WARNING: Contains spoilersThis article was originally published in the February 2013 newsletter for Govan & Linthouse Parish Church, Glasgow.
Last week I had the opportunity to go to a screening of the latest Quentin Tarantino film, Django Unchained. If you’ve never seen a Tarantino film, they are known for their excessive violence, brutality and coarse language. Django Unchained is no different. I’m not suggesting you see the film, that is, unless you’re willing to endure 165 minutes of brutality (but it’s brutality with a point). If you are planning on seeing the film, I warn you that this article will contain some spoilers.
The film is made out to be a western epic. It takes place in the pre-Civil War (antebellum) United States. The main protagonists are Dr King Schultz (played by Academy Award winner Christoph Waltz), a German immigrant and former dentist who works as a bounty hunter, collecting rewards for the bodies of federal outlaws, and Django (played by another Academy Award winner, Jamie Foxx), a black enslaved person who has been separated from his wife, another slaved person called Broomhilda (played by Kerry Washington). Schultz first ‘unchains’ Django as he is being transported by slave drivers through Texas. Previously, Django had been enslaved on a plantation where three murderous outlaws, the Brittle Brothers, had worked as farmhands. Schultz wishes for Django to assist him in identifying the Brittle Brothers so that he may collect the reward for their bodies. Schultz, who throughout the film demonstrates his utter distaste for the institution of slavery, offers Django his freedom, $75 and a horse in exchange for his assistance (and feels awful for not simply giving Django his freedom straight away). After the slaying of the Brittle Brothers, Schultz asks Django, who demonstrates great skill in the ‘art’ of bounty hunting, if he would join him as his business partner for the winter and Django accepts his proposition. Django reveals that once he is finished with their winter’s work, he is going to try to find his wife and rescue her from slavery. Schultz, who has developed a very close friendship with Django, insists that he helps Django, as they discover that Broomhilda is enslaved on a large plantation outside of Greenville, Mississippi, a particularly dangerous part of the States for a black man, free or not.
After the winter they come up with and carry out a complicated plan to reunite Django and his beloved Broomhilda. But after their plan is uncovered, Schultz and Django are given an ultimatum: either they pay the exorbitant amount of $12,000 to purchase Broomhilda or she will be killed by her owner, the ruthless and bigoted plantation owner, Calvin Candie (played by Leonardo DiCaprio). After they comply, Candie proposes that the transaction is not official until Schultz shakes his hand. Schultz, who has been having flashbacks of an event during which Candie ordered a runaway enslaved person to be torn apart by dogs, refuses to shake hands. This is the point in the film which I believe carries the most moral weight. As we, the audience, have been battered with the injustice and brutality of racism and the institution of slavery throughout the film, we feel something of that same moral weight. Ultimately, Schultz’ refusal ends up costing him his life.
The film continues from there, but it’s at this point that I want to ask a question: what does Django Unchained have to teach Christians? Our two main protagonists exhibit many Christ-like qualities throughout the film, but the one which I think is most profound, as a result of the build-up of the film, is Schultz refusal. On principle, Schultz sees shaking Candie’s hand as some sort of approval of Candie, his vicious treatment of enslaved people and the whole of institutionalised racism that still, even in the age of a black President, finds expression in some parts of American culture. Although some Americans, particularly the Quakers in the North, were opposed to slavery during the first half of the 19th century, the institution was still regarded as rather normal for most Americans. Still, Schultz refuses to betray his strong sense of justice, even a sense of justice perhaps rather clouded by his recent career as a bounty hunter. He demonstrates this passion in his last great speech immediately preceding his refusal to shake Candie’s hand. After completing the paperwork for Broomhilda, Candie offers Schultz some rhubarb pie, but Schultz declines.
Candie ‘Are you brooding ‘bout me getting the best of ya?’
Schultz ‘Actually, I was thinking of that poor devil you fed to the dogs today, D’Artagnan. And I was wondering what Dumas would make of all this.’
Schultz ‘Alexander Dumas. He wrote The Three Musketeers. I figured you must be an admirer. You named your slave after that novel’s lead character. If Alexander Dumas had been there today, I wonder what he would of made of it?’
Candie ‘You doubt he’d approve?’
Schultz ‘Yes, his approval would be a dubious proposition at best.’
Candie ‘Soft hearted Frenchy?’
Schultz ‘Alexander Dumas is black.’
The weight of the tone of the speech can only be captured if you see the film, but written out here, we can see that Schultz is able to undermine Candie’s ignorant racism with his poignant and authoritative presentation. Candie, a self-professed Francophile who, although he does not know the language, insists on being called Monsieur Candie, is left stunned and confused.
Schultz’ words here remind me of the parables of Christ. Taking something trivial such as the raw materials of everyday life and turning it on its head in order to shift the worldview of his listeners toward that of the truths and values of the kingdom of God. Unfortunately, Candie did not have ‘ears to hear’ the truth that Schultz uttered. Do we?
Of course, our context is quite different. The context of slavery-era Southern United States is a far cry from present day Govan and Linthouse. I’ll even say that we live in a fortunate part of Scotland with a long heritage of fighting for social justice. But have we grown complacent? Perhaps we don’t have enslaved people in our context (at least not in the manner in which people were enslaved in the United States in the past), but throughout our congregation and parish there are new battles to be fought. Among others, the people who suffer in poverty, the people who struggle with addiction, the people who have immigrated from other countries, the people who seek asylum – they all suffer under various institutions of injustice here. Maybe we’re responsible for some of that with our behaviour. In Django Unchained, white people are appalled at the scandal of a black man on a horse. I’ve heard people express their shock about the scandal of a recent immigrant with a bankcard or a mobile phone.
No matter how much we try—and we do try—justice is not the way of Scotland, the United Kingdom or any other nation. Nations are made up of all kinds of people with very different ideals, some of which propagate institutionalised oppression. In reality, the Church looks very much the same, and while I am grateful to God that the Church of Scotland and that Govan and Linthouse Parish Church are very much composed of a diverse body of people, I think we can unite in discipleship under the leadership of one man, our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.
The words found within our Gospel readings for the month of February have a great deal to teach us about the way that being a Christian turns the institutions of this world on its head:
He came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon. They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.
Then he looked up at his disciples and said:
‘Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
‘Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.
‘Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh…
‘But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.
Luke 6:17-21, 27-31
As Christians, it is our daily challenge, not just in the month of February, but for the rest of our lives, to seek the values of the kingdom of God. And we are not called to do this simply because we are good people or we think we will get a box of treasure in the future. We are called to love because God loves this world. God desires that we ‘unchain’ the world from oppression — what an unworthy honour for us!
May we be inspired by the love and grace of God and empowered by the Holy Spirit to do the works of the kingdom and fight with great conviction, as Dr King Schultz fought, the injustices in our community and beyond its boundaries. It’s no simple task, but maybe we could keep each other accountable. Next time you see me, I’d appreciate it if you reminded me to be more like Jesus and Dr King Schultz.