[this article is still in progress]
The name Django was repopularized in QT’s Django Unchained but to understand why Jamie Fox’s character, and the young Django of Sukiyaki Western Django, are so fascinating we need to look at the name’s history.
The name/title Django permeates many cultural narratives and derives from the Romani word “I awake”. One source of it’s popularization came from music, “Manouche Jazz, commonly known as “Gypsy Jazz,” (manush means man/person in Romani) is a blend of traditional Roma music and swing jazz. Originating in Paris in the early 1930s, it was first popularized by the Quintette du Hot Club de France, led by guitarist Django Reinhardt and violinist Stéphane Grappelli.” (NPR) It’s worth mentioning that the term “Gypsy” in some, not all, communities is derogatory and insulting. I tend to say “Manouche”, “Roma”, “Romani” as identifiers for their cultural and ethnic lineage, both of which translate (broadly) to human or people.
Moving from music to film, and from France to Italy, the Romani name, Django, became associated with the western anti-hero, a gritty stranger who responds to dire circumstances and confidently faces the dangerous elements of the world (signified by dragging a coffin around).
Few other names meet so poetically at the crossroads of the cultural east and west. It’s association with westerns lends to the genre’s international appeal. In Slate, Hendrix states, “the most influential international Westerns came from 1960s Europe when Sergio Leone, Sergio Corbucci, and Alejandro Jodorowsky took the Western movie from America, filched some style and story points from Japan, blasted the genre with hard radiation, then sent it back to the States, both smarter and stranger, where it influenced everyone from Sam Peckinpah to Walter Hill. There’s no way to get from the square-jawed, clean-shirt-wearing cowboys of John Ford’s 1946 My Darling Clementine to the stubble-jawed, morally compromised cowboys of Clint Eastwood’s 1992 Unforgiven without going through Italy.” (Slate)
There are many films with the namesake but I recommend at least watching the 1966 Django, a spaghetti western directed by Sergio Corbucci. You can pretty easily find a copy with the original Italian audio and English subtitles.
The more recent Sukiyaki Western Django (2007), like most Miike films and most Django iterations, speak for themselves, “One of the film’s more successful artistic conceits—because it’s thematically justified—is Miike’s decision to have his entire Japanese cast deliver their lines in a halting English. Just as Miike takes his filmmaking cue from an American model (the western), so do his actors bring a Japanese sensibility to an occidental form by filtering the distinctly American English dialogue through their native speech patterns. If the strategy tends to pall before too long, it nonetheless serves as a suitably odd distancing device and an appropriate aural analogue to the filmmaker’s visual appropriations.” (Slant Magazine) I would amend that review of the language by adding that the language and accents adjusts the quick pacing back to a rural languorousness. The metered speech converges with the quick editing and reminds us that while QT’s style influences the film it’s still truly Miike’s view of the genre. “Miike offers up an explosion of influences that mocks the idea of a monoculture that’s immune to foreign influence. Sukiyaki Western Django is a blend of Buddhist philosophy, film noir fatalism, Shakespeare’s Henry VI, and Japan’s very own 12th-century Genpei War. It’s a Wild West pageant of American history seen through Japanese eyes, reducing our entire frontier mythology to an ultraviolent grab for gold.” (Slate)
Tarantino’s pervertedly saccharine Django Unchained more prominently features the relationship between white supremacist and abolitionist (so well that it was even produced by Harvey Weinstein) while SWD points to greed and division more broadly. Like Miike’s film, watching Django Unchained raises questions of whether the depiction of violence and language ‘reflecting’ a mentality or a history are actually useful in anti-racism, anti-sexism movements or if they contribute to the continuance of oppression. Begging the question of what is the point of showing violence in film? What purpose does it serve?
That we see Django as a child gives us a potential origin story where we empathize with the experience of grappling with lawlessness. Django films are fascinating because from the beginning to the end there isn’t an ethical stick to measured by. Django is an eternally interesting character as the audience gets to ride along with them to find out how to navigate the world’s ethical ambiguity.