Thursday, February 21, 2013

Django Unchained: The Handshake Scene

Warning: Spoilers follow for Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained

In 2009, The Blind Side was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. In 2011, The Help earned the same honour. In 2012, Django Unchained joined the list of nominees.

All three films, while wildly different in style and tone, share a common theme: racism is evil. All three films are American, and in all three films people with light skin direct racial abuse at people with dark skin. And in all three films, people with dark skin enjoy a better quality of life because a small minority of people with light skin offered a helping hand. Completely unintentionally, each set of filmmakers sent a message contrary to their intended theme; because of the way these films are constructed, the subtext suggests that people with dark skin can't improve their lives without the help of people with light skin.

I was offended by both The Blind Side and The Help for precisely this reason. And while Quentin Tarantino is a far more accomplished director than John Lee Hancock or Tate Taylor, he too makes the same error, robbing Django (Jamie Foxx) of much of his agency...

...or does he?

At a crucial moment in the film, bounty hunter King Schultz (Cristoph Waltz) and slaveowner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) have reached an agreement that will defuse lethal tension and allow Django and Schultz to leave Candie's plantation with Django's wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). Furthermore, she'll be a freed from slavery. All it costs Django and Schultz is $12,000 and a bit of their dignity. If Schultz will accede to Candie's demand of a handshake to seal the deal, everyone walks away with no harm done.

But Schultz can't do it. Visions of a slave ripped apart by Candie's dogs haunt Schultz. He can't bring himself to shake Candie's hand, and instead shoots the slaveowner through the heart, killing him.

"Sorry," Schultz shrugs. "I couldn't resist."

Of course this sets off an apocalyptic gunfight. Stunned by Schultz' action, Django has no choice but to defend himself and Broomhilda. They could have walked away peacefully, but Schultz' pride and guilt very nearly doom them all.

If Django Unchained were more like The Blind Side or The Help, Django, Broomhilda and Schultz would have ridden off into the sunset together as friends, with Schultz continuing in his role as wise elder to the apprentice bounty hunter Django. The paternalistic, patronizing relationship would have remained the status quo. But instead, Scultz pays dearly for his impulsive hubris, and in the end the final deliverance of Django and Broomhilda comes about because Django is smart and fast enough to take advantage of one final bit of good luck. Django's agency may have been thwarted early in the film, but whether ironically or intentionally, the moment of Django's true unchaining comes only after his white mentor is killed.

Am I serving as an apologist for Tarantino? I don't think so, for the film, as entertaining and clever as it is, is not without its flaws. Broomhilda, for example, presents a problem for feminists, as she's essentially an object of desire to be rescued. Her portrayal, while sympathetic, isn't terribly nuanced; her agency really does depend entirely on others, all male. But Tarantino's careful staging of the handshake scene leads me to believe that he was attempting, in his own bloodthirsty way, to offer a different spin on white liberal guilt.


NAES! said...

DaCaprio and Waltz were incredible in this film.

One complaint I have - the film seemed to run a half hour longer than it needed. I wish he could have tightened that up a bit.

SPOILER: And I found the humour at the end (horse spinning, Broomhilda clapping) really out of place.

Still, a top-three Tarantino movie for me.

Stephen Fitzpatrick said...

It might be possible to make a period picture that is acceptable to feminists, historians, and white-liberal apologists, but I can't imagine it being very much fun to watch. And while I also lamented about how little Django seems to do in a movie in which he is the title character, I certainly don't see Dr. King as being overly protective.

Their relationship goes from owner and servant, through bounty hunter and apprentice, and on to a working partnership. Throughout this evolution, Dr. King treats Django with respect, and despite the roles they adopt to infiltrate Candieland, eventually comes to serve as Django's squire on his quest. I see no sign of patronage or paternalism when Django explains to Schultz why he is going to such lengths in establishing his bona fides as a black slaver, clearly establishing himself as the authority in this arena. The crux of their relationship seems to be in Dr.King's almost sheepish confession that he's never given anyone their freedom before, and now feels strangely responsible to the man he later calls a 'real-life Siegfried'.

