I've spent a few days lately trying to figure out what to make of "Django Unchained," the popular new film by director Quentin Tarantino. I'd had some misgivings about seeing the film at all. But Tarantino is a talented filmmaker, and I appreciate many of his fine movies, including "Pulp Fiction" and "Inglorious Bastards."
On the other hand, his trademark is plenty of gunplay and abundant and lengthy sequences of blood-splattering, brain-shattering violence. You get tired of that.
Besides, in National Rifle Association CEO Wayne LaPierre's rationale for more Americans packing more guns, delivered a week after the Newtown massacre, among many things he got wrong, he probably got at least one thing right: We're overdue for some consideration of the role that violence plays in our culture, especially in TV, movies and video games.
And while "Django Unchained" is creative, entertaining and sometimes downright funny, it is also copiously violent, in two particular ways.
Most prominent is the kind of violence that a fan expects from Tarantino. His inexplicable -- to me, anyway -- fascination with the old-fashioned genre of the spaghetti western is expressed in full force in "Django." The plot hinges on bounty hunting, and the film is packed with a slew of extra-legal assassinations of unconvicted bad guys who are, allegedly, guilty of crimes like murder, cattle rustling and slave trading.
The climax is a shootout that out-spaghettis the most violent of the spaghetti westerns. So many bullets fly and so much blood splatters that it soaks the walls of the antebellum mansion where the shootout occurs.
Not every victim crumples quietly to the floor, either, dispatched by a clean shot. Sometimes, Django shoots to wound, prolonging the agony, which is expressed graphically with horrifying screams and moans.
But this scene is a parody, a cartoonish joke so over the top that some viewers will find it amusing. Others, unfortunately, will miss the joke and see only an ordinary, gratuitous bloodbath. For many younger viewers, Franco Nero's cameo isn't an inside joke; for them it only produces the question: "Who's Franco Nero?"
The riff on the spaghetti western is part of Tarantino's vision, but the theme that informs the movie is slavery, whose true nature is expressed in a second, less amusing kind of violence.
The movie "Lincoln" reminds us that slavery is a part of our nation's legacy and that it was eventually abolished by courageous, right-thinking white and black people. But it takes a movie like "Django" to push back against modern revisionists who want to celebrate the Confederacy, minimize slavery's brutality, and downplay the role that it played in provoking the Civil War. To many modern viewers -- never having read Uncle Tom's Cabin or Frederick Douglas -- slavery is a mere abstraction, a mildly shameful, maybe even necessary and benign, practice long committed to the distant past.
However, it's important to be reminded -- as "Django" does -- that slavery is impossible without soul-crushing violence and brutality. In the film, a runaway is ripped to pieces by dogs, more or less off-camera. Slaves are tied to trees and whipped and branded. The scene most likely to foment nightmares is Django's near-castration with a red-hot knife.
Tarantino's brand is the extravagant shootout awash with blood, but in "Django" he captures also the violence that slavery inflicts on humans' bodies and on their souls. Samuel L. Jackson brilliantly portrays Stephen, the servant who shuffles his way from Uncle Tom to a tyrannical Simon Legree who rules the house and field slaves with a compromised, treacherous cruelty that even the white slave owner has trouble matching.
Yes, we have too much violence in our media. But violence can corrupt or it can instruct. If you see "Django," be prepared to cringe. But be reminded that American slavery bequeathed a legacy of physical and spiritual violence that can't be expected to resolve itself in a mere generation or two.
(John Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas.)