Friday, March 15, 2013

Django and Ethical Criticism

Title: Django Unchained”: Ambiguous Ethical Response and the Principle of Double Effect




The overwhelming, contentious responses to Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained provide a reason for examining the limits of ethical criticism of modern and contemporary literature. As an anachronistic collage, the film sponsors the illusion that its primary subject is history, the history of American slavery. The film is so open to competing interpretations, however, that it must be viewed as a work of art that brings questions of what is morally permissible to the foreground. Any ethical criticism of the film must deal with the principle of double effect. While Tarantino may have intended to expose undesirable aspects of excessive violence, the film can seduce viewers to embrace excessive violence as a desirable means for achieving justice. Ethical criticism is obligated to endlessly shuttle between propositions about good and bad effects. In this sense, ethical criticism is forced to be self-reflective regarding its own ambiguities and limits.

Django Unchained: Ambiguous Ethical Response and the Principle of Double Effect

The overwhelming public responses to Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained during the first two months of 2013 provide one reason for examining the limits of ethical criticism of film as literary expression that infrequently transcends its social location.  We might argue that criticism is itself an ethical activity.  We make judgments about what is good or bad both in theory and in the more immediate space of lived experiences, often using multiple rhetorical strategies to conceal the utter subjectivity of judgment.  We want others to accept our constructions of reality as depictions of what is actual. Our strategies enjoy some success in the protected territories of academic space, but in public spaces those strategies are vulnerable. Logic rarely obtains in public discourses.  The public responses to Django Unchained have been passionate rather than coldly reasoned.  They provide evidence that ambiguity or uncertainty is dominant in our immediate viewing of and subsequent commentary on this film.

We can minimize responsive ambiguity by virtue of prolonged negotiations, but we never succeed in eradicating it.  We do not minimize the ideological functions of film by saying cinema is no more than entertainment.  Entertainment imprints memory more than we might want to admit.  It gives birth to value-laden emotions. We may or may not be conscious of the effects, but those emotions deserve to be accounted for as matters of ethics.

 Just as our reading of a poem culminates in our provisionally liking or disliking the accumulated effects of clustered  words, our witnessing of speech, music, and visual images in Django Unchained brings matters of ethical import to the foreground.  Music in Tarantino’s films, for example, can manipulate our sensibilities with subliminal force. “More than mere accompaniment, ironic commentary, or contradiction,” as Lisa Coultard observes, “music in [Tarantino’s] scenes of violence is instrumental and essential in the audiovisual construction of spectatorial enjoyment and engagement”(2).[1]  Such construction allows us to treat Tarantino’s film as a surreal, incendiary poem.  Any ethical criticism of the film as poem must deal with the principle of double effect.

As an anachronistic collage, Django Unchained projects the illusion that its primary subject is the history of American slavery.  Heated arguments about the film have focused on its inaccurate representation of that complex history. Counterarguments have nailed the point that Tarantino never intended to recreate history; he intended to create a spectacular display of ultraviolence as a work of art. In the battle of arguments, the opposing forces are art and history as oppositional forces. In this contested space, concern for intention is not a fallacy but a necessity.

  It is impossible for viewers to dismiss their socialized ideas about history, ideas which encourage seeing things as either/or rather than as both/and. The alternative to a reductive reading (or interpretive viewing) of the film involves realizing that American slavery is a pretext for a subversive treatment of the film’s real subject: the history and “legitimacy” of American bounty hunting. Without special prompting, only a few legal scholars and American historians are predisposed or sufficiently informed to notice this fact.[2] The problematic effects of Django Unchained would be clearly understood by the legal scholar Rebecca B. Fisher.  As she observes, American bounty hunting as “a profession virtually unregulated for hundreds of years, is certainly relevant to understanding how increased privatization in the criminal justice system will impact the least empowered in our society” (233). What she examines is germane to considerations of how the both/and relationship of slavery and criminal justice complicate response and critical commentary on response. Tarantino’s film succeeds, either by accident or intention or both, in reaffirming the Constitutional entitlement of Americans to bear arms and make havoc among themselves and those deemed “fugitive outlaws” in the United States. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, which enforced the Constitution, Article IV, Section 2, “legitimized” bounty hunting, as did the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Thus, slavery and bounty hunting were entangled.

Django Unchained is so overdetermined, so open to competing interpretations, that it must be processed as a work of art which brings questions regarding what is morally permissible to the foreground. While Tarantino may have intended to expose undesirable aspects of excessive violence, his film can equally as well seduce viewers to embrace excessive violence as a desirable means for achieving justice. Ethical criticism navigates between propositions about good and bad effects.[3] In this sense, ethical criticism does not achieve certainty; indeed, it is forced to reflect upon its own ambiguities and limits.

