Quentin Tarantino’s film Django Unchained tackles the difficult historical legacy of American systematic racism, from the perspective of the genre film, in this case, the Western. However, following Tarantino’s own style, the Western also transforms into a theatre of absurdity, to the extent that the violence of the genre is ampilified such that violence becomes a parody of itself: the violence is so forceful that the film in a sense criticizes violence by rendering it absurd. However, what makes the film more than a mere commentary on violence, which would place it in the same strand of other Tarantino films, such as Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs, is that it directly addressed the complicated racial issues which have been constitutive of the American past. In so far as the United States’ history is constituted by systematic racism, Tarantino’s film forces the viewer to re-think this racism from a new perspective.
The racism becomes part of a genre film, whereby Tarantino essentially imagines a scenario where an African-American slave could gain revenge on the dominant system which has reduced him to a subhuman status. In this way, Tarantino also creates a satire of the American historical system. Namely, by taking the classic American genre film of the Western, and now placing an African-American as its hero, against the dominant whites, Tarantino creates a parody of the American value system which is also a cutting example of social critique.
The Western itself is a classical American genre. The stereotypes of American pop culture on the international level are closely associated with images of the cowboy and the Wild West. Even from an American perspective, American political culture likes to play this same face to the world, for example, in the form of President Bush and the Hollywood actor Reagan, who bear clear resemblances to American pop culture icons such as John Wayne. In this sense, the Western is the genre that best summarizes American ideology.
This is why Tarantino’s use of the Western is so significant for his social criticism. He wants to demonstrate the radical injustice that has constituted American history. However, he does not do this by presenting a narrative exclusively from outside the compass of American ideology. Rather, Tarantino wants to state that the dominant trends of American history are shaped by systematic racism. Therefore, he also uses the dominant pop cultural form of the Western as a genre and a framework to analyze this same relationship. But in Tarantino’s film, the classical roles of the Western are now reversed. It is no longer the civilized White man who is the protagonist, but instead the marginalized Other of the African-American who functions as the main hero in the form of Django. Rather, the White man and the system of American institutional racism now becomes the antagonist: precisely the system that is historically glorified in the Western through the images of the White Cowboy conquering the frontier is now reversed, as the White frontier man as a figure of oppression and violence.
In this sense, Tarantino creates both a comedic parody and satire of American culture with Django. Django Unchained possesses the elements of a parody since it provides a faithful imitation of the Western genre. Critics have noticed how stylized the film remains, which demonstrates to have his film part of this genre and received as part of this genre. But what makes the film a parody instead of merely a genre film is precisely the way in which it reverses the traditional racial roles in the Western genre to provide not only a critique of the conventions of this genre, but of American culture as a whole. Tarantino parodies the classical example of American pop culture, the Western, so as to show the systematic racism of America historically.
At the same time, the film can also be understood as a satire. The film is a satire in so far as Django’s hunt for revenge essentially functions as a ridiculing of the dominant racist American system. The vengeance at the center of the film is justified: Django opposes the cruelty that has been forced upon him by a racist social system that is the United States. At the same time, the viewer sympathisizes with Django, and those who oppose him are the objects of ridicule and degradation, since with Django’s bloody revenge he is also questioning the legitimacy of the system itself. For this reason, the film is also a powerful tool of social criticism. It uses the comedic genres in a new way. It employs violence, what is intuitively the exact opposite of comedy, in a way that parodies and satires the genre conventions of the dominant American genre of the Western. But in doing so, Quentin Tarantino also demonstrates the sense in which the American pop culture is itself a racist institution: he uses the racism of the Western against the Western and thereby creates through parody and satire a new message of the relationship between the dominant ethnic group of the White in American culture and the systematic racism practiced against African-Americans. This forces the viewer to re-think the relations that constitute American history in a new light, a skilled use of parody and satire, which also bears the force of social critique.