Quentin Tarantino has a cult following. Reservoir Dogs (1992) put him on the map. Jackie Brown (1997) Pulp Fiction (1992), and the Kill Bill’s made (2003-4) his career. Now he has produced movies such as Inglorious Basterds (2009), and most recently Django Unchained (2012).
Tarantino is known for his violence, use of language, and his distinctive art form. He can turn mundane lifeless scenes into ones of great interest. Clever dialogue replaces old cliches. Unorthodox music fades in, and unexpected scenes unfold.
Clearing the Ground
Django has received much blow back. The ever crabby Spike Lee refused to watch it and said “The only thing I can say is it’s disrespectful to my ancestors, to see that film.” Rod Dreher called it a revenge fantasy, that he will take no pleasure in. The Daily Beast reports how Tavis Smiley criticized the movie for how it flubs the history of American slavery. There has also been quite a bit of discussion about the use of the “N” word repeatedly throughout the movie.
Each of these critiques could be responded to in kind.
The most interesting and useful critique (from someone who did not see it) was from Dreher. But not in the vein of the Ta-Nehisi Coates kind. Coates observations are right, but in the wrong context. Coates says:
Among those truths, for me, is the relative lack of appetite for revenge among slaves and freedmen. The great slaughter which white supremacists were always claiming to be around the corner, was never actually in the minds of slaves and freedman. What they wanted most was peace.
It was the same with my studies of the Underground Railroad. If you read William Still’s compendium of escapes, you find very few revanchists.
Like I said he is right, historically. The problem is Tarantino is not interested in writing history.
Rather he wants to make a movie, with history as a backdrop. He is making movies with well known historical backgrounds; WW2 and American slavery, two of the great tragedies in modern history. He loves this scenery because right and wrong are unmistakeable, and the revenge becomes a form of re-writing history for justice.
Back to Dreher. He says:
I’m not interested in revenge fantasies in large part because I’m susceptible to the cathartic pleasures involved in vengeance…To be clear, I’m not talking about justice or necessity, either of which could require exacting payback. I’m talking about taking pleasure in vengeance. I’m a lot more interested in individuals or communities who decide not to seek vengeance, but rather peace, forgiveness, reconciliation.
I like what Dreher is saying and I am in agreement with him, to a certain extent.
Where I disagree is that I think there is a sense in which we can take pleasure in justice, even at times in the form of revenge.
Jonathan Edwards has a sermon about justice and says that we should not glory in revenge in this life, but rather we will rejoice in it on the judgment day. While we are on this earth we should yearn for everyone to repent and not face the judgment of God.
Edwards is right. However while watching a movie I think we can typologically rejoice in the fact that evildoers are reaping what they sow. If we are image bearers of God, then we have to agree with him in some respect when he says through David in the Psalms
O LORD, God of vengeance,
O God of vengeance, shine forth!
Rise up, O judge of the earth;
repay to the proud what they deserve! (Ps 94:1-2)
Or when David is speaking of his enemies in Psalm 109 he requests that a wicked man is appointed against him (Ps 109:6). Or in Psalm 35 David says:
Contend, O LORD, with those who contend with me;
fight against those who fight against me!
Take hold of shield and buckler
and rise for my help!
There are many more verses along these lines.
To be clear, I am saying we are viewing this depiction of vengeance in the movie as a foretaste of what will happen on the last day to all those who have rapped, pillaged, mistreated, enslaved, tortured image bearers and have not repented.
The Last Day
The Bible says vengeance is the Lord’s. We should not take vengeance on our enemies, but as Jesus said, “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.”
However we will stand in the last day and look to the great white throne and as he pours out all his furious wrath on those who have rejected him we will say, “What the Lord does is right.”
I would even argue that in some sense, we will take pleasure in the Lord’s just actions.
I realize not everyone will agree with this, and it is not popular.
But I cannot escape the Psalms that speak this way, or the sense of justice that swells up in me when a disturbingly wicked person gets their due on the screen.