What will strike some viewers and elude others in Django Unchained is the casting of James Remar in 2 separate roles; one, Butch Pooch, who features briefly in the beginning, with a full beard and cowboy hat, and a second, Ace Speck, in a top hat, and a white moustache much later in the film. It could just be a western thing. Leone, still the reigning King of the Spag’ West, used Van Cleef and Volonte as different antagonists to Eastwood’s nameless wanderer. In HBO’s Deadwood, actor Garrett Dillahunt, who played Jack McCall returned in season 2 as Francis Wolcott. More recently, Paul Thomas Anderson cast Paul Dano as Eli, and his own brother Paul in There Will Be Blood, and although it was suggested to be a last minute decision by the director due to a drop-out, it opened up enough investigation about attaining similarities in characters, or how the same characteristics – that of greed, for example – are then likewise embodied in two separate actors, whose beliefs are different, but fate, the same. Paul Thomas Anderson’s casting choices may have no meaning beyond convenience, but the choice to double cast Remar is a deliberate and fascinating one by Tarantino, which encourages you to consider all the reincarnations that Django Unchained brings into play.
Inglourious Basterds revisited the darkest chapter of German history, which was also one of the greater military victories of the United States. In Django Unchained, we arrive at the pre-civil war holocaust of American history, set in the southern states. Tarantino’s analogous shaping of character and circumstance do as much to reference himself politically, as a multitude of other films stylistically. Where Waltz played the “jew hunter” in Basterds, here he is a German bounty hunter named King Schultz, who seeks the slave Django (Jamie Foxx) to identify three brothers who are wanted for murder and train robbery. Schultz gives Django his first beer, his first horse and first gun and the pair set out to hunt, and then to rescue Django’s wife who is the property of the sadistic, yet hospitable cotton tycoon, Calvin Candie (Leonardo Di Caprio).
Tarantino draws several parallels between his own filmmaking and the elaborate charade that they put on in order to rescue Django’s wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), informed by a heroic German legend with a princess of the same name and several suggestions of Greek mythology. It is almost a self-parody and the likeness of production and product, history and myth are constantly reinforced, in a perpetuated dualism. Tarantino knows well that, while he may seed a chain of events in Django, his own right to provide the African-American population with a western hero is a kind of suicidal gesture for a white guy. He himself appears in a cameo role as a slaver, but otherwise uses Schultz as his surrogate. This is evident from the recasting of Waltz, and Schultz’ own musing of Django’s legend, his reservations about Django (and, by association, Jamie Foxx) portraying a slaver (in their charade, and by association, in the film) and the all the performative risks correlated with material so sensitive, it could explode. Schultz is Django’s director; he concocts the scheme, and infers the necessity of a guise in order to infiltrate an empire where women are tortured and raped and men fight to the death for entertainment – the symbolic and actual extremes of human slavery. Both Tarantino, with the film, and Schultz, within the film, are aware that they are entering an arena. They are very sensitive to their spectators, and take pride and pleasure in their showmanship.
Schultz’ silver-tongue and gay attire, are signatures of his commitment to performance, propriety and the Southern values that appear to be absent in all whom he and Django come across. Though Candie’s attire resembles something that Capt. Rhett Butler may have been spied in, he very clearly lacks the sophistication that the American aristocracy aspire to in the presence of an actual European. Candie is, however, similar to the jew-hunter character that Waltz charmed and repelled us with in Inglourious Basterds, a parallel that is made profound when a particular exchange is prompted between the two of them toward the end of the film, which appears to carry with it an overwhelming mythological significance; all characters are faced with their past and futures, embodied in that which they have historically found or newly find abhorrent. An American history of violence and German future of violence are glimpsed in a kind of putrid twist of fate.
Tarantino’s own history of violence, which includes rape (Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill vol 1), torture and mutilation (Reservoir Dogs, Inglourious Basterds), is something difficult to ignore and lends Django to accusations of racial and political profligacy. The film does contain some particularly distressing scenes of human cruelty, the kind that were only strongly implied in Basterds, not shown – but the charge doesn’t stick. He has always assumed full responsibility for his characters’ prejudices: recall his portrayal of Jimmy, “did you notice a sign on the front of my house that said ‘dead nigger storage’?” in Pulp Fiction.
Samuel L. Jackson’s “house nigger”, ostensibly the most despicable character in the film, wears all the extremes of Tarantino’s history of criticism about how he portrays race. Jackson like Waltz, but more considerably so, is a component of and collaborative allusion to Tarantino’s existing work. The three of them form a response to an ongoing critical conversation about his flippancy with race issues that started back with Pulp Fiction. The film is a fantasy of vengeance against history, criticism, and political propriety itself, which by all rights should be questioned, challenged, and reconsidered and which we know can be tremendously violent. Using mythology to realise the dark ages of human history does not necessary trivialise the plight of the persecuted. It is political satire and allegory that is achieved in Django Unchained and Tarantino, in all his incarnations, knows well enough that this business of being “politically correct” is just a manner by which we veil racism with a poorly fashioned white hood.