12/28/2012 12:14 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Vengeance in Django Unchained

I'd like to begin by examining in detail the movie poster for Django Unchained. The tagline on the posters is: "Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Vengeance." It's a perfect evocation of one of the defining ideas of the American Creed, written in our nation's maiden statement to the world, the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.

Tarantino has replaced "Happiness" with "Vengeance." The idea that vengeance is as all-American as the Declaration of Independence is one of the defining ideas of the Hollywood Creed, as depicted in the earliest days of films such as, well, Birth of a Nation. That film, according to Steven Mintz of the University of Houston:

Provided historical justification for segregation and disfranchisement. The message embedded in the film was that Reconstruction was an unmitigated disaster, that African Americans could never be integrated into white society as equals, and that the violent actions of the Ku Klux Klan were justified because they were necessary to reestablish legitimate and honest government.

But of course Tarantino isn't just reaffirming the idea that movie vengeance is all-American, he's transforming the meaning of that idea by arguing that the particular form of vengeance at the center of Django -- namely the righteous revenge taken by a black slave against the white slaveowner who has taken his wife from him -- is in fact all-American, or at least we should see it as such. Indeed Tarantino has flipped the traditional meaning on on its head. As A.O. Scott's review makes clear, this form of vengeance has never been a part of mainstream Hollywood, nor has it been presented as being as "all-American" as the Declaration of Independence in any way.

In placing his story of righteous payback in the Old South rather than the Wild West, and in making its agent a black former slave, Mr. Tarantino exposes and defies an ancient taboo. With the brief and fascinating exception of the blaxploitation movies and a few other works of radical or renegade art, vengeance in the American imagination has been the virtually exclusive prerogative of white men. More than that, the sanctification and romanticization of revenge have been central to the ideology of white supremacy.

(snip) The idea that regenerative violence could be visited by black against white instead of the reverse -- that a man like Django could fill out the contours of the hunter -- has been almost literally unthinkable.

To return to the tagline, look again at the quotation above. "Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness [vengeance]" is in the very same sentence as another phrase central to our creed: "all men are created equal." The continuation of slavery for another nine decades after 1776, and segregation for another century after Emancipation, meant that it has taken a very long time for our laws (not to mention our hearts) to catch up to our ideals. The ongoing struggle -- defined by achingly slow, unsteady, but nonetheless undeniable progress -- to fully live up the promise of "all men are created equal" is the spine that runs through our national narrative.

Tarantino's deft move in this film -- exemplified by the aforementioned tagline -- actually reflects a change that I would argue has already taken place in American thinking, at least among the majority. While the conservative backlash against Django's vengeance has already begun, helped along by a big Matt Drudge push, this is but another example of the right being isolated from the mainstream.

Most Americans, namely those to the left of Limbaugh and Drudge (i.e., the two-thirds of Americans who identify as either liberal or moderate plus a decent number of reasonable conservatives), would have no more trouble seeing Django's vengeance as just and righteous than they would the fictionalized vengeance carried out in Tarantino's last movie, another "historical" film (Inglourious Basterds) in which Jews assassinate Adolf Hitler.

The fact that the same filmmaker created both films only underscores the point. Tarantino isn't saying that Southern slavery -- even as practiced by the kind of slaveowner depicted in Django -- is the same as the killing of six million Jews as part of a plan to murder every Jew on the planet. But his imprimatur, and the fact that so many whites stood and applauded his depiction of Hitler's killing by Jews, makes it that much harder for reasonable whites to reject the justness of Django's vengeance, which is as morally just as any other in the history of American cinema.