Our interpretation of Django Unchained is largely determined by the angles, prejudices, and ideological luggage we bring to the acts of viewing and talking.  If the film is approached as an effort by a white director to tell a black story, the viewing is shaped by assumed expectations about how a black story of enslavement ought to be written and reconstructed or translated into film. It is more profitable to assume the film is a story about white American historical fantasy that uses dominant black elements to intensify a terminal vision of white power. This assumption makes possible a multiethnic representation of American history circa 1858-1859. Our attention is better drawn to the paradox of violence in the shaping of the United States from 1619 to 1776 to the present.  The indivisible presence of the black story functions as an inner light to reveal what is gross and vulgar on the surface of American democracy’s saga.  The film fails to challenge the exhausted and exhausting black/white binary conventions of America sufficiently, but it does begin to expose a fantasy of oppositional progress.  It is neither good nor accurate history, nor was it meant to be.  It is an exposure of how American entertainment nurtures national pathology. That fantasy undermines or erases fact works against sympathetic reception of the film, but it does not prevent our understanding why violation of the human body and the worship of violence is an innate element in our historical being.  Ultimately, Django Unchained is an anatomy of the imperfections of whiteness, the hypocrisy of Euro-American founding dreams, and America’s violent soul. It is a violent cartoon that magnifies the ironic aesthetics of the spaghetti Western genre and American social history as wife and husband, Broomhilda and Django ride off into the bliss of fugitive darkness.

We have been trying, without much success, to have a conversation about what it means to be an American since the nineteenth-century publication of Alex de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America.  Although any awakening of consciousness occasioned by Django Unchained will be somewhat limited, the grounds for a crucial conversation have been “immortalized” as a richly satiric cartoon, a cinematic allegory that divides spectators into pro-Django, anti-Django, and disingenuous neutral camps.  Since mid-2012, the Django conversation snowballed. It has now melted. We are left, at least for the anticipated future, to make judgments about the ethical problems the film brought into being.

These ethical problems are dramatic.  We are troubled to remember that the philosophical principle of double effect asserts that it is sometimes morally permissible to do what is ordinarily forbidden by natural law. I borrow an example of the principle from the textbook Ethics: Theory and Contemporary Issues (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1995) by Barbara MacKinnon.  The example refers to the violence of killing in wartime.  A pilot who bombs an enemy’s munitions facility does risk killing innocent civilians. The pilot may intend the good end or effect of minimizing the enemy’s ability to cause massive destruction and thus facilitating the saving of lives.  The bad effect is the killing of innocent people. Under the rules of Western ethics, the pilot must not intend to kill the innocent.  Moreover, the act of bombing must contribute to a positive outcome of the war, and this good end “must outweigh any harm that is done.  The principle of double effect requires that three conditions be met: 1) the act itself must be morally permissible; 2) the good end must be the intended goal; 3) the good end must outweigh the bad end (MacKinnon 87-88).

What frustrates the application of ethical criticism to Django Unchained is the dealing with an imagined literary artifact, the making of normative (evaluative) judgments.  We are really applying descriptive (empirical) judgments to reaction and response as factual matters.  The film at once escapes the three justifying requirements even as it invites their application.  It magnifies a viewer’s relatively primitive ideas about justice and revenge. Viewers who make vested historical or ancestral identifications with the enslaved characters in the film may gleefully embrace violence as a good means of achieving a good end. Viewers who have no such identifications may just as gleefully fail to critique how excessive representation of violence assaults moral judgment.  Under these circumstances, ethical criticism must question whether catharsis (release of psychological resentments) outweighs the damage of intensifying the “love” of violence. The answers can never be conclusive.  Ethical criticism comes to recognize its own ambiguity, its own philosophical limits.  It figuratively bashes its head against the brick wall of audience response, because it is complicit in not divorced from that response.  Ethical critics realize they are not objective instruments of judgment.  They are bound by human subjectivity and cultural relativity in the very act of making judgments.  Django Unchained as a provocative poem invites us to engage the principle of double effect, but it leaves the trained critic and the ordinary viewer/reader treading the treacherous waters of human uncertainty.


Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

Central China Normal University







[1] Coulthard, Lisa. “Torture Tunes: Tarantino, Popular Music, and New Hollywood Ultraviolence.” Music and the Moving Image 2.2 (2009): 1-6.
[2] See Fisher, Rebecca B. “The History of American Bounty Hunting As a Study in Stunted Legal Growth.” N.Y.U. Review of Law and Social Change 33.199: 199-233.
[3] In philosophy, the principle or doctrine of double effect pertains to conditions that allow us to justify actions which on the surface appear to be dubious cases in the frames of morality and ethics