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Django Unchained: Appropriation Done Right

Emily Rothkopf

“[Quentin] Tarantino has been dubbed a “director DJ,” comparing his stylistic use of mix-and-match genre and music infusion to the use of sampling in DJ exhibits, morphing a variety of old works to create a new one,” (Wikipedia 2014).

Appropriation is the act of borrowing elements from previously published texts and repurposing them, perhaps by changing the context or narrative, to develop new works.  Many artists remix others works without elevating or diversifying their subjects, or without any acknowledgement of their influences.  Alternatively, Quentin Tarantino’s films provide some of the best examples of appropriation in film “done right.”  Not only does Tarantino copy, transform and combine past texts to create ingenious and original films, but he promotes and speaks to his obscure influences passionately and with a reverence.  “Creation requires influence … it isn’t magic,” filmmaker Kirby Ferguson states in Everything is A Remix.  But the fluidity in which an artist pieces together his/her influences and connects seemingly unconnected works to create new art, with new meaning, can be quite magical.  Tarantino’s 2012 film Django Unchained includes numerous examples of appropriation – both overt and subconscious, giving viewers exposure to past genres and texts but in a modernized format.  And as a result, he makes an original contribution to film and art.

The Genres & Cinematography

Django Unchained is inspired greatly by Italian director Sergio Corbucci, who according to Tarantino, depicted the West more violently, surreal and pitiless than any other director in the history of the genre (Tarantino 2012).  The title and “spaghetti-western” genre of the film are linked directly to Corbucci’s 1966 film Django.  Tarantino drew from another Corbucci film of the same genre, Il Grande Silenzio, which uniquely takes place in the snow.  Tarantino wrote about Silenzio, among other influences, in the New York Times saying that he liked the aesthetic of the western action in the snow so much that he incorporated a snow section in the middle of Django.  In the snow scene below we also see a more subconscious appropriation — which is a typical montage of the protagonist honing his/her skills or in effect, transforming.

The Great Silence (Il Grande Silenzio); photo credit: EffettonotteOnline.com

Mel Brooks’ 1974 film Blazing Saddles may be a more subconscious influence to Tarantino’s Django.  Blazing Saddles was a western comedy that satirized racism, portraying a black sheriff as the hero in an all-white town.  It was also known and criticized for use of the “N-word” similar to Django.  Moreover, it was a rule-bending film that stood out amongst the proliferation of comedies, westerns, texts on racism, etc.  The unique way that both Blazing Saddles and Django similarly deal with racism is by depicting its idiocies, as best exemplified by the KKK scene and ill-fitting bag-masks scene below.

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Above: Blazing Saddles; Below: Django Unchained “Bag-Mask Scene”; photo credits: RogerEbert.com

The Costumes

There are numerous influences in just the costume design alone for Django Unchained.  For example, Don Johnson’s signature Miami Vice look inspired his (plantation owner – Big Daddy’s) cream-colored linen suit in the film.  And for Django’s wardrobe, Tarantino watched the television series Bonanza and referred to it frequently when illustrating his vision.  However the most notable appropriation was Django’s blue velvet suit that he emerges in when getting to select his own wardrobe for the first time.  This was directly inspired by Thomas Gainsborough’s 1770 oil painting, The Blue Boy (Wikipedia 2014).  But in my research people have also commented on the similarity between Django’s attire to that of Austin Powers.  While the creators of Django overtly drew from Gainsborough’s artwork, there may have been a subconscious influence from Powers.  Djano’s chosen attire after all is supposed to lend itself to a humorous aspect of the film.

Django and Thomas Gainsborough’s 1770 oil painting, The Blue Boy – photo credit: tvtropes.com; Django and Austin Powers – photo credit: film.list.co.uk

The Music

“Quentin Tarantino’s soundtracks, like his films, are works of expert connoisseurship: pop-culture history lessons, assembled with a crate-digger’s impeccable taste,” (Rosen 2013).

The music in Django Unchained provides examples of not only appropriation but also intertexuality.  The soundtrack is extremely eclectic, drawing from a wide variety of eras and genres – including old-timey Western, blues, Seventies folk rock and hip-hop.  Where Tarantino’s genius lies is in his ability to incorporate such a wide variety of sounds at just the right moments in the film.  For example, while one may get an initial knee-jerk response to the juxtaposition of Rick Ross’ hip-hop beats to a spaghetti-western setting, the tone is perfectly appropriate and enhances the scene.  And in the context of slavery and a revenge-themed movie, the value of the song and even the hip-hop genre as a whole is elevated.

John Legend’s “Who Did That To You” in and of itself is another good example of appropriation done right.  It samples Mighty Hannibal’s 1967 song “The Right to Love You,” which Legend says, “[has] some of the flavor of the kind of music that I associate with Tarantino movies…it’s almost campy, and it’s got a sort of vintage to it” (ThisisRnBcom 2013).  So Legend drew inspiration from another musician from the 1950s and 60s, as well as from a modern day film director, and created something with original meaning and feeling in the context of the Django Unchained narrative.  All while crediting his influences.

John Legend – Who Did That To You

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When an artist can acknowledge and transform past sources that might otherwise have little home in contemporary culture, his/her “originality and appropriations are as one” (Lethem 2007).  With Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino takes standard genres and themes with prolific texts, and through creative appropriation, contributes a brand new work to the encyclopedia of art.  Concurrently, he credits and celebrates those that came before him.  And in a manner of “paying it forward” he has also been called one of the most influential directors of his generation.

 

Works Cited

“Django Unchained.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 02 Feb. 2014. Web. 02 Feb. 2014.

Emerson, Jim. “Django Unchain My Heart (and Set Me Free).” All Content. N.p., 4 Jan. 2013. Web. 02 Feb. 2014.

Ferguson, Kirby. “Everything Is a Remix.” Vimeo. N.p., 2011. Web. 03 Feb. 2014.

“John Legend Talks Writing “Who Did That To You” for ‘Django’ and Pitching It To Tarantino On A Cassette.” ThisisRnBcom RSS. N.p., 1 Jan. 2013. Web. 03 Feb. 2014.

Lethem, Jonathan. “The Ecstasy of Influence.” Harpers Magazine. N.p., Feb. 2007. Web. 02 Feb. 2014.

“Quentin Tarantino.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 02 Feb. 2014. Web. 02 Feb. 2014.

Rosen, Jody. “Django Unchained: Original Soundtrack – Album Reviews.” Rolling Stone. N.p., 14 Jan. 2013. Web. 03 Feb. 2014.

Tarantino, Quentin. “Quentin Tarantino Tackles Old Dixie by Way of the Old West (by Way of Italy).” The New York Times Magagine. N.p., 27 Sept. 2012. Web. 02 Feb. 2014.