2012’s Django Unchained is the most commercially successful of Quentin Tarantino’s films. A big part of why moviegoers responded to Django so strongly, I think, is that it’s the first time Tarantino opts for more traditional Hero’s Journey storytelling elements. Django Unchained is an homage, a western, a parable about the horrors of bigotry but, maybe most importantly, it’s something akin to a superhero creation myth.
Tarantino’s protagonists are typically self-interested criminals or killers: Vincent and Jules from Pulp Fiction are remorseless killers, The Bride isn’t interested in redemption in her quest to avenge and later reclaim her daughter, even the Howling Commando-esque Basterds led by Aldo Raine are about as interested in brutalizing Nazis as they are in accomplishing their assigned missions. Jamie Foxx’s Django Freeman is also driven by self-interest, albeit admirable and noble self-interest: rescuing his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) from slavery. Django’s desire to be reunited with “Hilde” informs all of his actions throughout the film and his growth as a character.
Tarantino explicitly casts Django’s journey to free his wife in the trappings of a classic knight’s quest, specifically the myth of Siegfried. In the film, Django’s sole white ally/mentor Dr. King Schultz (the ever affable Christoph Waltz) only begins to view Django as a person rather than a means to an end when he discovers the former slave is a “real life Siegfried.” Schultz empathizes with Django because he’s able to see the reality of slavery in terms of a fairy tale from his native Germany. Django’s framing as a crusading knight in turn, enables a white viewer to see Django as more than just a victim or “other.” It’s also notable that Tarantino explicitly demarcates cathartic “fun violence” against the movie’s bad guys—which is over the top and bloody—and the real violence inflicted upon slaves, where the camera often cuts away to avoid sensationalism.
Just as Batman began life as a broad strokes swipe of Zorro, Foxx’s Django borrows major elements of identity from Franco Nero’s spaghetti western hero Django: in particular, the character’s name and theme song. There’s even a sort of passing of the torch when Nero appears in a cameo, asking for the spelling of our protagonist’s unusual name. Tarantino has calculatedly created a new addition to the canon of mythic Western heroes in this instance.
Django begins the film a slave denied an identity, clad in only a pair of rough hewn pants and shackles. As the film progresses, each new article of clothing Django receives in turn informs who he is within the story. When Django is given the jacket of a dead slaver by Schultz, it’s symbolic of the barebones humanity with which Schultz views him. Django’s outrageous blue valet costume signifies his position as a subordinate to Schultz and the ostentatiousness of the suit reflects the fact that his status as a freedman is seen as a freakish novelty. When Schultz finally sees Django as a friend and equal, Django wears a bounty hunter outfit similar to Schultz’s. At the end of the film, Django raids the wardrobe of the deceased Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) and wears his finery as a kind of psychological warfare against the remaining racist slavers of the Candieland plantation.
As Django’s liberator, mentor, and later sidekick, Dr. King Schultz follows his own path of self-realization. There’s a fantastically grim joke in the fact that the man who initially frees Django is a white dentist named “Dr. King.” For Schultz, the horrific reality of slavery in America just before the Civil War is something of a game. As a white man, Schultz is able to manipulate racist institutions for his own ends: he follows the letter, not the intent, of the law throughout the film. We see this when Schultz buys Django from a slaver essentially at gunpoint, and when he manipulates a small town sheriff into a violent altercation so he can kill him and collect the bounty on his head.
While Schultz is a likeable and heroic character, the film admirably doesn’t shy away from his failings. As an enlightened man in the racist south, Schultz despises slavery but nevertheless is willing to keep Django as a slave until they’re able to collect the bounty on the overseer Brittle brothers. Schultz initially sees Django as a means to an end, a tool he can temporarily use. Afterwards, we watch Schultz and Django’s relationship evolve into a somewhat paternal friendship and partnership. Schultz agrees to mentor Django in the art of bounty hunting, teaching him how to shoot and agreeing to help him rescue Broomhilda. En route to the infamous Candieland plantation where Broomhilda is being kept and posing as the potential buyer of a mandingo fighter, Schultz finds himself totally unprepared for the horrors he finds. Schultz has spent a good chunk of the film at this point impressing upon Django the importance of performance and theatricality in the work they do. But when Schultz witnesses a runaway slave about to be torn apart by dogs, it’s his mask that slips. Django, a man who has lived in slavery, is able to disguise his horror and cover for Schultz but it’s clear that the dynamic between our heroes has shifted. Schultz has become a liability to Django’s mission.
Upon reaching Candieland, Django and Schultz are faced with evil mirror images in the form of Calvin Candie and household slave Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson). Just as Django and Schultz pose as employee and employer for their own purposes, the true nature of Candie and Stephen’s relationship is more complex than it initially seems. While Candie is legally Stephen’s owner, it’s clear that Stephen holds personal authority over the fairly dull-minded Candie. Behind a closed door, Stephen ditches his exaggerated step’n fetchit act and sits relaxed in an easy chair drinking brandy. Not only does he explain to Candie that Django and Schultz aren’t who they claim to be, Stephen comfortably interrupts Candie and tells him what to do. Stephen is Django’s evil, aged counterpart; while Django is forced to infiltrate and manipulate slavery for heroic purposes, Stephen is a black man who willingly enables and profits from the economics of slavery.
The older Schultz and younger Candie are both white men defined by their deep friendships with black men. Schultz is able to see slavery as the evil that it is while Candie quotes junk science to justify the comfortable lifestyle slavery has afforded him. Schultz is a genuinely cultured immigrant, while Candie fetishizes French culture without really understanding it. The two men are even diametrically opposed in title: after all, what is Schultz if not a dentist in a literal candyland?
Django and Schultz are found out and, following Candie’s unhinged threat to bash Broomhilda’s head in with a hammer, Schultz agrees to buy her freedom at a wildly exaggerated price. There’s a fascinating ambiguity to Schultz’s actions during his last scene with Candie, wherein Candie demands their business arrangement be sealed with a handshake. Schultz, who is disgusted by the hollow “Southern hospitality” of Candie and Candieland, refuses. When Candie threatens to cancel their deal if Schultz doesn’t shake his hand, Schultz chooses to kill him instead. It’s never totally clear why Schultz does this, knowing full well what will happen as a result. Schultz doesn’t even seem to be in control of himself, apologizing to Django seconds before he’s shot to death by Candie’s thug. In the larger narrative, however, Schultz’s actions and resulting death give Django true freedom. It’s Django who, after escaping slavery once again and killing most of the entire Candieland household, secures his wife’s freedom, and he does so entirely on his own terms. It’s Django who even kills his own creator, shooting an Australian mining company employee played by Quentin Tarantino. It could be argued that Tarantino’s hilariously grotesque death by exploding dynamite symbolically even frees Django from authorship.
No longer able to hide under the pretense of abiders of American society’s rules, Schultz’s Obi-Wan Kenobi-like death allows Django to reach his full potential as a heroic slaver-killing outlaw. Django is something bigger than just a man; he’s a folk hero now. Schultz, in a brief flashback at the end of the film, even prophesies that Django that will come to be known as “the fastest gun in the South.” It’s fitting that the film’s final shot is that of the Candieland plantation as an exploded ruin, the first significant casualty of Django’s implied war on the evil white establishment. Django and Broomhilda ride off together into the night and into cinematic legend.