of the characters as they struggle over interests and power. In this same line, Pratt (1992: 7) treats the relations among colonizers and colonized not in terms of separateness or apartheid, but in terms of co presence, interaction, interlocking understandings and practices, often within radically asymmetrical relations of power. For example, in the case of Schultz, again, he was able to change his relationship with Django, not being the owner and the slave, but becoming partners in a shared quest. At first, the relationship was still tainted by power due to the fact that Django was not able to place himself with a different perception to that he knew next to the white man. As they got to know each other better, their structure of power changed and they became equals.

According to what has been explored before, the following section will deal with the analysis of relevant scenes of the film so as to discover whether all the different views presented above illustrate and lead to unfold what interpretation of historical events the film represents, providing a possible answer/consideration to the binary question this work presents: is the film about a black man regaining freedom or about a white man feeling ashamed and still responsible as an instrument in the service of colonial power?

The film begins with a slave chained to a bunch of other slaves marching to his new owner’s state by the Speck brothers. While the big opening credit sequence is shown, one can see the harsh landscape and listen to the soundtrack ‘Django Theme Song’, by Luis Bacalov and Rocky Roberts. All these together set the audience into the genre of the film – a sort of spaghetti western. Spaghetti Western, also known as Italian Western, is a broad sub-genre of Western films that emerged in the mid-1960s in the wake of Sergio Leone's film-making style and international box-office success. The term was used by critics in US and other countries because most of these Westerns were produced and directed by Italians. Tarantino, characterized by his nonlinear story lines, satirical subject matters, and an anesthetization of violence (in ‘Los Angeles Times’, 2012) explains that, as a true spaghetti western, the same soundtrack in the film has been used in the original movie in 1966 and in his own words ‘any spaghetti western worth its salt has a big opening credit sequence’. Spaghetti Westerns are often described as having eschewed, criticized or even ‘demythologized’ many of the conventions of traditional US Westerns. Apart from that, these films are also characterized by a low comedy filled with terror and deadly violence which leads the audience to certain expectation from the very beginning. Then, the story will deal with America’s controversial past of slavery and will be told between cunning and ironical.
Schultz’s character can be seen on a different angle as he mistreats the slave Django and others throughout the film. After buying him, they go together to a small town near El Paso. The soundtrack that can be listened to here is 'The Braying Mule' by Ennio Morricone, from ‘Two Mules for Sister Sara’ which is another Western film from 1970. This is representative of this scene because it relates to the older film where an American mercenary who gets mixed up with a nun and aids a group of Jurista rebels during the puppet reign of Emperor Maximilian in Mexico. In this case, the bounty hunter partners with the slave and departures in a similar quest. Schultz enters the town on his cart and Django enters riding his own horse – at this point, it is possible to see how the essentialist view of black men is portrayed. As stated before, essentialism assumes that things are the way they are because they have to be that way, so identities are fixed. In that same way is how people from the town and the Speck brothers view Django’s identity due to the fact that he is black. Schultz and Django are both challenging and changing these essentialist structures of perception and experience. The soundtrack behind this scene is 'Rito Finale' by Ennio Morricone once again, from ‘Città violenta’ which is another Italian Western from 1970 that deals with the topic of revenge. In spite of owning the slave, Schultz still feels guilty of treating him accordingly and offers Django an agreement through which he can revenge himself against the white and also his ultimate benefit will be his freedom. The way he treats him during the scene also shows his sympathy towards Django as he offers him some beer and makes him seat next to him in a round table as equals. Schultz is challenging the essentialist perception of the relationship between owner-slave; and through accepting, Django is also changing the way blacks are being portrayed. The one that has the power - in this case Schutz - is with the right to rule the inferior - in this case Django. Schultz decides to change that experience and in doing so he is also changing Django’s identity. He is no longer the slave without rights and voice, but now he becomes an equal to the white man. In this way, Giroux (2005: 24) view of culture as a shifting sphere of multiple and heterogeneous borders can be illustrated. In building up their relationship breaking the essential parameters of the institution of slavery, Schultz and Django are shifting the borders of culture.

Another example of the essentialist experience of slaves is shown through the character of Schultz, as he seems surprised to discover that his slave was a married man and is eager to know about other slaves. This is so because marriage among slaves was not regulated by the law for they were considered property and not people. Knowing that, the doctor was interested in finding out what was the slave’s view on that and he gets closer to him and sit by the fire to listen to Django’s story. The soundtrack here is 'Town of Silence (2nd Version)' by Luis Bacalov, and was also used in ‘Django’ in 1966. The music at first follows Schultz intrigue and then changes to fit Django’s tragic story. The darkness of the night, the fire and the music behind helps construct the intimacy these characters’ relationship begins to have. After that, when they get to Tennessee, Schultz develops a plan to infiltrate in the plantation where the Brittle brothers work for Django to identify them.

Considering that culture is developed in the overlapping of different histories, languages, experiences and voices (Giroux, 2005: 24), a particular cultural artefact has been analyzed to illustrate how relations of power and privilege vary in the construction of that concept. The social conventions and ways of seeing the world described in the previous section show how the film ‘Django Unchained’ interprets a part of the American history in the unavoidably subjective view of its director. As there is no adequate totalizing explanation of history, it could be explored how the film has been positioned from its author’s cultural experience. It is also reasonably evident how power circulates through exchanges of material goods (such as clothes and horses) and exchanges of ideas among which relations are rearticulated. Both parts seem to be representative and help to complement, nurture and construct the other due to the fact that they are interconnected. The stereotype of the other is portrayed, but hope for a change to come is also shown. This positive attitude towards otherness is presented through the character of Schultz, who at the same time represents the educated European critical view on colonialism. As explored in his different scenes, he seems to be the one who understands better the articulation of culture and the schemes of power at that time. Therefore, his attitude towards power and the kinds of relations it produces appears to be more challenging than that of any of the other characters. He can be seen struggling over the re-articulation of relations since he meets the Speck brothers at the very beginning, and he succeeds in paving the way to a possible deconstruction of the colonialist and imperialist ideologies. In giving Django freedom and in mentoring him along his quest, Schultz shows the hope for emancipation. Truly, the film is more about a white man feeling ashamed and still responsible as an instrument in the service of colonial power than about a black man regaining freedom.

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