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.