Critique and controversy surround Quentin Tarantino’s movie Django Unchained, a phenomena that may increase due to Tarantino’s Oscar win last night. In particular, many lament the depiction of violence in the film. While cinematic violence is a worthy debate topic, it’s ironic that this critique is levied on this movie when innumerable films in the cinematic landscape merit such criticism. Of particular note, however, I have been mulling over the relationship between violence and religion in the film.
The portrayal of white men in American action films speaks to cultural religious beliefs within American culture. White males in the role of the “action hero” embody a messianic persona – one that is roughly consistent with conservative evangelical beliefs in a raptured white Jesus, returning to save believers while exacting vengeful punishment on fallen sinners.
Django challenges this imagery more by locating its protagonist, portrayed by Jamie Foxx, in the role of messianic deliverer. Django functions as a black Messiah in the most explosive period in American history, exacting punishment on a white supremacist culture that has neither come to terms with its sins or acknowledged them but instead misappropriated them on the very people and person (in the form of Django) who has come back to punish them. In this way, Django recalls the theologian Karl Barth’s notion of Jesus as the Judge who was judged in our place.
This inversion of conventional character development is unheard of in American cinematic history. It can also be interpreted as a response to the mythology and utter fabrication of D.W. Griffith’s “Birth Of A Nation”, which casts the “Christian” Klansmen as the heroic protagonists saving “innocent whites” from the dark evil of the American Negro. Arguably, every narrative since the screening of that movie in the White House in 1915 has been a sort of archetype for American cinematic hero narratives.
As a black Messiah, Django challenges long held socio-religious notions of good and evil that are reinforced by the pervasive imagery of avenging white heroes in American cinema. He challenges the very existence of a white Jesus used to justify slavery by inverting the “avenging white Jesus narrative” onto the very culture that has always externalised that evil in the face of the black or brown alien “Other“.
White supremacist culture is confronted with itself and with the idea that their deliverer may not look like them; that the one they have reviled is in fact their ultimate judge, jury and executioner. In the context of the movie, Django functions as a black Messiah in the vein of Ezekiel 25:17: “I will carry out great vengeance on them and punish them in my wrath. Then they will know that I am the Lord, when I take vengeance on them”.
The “white savior” narrative – so central to American culture – was used to establish, reinforce, and maintain American chattel slavery. Tarantino’s film counters that narrative by creating cognitive dissonance: it unearths the racist dynamics of a society that simultaneously cheers for and yet remains uncomfortable with Django’s violence. Race-neutral critiques concerning Django’s violence abound, but few social commentaries explore what it means to see a black messianic figure in the antebellum era. We avoid the latter task at our own peril – to grapple with the artistic portrayal of Django as a black messiah is to understand something of the social and religious vision that motivated Nat Turner to ignite a slave rebellion in Virginia in 1831.