Dunn’s Civics > Cinema Civics

Variations on Themes From Django Unchained
A Lesson on 21st Century American Civics

“Storybook images are as indispensable to the basic human process of world comprehension and are the formulas of physical science or the nomenclature of social science. “Albert Murray, “The Hero and the Blues”

[Note: “Rorschach” in this comment refers to the eponymous inkblot-based psychological test, its symmetrical structure, and the projection of meaning on the abstract image]
In 1857, Mr. Frederick Douglass spoke the line for which he will ever be known and foreshadowed Quentin Tarantino's premise in “Django Unchained:”

"Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will."  

Mr. Tarantino proves this premise through the adventures of a slave who dares to challenge the forces of oppression in 1858 America. Chief among the features of this oppression is the law itself. In Tarantino's imaginary land, random, violent, immoral exploitation of the law dehumanizes all who are touched by it and pollutes the communities that tolerate it. Integrity of “rule of law” lies at the heart of The American’s Creed. It is the comparative design and operation of “rule of law” spanning American history measured against Django’s day, which is also Douglass’ day, that can make this story timeless -- and may perhaps start and sustain a conversation about race, and about something bigger.

The greed, arrogance and fear that have crushed the aspirations of twenty-first century American workers, students, and veterans have antecedents in the American past, in its founding legal documents. The freedom to plunder the land and to enslave human beings for personal gain was a tenet of the American social contract.

The resistance to that greed, arrogance and fear is Django's story. It is a resistance made possible by that social contract. Thus, Django's quest for his freedom and dignity begins not with the discovery, examination and memorization of the legal documents and doctrine of his oppression, but with the recognition of the social and economic forces that created and perpetuated it.

The villains in Mr. Tarantino's tale are the American Market and Caste Systems. Together Market and Caste define the community and govern the lives of every character in this story. Together they make the law.
There is another oppressive force in Mr. Tarantino’s community. For lack of a word to describe the totalitarian extension of sport, let us simply refer to Mr. Tarantino’s creation as “Gladiation.” It is the perversion of sport as an instrument of the power of Market and Caste, providing amusement and profit to its owners, bloodthirsty diversion for its spectators, and death, instantaneous or protracted, for its combatants. 

Today, no one may seriously dispute the inordinate mutating penetration of Gladiation into every corner of American civic life. It is visible in every neighborhood, rich and poor, in every venue from gymnasium, to college campus, to country club; in every medium written, auditory and visual; in every presentational format from multiplex to hand-held; for a mind numbing, twenty-four hours a day, every day.

The catalogue of the uses and functions of twenty-first century Gladiation in the service of the American Market and in the reinforcement of American Caste could fill volumes – more accurately, gigabytes. Mr. Tarantino introduces the gore of 1858 Gladiation in the upstairs salon of a Greenville, Mississippi, very integrated manse of ill repute, the luxury box of its day.

 The complexity and universality of Django's war with Market and Caste are conveyed through a prism of those technical and aesthetic devices most familiar to America's young people, among them absurdity, computer-generated images, epithet, gratuitous violence, and most importantly, cartoonish super-heroism. As one might expect, the ostentation of Tarantino’s craft costs him audience -- including many who should know better.*

But no display of Mr. Tarantino's imagination is more revelatory or absorbing than his creation of a “Rorschach Confederacy” (the inkblot of American history), a multilayered, parallel universe of unpredictability and randomness, a predator of its own inhabitants, yet a state operating under color of law -- aka, the Constitution of the United States of America -- mocking its General Welfare purpose as a drafting error. Slavery and native eradication were the most virulent civic expressions of this ethos: but the eradication of the power of the people -- White or and Black -- was its defining objective. The “3/5th” persons populating the Rorschach plantations would recognize their progeny in today’s gerrymandered congressional districts and lines of understaffed polling places.

Mr. Tarantino's Confederacy spans the continuum of American time and space, revealing within it the parallel racial/social stratification giving lie to the new mantra for the existence of Caste as crafted by its current high priest of doctrine, Dr. Charles Murray (no relation to Albert quoted above), “Too many white people are failing because they do not pray or work hard enough.”

In fact, all of the people of the Rorschach Confederacy work hard, or want to, and pray so aggressively that the pasting of scripture on their bodies while carrying out chores is commonplace. The snaggletoothed white-sheeted of 1858, existing in mind if not fact, are as incapable of escaping their poverty as are their “nigger”-spouting great, great grandsons. The lower Castes of Rorschach never challenge the Market forces that define and own them. They are obedient to the law of the land, which never permits them to know what to want or how to change their circumstance.

Django knew what to want. Django's quest was never about changing the law. It was about freeing himself from its grip, from its service to the auction block, the foundation of the Rorschach Market System.
Learning what to want in a community constructed to deny one a choice is not an exercise in passivity. This is as true for the storyteller as for the heroes he fashions. For Mr. Tarantino the trial and error that marked his apprenticeship and crafted his transition to master storyteller of “out of school” tales challenging the power of the Market must also have instructed him in the arts of salesmanship, deception and fortitude. How else to explain his capacity to sell America -- as well his financial backers -- on the idea that he is inviting them to watch a racial fantasy, when his real objective is to reveal the horrors of capitalist imperialism and globalism.

One can imagine Mr. Tarantino glowing with the satisfaction of showing his ostensible masters that “bottom rails” occasionally come out on top, and, furthermore in demonstrating how it was done: witness the very clever civic stratagem of bargaining for the side show and not the prize, courtesy of the knowing Mr. Schultz of Mr. Tarantino's imagination.

Schultz is Django's guide through the hypocrisy of the law in his every encounter with it, until Django has developed the confidence to manipulate law to his tactical advantage as an innovative, resilient man of action. Most importantly, it is Schultz who creates the opportunity for Django to choose and to build his own identity in mounting his ultimate challenge to the Market outside of the law.
In the end, Django answers the Market's question regarding all of its slaves, “Why don't they kill us?” by doing just that.

By the symmetry of Rorschach the same question can be asked today of the impoverished young people, workers, students, veterans -- the newest disenfranchised lower Castes of America. Perhaps, they will find their own answer to the Market’s question in the conclusion reached by Django, which echoes the next sentence of Frederick Douglass 1857 Speech:

“Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.”

*(Perhaps in anticipation of controversy Mr. Tarantino has omitted his consultation with Mr. Herman Poole Blount, Mr. Ellas Otha Bates and Mr. Roland Theodore Kirk. The contributions of each, or in concert, could at best be surmised, but each is a writer, director, producer and performer of aesthetic misdirection capable of melding the most esoteric with the most basic. Their perspective would be vernacular, their message universal.)


Mr. Spurlock was the General Counsel and Assistant Secretary of the Army under President Reagan and subsequently Executive Vice President and Associate Publisher of the New York Daily News.