The Raging Heroism of ‘Django Unchained’

Quentin Tarantino’s epic vengeance quest secures its thrills through righteous anger.

Django Unchained
Columbia Pictures

The world no longer needs your silence. Give us a scream or get the hell out of the way. With Inglourious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino satisfied six decades of moral aggravation when Adolf Hitler gathered a belly, chest, and face full of flaming hot lead. History and its acceptable cinematic approximations mattered not. The monster did not deserve to go out on his own terms; he didn’t deserve the reality he secured for himself. His end demanded a mutilation of flesh and bone to match generations of horror, anger, and disgust. Fuck that guy. Eat it, punk.

The older I get, the more I appreciate rage. The Star Trek kid within won’t let go of hope, but the journey to the Final Frontier can not possibly be achieved through sheer optimism. Peace can only be found at the end of a barrel. Samuel Colt understood that all the way back in 1855, and we’d be best to never forget it. Sideline election coverage grants disappointment. Hit the streets with the pamphlets and grab your billboards of protest. You’ll probably still lose, but you’ve stoked the fire for the next encounter. Keep the belly bubbling; sooner or later, your opponent will sleep.

While you could never claim Tarantino to be a mellow filmmaker, after Basterds, his narratives engorged through the healing properties of anger. Django Unchained plots an epic, recognizable hero’s journey to rescue the damsel from the wretched claws of Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) but gains giant grins from its audience equal to that of the climactic victor because the filmmaker understands our primal desire for hangman’s justice. The villain is clearly a villain; no need for courts, judges, or juries. We know what’s right. Django (Jamie Foxx) knows what’s right. Get it done.

Sir Lancelot and Luke Skywalker certainly relished their slaying of various henchman, and we cheered them on, but none of their killings feel as gratifying as when Django transforms Candyland cowboys into red clouds of obliterated meat while 2Pac’s “Untouchable” mashes against James Brown’s “The Payback.” Django and the walls disappear behind geysers of blood, and the crowd runs ravenous. Yes, yes, yes. Kill, kill, kill.

Tarantino bends many truths to achieve dramatic heights, but none when it came to the horrors and the business of Antebellum racism: the whip, the spiked collars, the cold arithmetic of balancing black and brown bodies. The European Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) removes Django from his chains and the trek they take to rescue Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) is a parade of human depravity. One in which any American who is not a descendant of slaves is culpable. We thrive on the flesh they gave, and the joy we take in Django’s vengeance is enriched by self-loathing. The outburst is all the reproachable can offer.

That rage is a healing power. Doctor Jeremy Dean, the founder of PsyBlog, makes a strong case for the beneficial properties of anger. He champions provocation as a motivating force; the steam required to elicit change on the intimate and global scale. He states, “Research has shown that anger can make us push towards our goals in the face of problems and barriers.” If a person gets mad enough, they cannot sit at the teat of the nightly news. They’ve read a history book or two, or more importantly, ridden alongside Django.

Fight or flight. It’s all in our evolution. When we’re backed against a wall, we bash against injustice through our anger. The heat propels us to be absolutely vigilant towards perilous opposing viewpoints. When we are attacked, the rage automatically activates and forces our hand before the brain has time to think. Speed is essential to survival, and furor gets us greased.

The pinnacle of Django Unchained‘s entertainment rests in our hero’s triumphant smoke. With villains violently vanquished and Broomhilda safely astride a horse with fingers in her ears, Django lights his drag and straps on his sunglasses while Candyland explodes behind him. The fiery moment is as cathartic an act of physical destruction as the eradication of Hitler in Inglourious Basterds. Hindsight objectivity deems it so.

Anger allows for comfort. The sensation breeds emotional pain and can result in physical manifestations. Therefore, rage released means you can free up the tensions grinding down your teeth and twisting your muscles. When the steam spews from your ears, you’re free of the copious amounts of anxiety flooding your system. Your nerves need calming, and anger arrives to help.

The smile that Django and Broomhilda share is not an ordinary relief. Their threat is removed. A bright unknown crests on their horizon. They unite under the consolation that they enacted the necessary change demanded by the horrors around them. Doc Dean subscribes that the rageful are often the most optimistic individuals on the planet. Anger erases dread and “in contrast, those experiencing more fear were more pessimistic about the future and expected further attacks.” Problems will always arise, but Django can deal.

Tarantino is stewing with his cinema of late. He’s brought the rage to Nazis and racists, and in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, the director is hunting hippies. With wishful promises of a Star Trek, there is no denying Tarantino’s optimism, but I wouldn’t imagine a 10th (and possibly final) film to stray into the serene. If anything, the Tarantino fury of 2009, 2012, and 2019 was only warming up to true hellfire. We can take it.

Trekkie, Not Trekker. Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects, co-host of the In The Mouth of Dorkness Podcast.