Blood and Chains, New and Old

by Gordon Ward

The cronut is a wondrous invention. Chef Dominique Ansel was a mad genius to think of combining the buttery flaky makeup of a croissant with the frying process of a doughnut. It takes a true visionary to combine two very different things and make them work so well together. A combination like that was probably the plan behind Quentin Tarantino’s 2012 film Django Unchained. The film shows off Tarantino’s signature style while paying homage to Spaghetti Westerns of old, especially the 1966 Sergio Corbucci film Django. Django Unchained combines clearly revisionist themes with nostalgic tropes, while also tackling violence and racism.

There are several reasons to class Django Unchained as a revisionist western, but perhaps the most obvious is the fact that the eponymous main character is African-American. Despite what some classic westerns would have you believe, a large number of people in the west at the time were black. There were black outlaws, black cowboys, and even some black lawmen like Django. In fact, Django bears some striking similarities to real life figure Bass Reeves. Reeves was a former slave who, during the Civil War, beat his master and fled to Native American land until he was officially freed with the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment. Reeves went on to become the first black deputy marshal west of the Mississippi and had an incredibly successful career, arresting over 3,000 criminals in his time as marshal. Also incredibly similarly to Django, he was an incredible marksman (Dary).

However, Django Unchained is still a western, and as such, it carries a lot of themes typical of classic westerns. While the film does do things differently with the themes of violence, freedom, civilization, and landscape, it stays pretty safe with its portrayal of masculinity and gender. The men in the film show pretty standard masculine traits and Django is repeatedly threatened with castration. Other than Broomhilda, Django’s wife, none of the women play a major role or move the story along in any substantial way. Even when Lara Lee chooses to sell Django to a mining company, it is heavily implied that she got the idea from Stephen, a character who very strongly represents an “Uncle Tom” archetype, but we’ll revisit that later.

As far as landscape is concerned, Django Unchained spends a little time in a classic western setting, but spends a large portion of its time inside. Meanwhile, most of the scenes outside ditch the vast playas and dusty streets of classic westerns for the cotton fields and neatly kept tree-lined roads of the Antebellum South. This led to many viewers and Tarantino himself dubbing the film a “Southern” rather than a western (Phillips). As for freedom, the whole film centers around it. The film begins with a group of slaves being freed and the main mission for our two leads is to free Broomhilda from servitude. The film also shows that while Django may be free from slavery, he is not free from prejudice from black men and white men alike. Interestingly enough, in tackling civilization, the film shows the hypocrisy of slave owners like Spencer Bennett and Calvin J. Candie. Bennett appears a well-mannered Southern gentleman by day, but by night he leads a sort of proto-Ku Klux Klan. Meanwhile, Candie, a well-spoken Francophile, puts on Mandingo fights, has disobedient slaves thrown in pits and ripped apart by dogs, and fully believes in the pseudoscience of phrenology.

The use of violence is not the only way in which Django Unchained is different from many of its predecessors, but it is certainly a major one. Unlike films such as Stagecoach and High Noon, violence is viewed not as a necessary evil, but as a way to profit. Django has few reservations about collecting bounties, and his mentor, Dr. King Schultz, has absolutely no reservations. Both men kill dozens with nothing but the check in mind. But this is to be expected from director Quentin Tarantino, whose career is defined by his ability to aestheticize violence. His knack for turning violence into art has even gotten him compared to sociopath Alex DeLarge from A Clockwork Orange (Morales). This violence is present throughout the entire film, but is best put on display in the climactic shootout in the Candie residence, in which in a matter of minutes, the once orderly and clean insides of the mansion are coated in a mist of bright red blood brought on by a hail of gunfire. Even when we come back to the house later, after it has been thoroughly cleaned, the crimson color still stains the once white walls (Figure 1).

Scene of walls stained red from blood

One final topic that really should be addressed with a film like this is racism. Of course, there are elements of the film that are great and empowering in the face of racism, such as Django’s emancipation and the eventual emancipation of his wife, and Django is just a cool, smooth character. However, I would argue that the film does a lot more harm than good. The film can be awfully reminiscent of Blaxploitation films of the 1970s. The vast majority of slaves in the film and Django, in particular, are shown as not very intelligent. There are characters that represent the mammy and Uncle Tom archetypes. It is really hard to not see Dr. King Schultz as some form of white savior character. And of course, the n-word. While it certainly wouldn’t be uncommon to hear the n-word in the Antebellum South, 110 times seems like a bit much (Marcus). For all of the reasons listed above, many people criticized the movie, perhaps most notably director Spike Lee (Platon). However, the use of the n-word was defended by Samuel L. Jackson (Marcus).

While I may not agree with how it handles certain elements, I do think Django is an important western to watch and study. I think the way it uses violence can be studied and used well, whether that is by making violence more aesthetically pleasing or by looking at what Tarantino does and doing the opposite to portray violence as the ugly part of life that it is. I think the way it treats African-Americans and slavery should be studied to further understanding and to educate on the representation of African-Americans in film. And I think the way it blends classical western elements with elements of revisionist westerns can be studied to elevate future westerns to the level of enjoyment and artistry one might get from a delicious cronut.

Dary, David. “Bass Reeves, the Most Feared U.S. Deputy Marshal.” Bass Reeves, the Most Feared U.S. Deputy Marshal >> Centennial >> The Norman Transcript, The Norman Transcript, 3 May 2007,

Phillips, Dana. “Introduction: Django Unchained and the Global Western.” Safundi, vol. 16, no. 3, 2015, pp. 253–255., doi:10.1080/17533171.2015.1067417.

Morales, Xavier. “Kill Bill: Beauty and Violence.” The Record, 16 Oct. 3AD,

Marcus, Bennett. “Samuel L. Jackson Says Tarantino Can Use the N-Word Whenever He Wants.” Page Six, 8 Jan. 2016,

Platon, Adelle. “Spike Lee Slams Django Unchained: ‘I’m Not Gonna See It.’” Vibe, 24 Feb. 2015,

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