(Spoilers below for Django Unchained.)
I remember the buzz about Reservoir Dogs going around college.
It would have been during the final year of my degree; and suddenly it seemed everyone was discussing it, forming an opinion on its merits and its violence, and just quoting and alluding to it whenever they could. Then came Pulp Fiction, and we were all in awe.
So a generation was formed of Tarantino fans, and our fate became to look forward to each of his films hoping to re-capture that high of 1992 to 1994.
Would it be a sequence of showy fight scenes, like Kill Bill? Or an attempt at a story telling relying on great acting, like Jackie Brown? Or would it simply make no sense at all, like Inglourious Basterds? At least there would not be Mexican vampires.
Would the film get a supportive nod, or a wince at self-indulgence, before thinking back to the wonder of Tarantino’s first two major releases?
What I did not expect was what interesting me most about the film – the way Tarantino explored and represented legal issues.
Here the crucial question is that posed by the plantation owner Calvin Candie:
I’ve been surrounded my entire life by black faces. I only have one question: Why don’t they just rise up and kill the whites?
The film suggests that part of why there was no slave rebellion in the southern states was because of how the law was used.
At the film’s very start, Dr Schultz makes sure he gets a bill of sale for Django. It seems like a theatrical affectation, but it becomes clear its importance is very practical. Later on it appears Django rules out a simple snatch of Broomhilda as he would need a bill of sale for her, and at the end of the film he makes sure he has that bill of sale before riding off with her, and leaving the burning manor house behind.
Furthermore, the film sets this pedantic regard for legality into a wider context of the rule of law. On two occasions Dr Schultz gets away with what otherwise would be murder because of a piece of paper and the announcement he is an officer of the court. And Candie himself boasts that his property rights are his to exercise as he wants.
How realistic is all this?
Well, one cannot help thinking that waving bills of sale and warrants for capturing dead or alive would not have got two protagonists like Schultz and Django very far in the Dixieland of 1858. One suspects they would have both been shot the first time they tried it.
But Tarantino perhaps has a point: why do the repressed not rise up when they are many when those repressing them are few? In terms of simple numbers, the “elite” would not have a chance.
One reason is that, absent a general revolution, the same legal system will always be there when the dust of revolt settles. The rebels’ claims to the property of the overthrown will not be respected by the civil law; and the criminal law will protect from sanction those killing and arresting the rebels. Being an outlaw may well be a nice pose; but the reality means that your rights to life and property no longer exist.
There are, of course, other reasons for a lack of revolt – the inequality of arms, the routine use of sheer force, the use of spies and informers, the rewards given for collaboration, and the promotion of ideologies that promote deference.
But the question of Calvin Candie is a good one, and it is not easily answered.
I was just not expecting a Tarantino film to be so thought-provoking in this way.
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