Along with Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchained forms something of a diptych for Tarantino insofar as both are revenge fantasies set in two of history’s greatest atrocities: the Holocaust and American chattel slavery. In the interview he gave at the screening I saw last week, he certainly thinks of them that way. But before either film could begin to be written, one crucial difference in their respective historical situations delimited the possibilities of fantasy: one can fantasize about the end of the Holocaust by killing the highest members of the Nazi party, whereas there is no easily imagined personalized end to slavery through a few targeted acts of vengeance. Thus, the use of explosives against the Nazis seems a tactical act, a logical means of warfare. The use of bombs against slavery would border on what we call terrorism these days, or “irrationally” violent outbursts against a society (targeting civilians who can’t do anything to change the way things are, or think of the portrayal of the Watts riots, for example: why did they destroy property?). Slavery was a deeply structural violence, an ontological domination of a people that didn’t obtain in the instance of the Holocaust. Any heroic narrative set in the slave-built Southern economy is going to have a major hurdle to overcome: there is no real end in sight, the villain remains like the renewable heads of a hydra, nor is there a place to go where the hero’s limited victory will be recognized, much less celebrated (excepting the audience who might applaud at the film’s end). As Frantz Fanon famously wrote in Black Skin, White Masks:
The Jewishness of the Jew, however, can go unnoticed. He is not integrally what he is. We can but hope and wait. His acts and behavior are the determining factor. He is a white man, and apart from some debatable features, he can pass undetected. [...] Of course the Jews have been tormented — what am I saying? They have been hunted, exterminated, and cremated, but these are just minor episodes in the family history. The Jew is not liked as soon as he has been detected. But with me things take on a new face. I’m not given a second chance. I am overdetermined from the outside. I am a slave not to the “idea” others have of me, but to my appearance.