"Jefft Contast" said...

I haven't seen the film. I will, eventually.

Maybe the handshake isn't as important as you think. You can shake hands with the Devil and still end up in a bloodbath.

Romeo Dallaire shook hands, and despite that nearly a million people died. His book is one of the most difficult pieces of literature I have ever read. Could Django be seen as a metaphor for Rwanda? Fat chance.

QT with every film becomes more shrill and insistent that his films must take place in his custom-made make-believe world. In his earlier pictures, that conceit was just a sly nod: maybe Reservoir Dogs was just a stage play that happened to get onto film. In Pulp Fiction, it's always sunny in LA, and you never die from the drugs, just from the bullets and the Bruce Willis. In Kill Bill, there are sets that are literally miniature models and a sequence that's hand-drawn. QT's latest films just seem to smash the viewer over the head with conceit after conceit. Either you buy into QT's ultraviolent playworld, or you don't. He seems to go extra lengths for each picture to see just how far he can stretch his credibility. I can no longer tell if it's genius or just annoying. All I really can say is that just like how you never take seriously the guy who continually tells jokes, I wonder if ever QT will be able to make a new-millenium film that can convincingly tackle a serious grown-up issue.

The Jews Kill Hitler!!! Well, that's just QT having his fun. Black People In The Old West Didn't Want To Be Slaves!!! Just QT filling more theatre seats.

The Roger Spotiswoode treatment of "Shake Hands With The Devil" remains at best a competent film, not great. There are many gaps in the film that are explained in tragic detail by the book. It's such a harrowing account that General Dallaire's biographer committed suicide before the story was finished.

I guess what I am saying is that there are stories and then there are stories. As a viewer do you want to feel like you are part of the narrative, with a full measure of empathy and undertstanding, or do you just want to be entertained? QT's films are entertaining, but they are stories about what it is to be Quentin Tarantino rather than stories about the world outside of Hollywood.

"Shake Hands With The Devil" is acceptable to feminists, historians, and white-liberal aoplogists (who do not work for the UN or the US, Canadian, French, or Belgian Governements). It's the opposite of fun to watch.

teknoarcanist said...

I actually don't see this moment as one of hubris. I see it as Schulz refusing to violate his very last moral principle. Yes, I'll come to your house and smile and talk polite and fine, I'll make this deal to buy a human life if it will prevent bloodshed...but don't ask me to shake your hand.

Calvin demands the handshake because he senses Schulz's disgust with him. He knows that Schulz views himself as being of a stronger moral caliber, and that's something Calvin takes offense to, because it conflicts with his image of himself as this genteel southern merchant prince. He demands the handshake because he thinks he's teaching Schulz a lesson about humility.

Schulz refuses the handshake because to shake hands with Calvin would be to accept the entire paradigm of slavery. He would be a part of it. He would be complicit in it. The deal can be justified, but the handshake can't. He rejects that world. He won't shake hands with it, even if it means giving up his life.

So he rejects the handshake as a moral rebel yell against the whole machine of slavery itself (that's why we have that harp scene beforehand, to give us an idea of where his head is at right now). And because he knows that machine won't let him get away with that kind of slight alive, and that he's going to be dead in ten seconds if he refuses to shake Calvin's hand, he instead shoots Calvin.

In a way, Schulz is saying, "Fuck you. You don't own me."

And the reason it has to be Schulz that does this, rather than Django, is because if Django were to refuse to shake the hands of a slaver and were then punished for it, the movie be subtextually implying that he should have just taken the handshake, which would be sort of thematically fucked-up. With Schulz, the implication is, "Yes, it was foolish, but only because his pride and morals got the better of his senses." And because his death is painted as funny, heroic, sort of a martyr's death, the movie's perspective is that he did the right thing, you can't really blame him, and the resulting violence isn't his fault — it's the fault of the bad guys, for being so bad.