Django Unchained is not the cathartic racial revenge fantasy that the trailers promised. Rather, this surprisingly conservative film is, at its essence, about the role of the individual in righting wrongs that the government is either unwilling or unable to fix. The first half of the film concerns the titular character (Jamie Foxx) and his mentor Dr Schultz (Christoph Waltz) as they act as bounty hunters in the southern United States, reflecting how when the government is unable to apprehend certain criminals, some of whom are hiding in plain sight, the onus falls on private individuals to bring them to justice, for a cost. Yes, really, the film glorifies the privatisation of crime enforcement.
The film goes further in its implicit praise of gun rights. Django’s skill with a pistol is his only source of status and power in a world, which due to government, laws and social structures, otherwise condemns him. His gun allows him to not only rise above his allotted position in life, and fulfill his potential, but proves critical in the righting of wrongs. The revolver is the great equaliser, as it allows him to take vengeance on his former overseers, and rescue his wife in the latter half of the film, instead of relying on the state to achieve true justice.
Finally, the climax of race in the film is surprisingly not between the black Django and the black house slave Samuel (Samuel L. Jackson). They represent two different ways of approaching being part of a minority; Django representing an active willingness to achieve one’s potential regardless of sufferings, and the rejection of narratives of weakness and misfortune. All the ‘white man’ does in this film to help Django is literally unchain him and give him a gun, and he does the rest. By contrast, Samuel represents passivity, and a willingness to buy into narratives of inferiority, preferring to despise those of his own kind who have the ambition and pride in themselves to rise above what they have been given in life, and seek something greater. It is Django’s triumph over the narrative of voluntary servitude, and his ascension to almighty heights as an individual (with his trusty gun, of course) in spite of society and culture telling him otherwise, and the failures of government, that gives the film its conservative edge.