On Tarantino's Cameo in
Spoilers for several Tarantino films, in particular Django Unchained, follow.
Django has been caught. All seems lost. Our hero is destined for years of hard, forced labor culminating in his crippling and craven death. En route to his demise, Django is led by three employees of LeQuint Dickey Mining Co. Amongst these three, one stands out, but not due to an expertly devilish performance. Quite to the contrary- this particular employee is comedic, not so much due to his poor attempt at a Cockney accent, but due to the man portraying him. Why is Quentin Tarantino in Django Unchained?
Django Unchained is writer/director Quentin Tarantino’s most recent work; a revenge tale of former slave Django (Jamie Foxx) as he attempts to find and free his wife Broomhilda Von Shaft (Kerry Washington). The film, like all of Tarantino’s works, is a kinetic genre film (in this case, Spaghetti Western) with sharp dialogue building towards scenes of ultra violence. And, like nearly all of his films, Django Unchained is a rousing success. The film is led by several strong performances, including those by Foxx, Samuel L. Jackson, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Christoph Waltz. Notably, Waltz received his second Oscar nomination for his performance; his first since winning for the last Tarantino film, Inglourious Basterds. The film work, not only as a fun bit of stylized action, but also as a modern retelling of a German myth and as a vivid reminder of the ugliness and brutality of slavery. But, then there’s Tarantino’s cameo sticking out like a sore thumb.
Tarantino has a history of placing himself in his films. Unlike other directors, such as Alfred Hitchcock, who are content to linger briefly in the background of their films, Tarantino has a tendency to put himself center stage for elongated portions of screen time. While writing his break-out film, Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino created the character of Mr. Pink with himself in mind and intended to perform the role until Steve Buscemi successfully auditioned. Tarantino instead played the smaller role of Mr. Brown, but still garnered his share of attention with a now famous critique of Madonna’s ‘Like a Virgin.’ In Pulp Fiction, Tarantino again popped up, this time as Jimmie Dimmick, a regular Joe who becomes the only means of help for the two main heroes. These sorts of self-indulgent roles continued off and on into his most dubious work to date, Death Proof. Tarantino’s role of Warren the bartender is likely the most masturbatory of his directing/acting career. The character seems to have been created solely so Tarantino can play out a fantasy of being a super cool barkeeper who is loved by the attractive female bar patrons. Note that these moments of self service aren’t inherently bad. It is more that they can be a distraction from the story Tarantino is trying to tell. Hitchcock knew to try and put his cameo early in the film, so the audience could concentrate on the characters and story. Several of Tarantino’s films could have been improved had this lesson been implemented.
Tarantino has been able to balance his cameos with storytelling in a fashion that improves the film, though, such as in Inglourious Basterds. Tarantino’s appearance in the film is so slight, most are unaware of it. When the audience first sees the Basterds in bloody action, they are scalping a fleet of recently dispatched Nazi soldiers, tossing the hair against the nearby walls to shouts of war cries. In fact, the first Nazi being seen scalped is a dummy of Tarantino. Though this appearance is extremely subtle, it speaks volumes about the Basterds. The film has just begun, and before the audience gets to see what these mad men are capable of, they’ve killed the director of the film. This is Tarantino’s way of saying, “These guys are dangerous. I can’t even control them.” With the director dispatched, the Basterds are free to do whatever they feel is appropriate for the rest of the film, including completely rewriting the end of World War II. Tarantino’s cameo in Django is much closer to this role than his other self-indulgent ones.
Let’s return to Django Unchained. Leading up to Tarantino’s cameo, Django has been in a shootout at Candyland that has led to the deaths of Dr. King Schultz, Calvin Candie, and a dozen or so redshirt cowboys. As more ranch hands flood in, calling back to the battle between The Bride and the Crazy 88’s in Kill Bill Vol. 1, Django concedes and, in defeat, is captured. This is immediately followed by a sharp cut to black and a false ending. The film comes back quickly and it’s revealed by Stephen that Django has been sold to the LeQuint Dickey Mining Company where he will work until he is dead.
This is when Tarantino arrives as LeQuint Dickey Mining Co. Employee #1. The writer/director of the film, the person responsible for Django’s existence in a character sense, has tied the hero’s hands and is slowly walking him to his death. Tarantino, as the creator of this universe, is satisfied with the film and is content to end without a happy ending. In his mind, the film is complete. It is now up to Django to find some way to convince Tarantino to not end the film so he may complete his revenge. He does this with the promise of a bounty that could easily be collected if the four of them rode back to Candyland and shot some wanted men down. This is equivalent to Tarantino being told that if there were just one more large shoot out, the film could be a lot more successful; an unhappy ending would alienate audiences and cause the returns to be not nearly as high as the director would like. With the promise of financial success, the rope constraining Django’s hands is cut as a metaphor for Tarantino allowing the film to continue, but only under his guidance. Alas, as soon as he is handed his hero’s tool, a gun, he shoots the three mining employees, including Tarantino, dead.
With the writer/director vanquished, Django is allowed to control his own fate, stepping into the director’s chair that Tarantino’s exploded body can no longer occupy. From this point on in the film, nothing bad happens to Django: he returns to Candyland, takes out the remaining bad guys, saves his wife, and destroys the film’s symbols of the oppression of slavery, the plantation mansion and the Uncle Tom character, Stephen. With this new power in the universe of the film, Django is allowed to sculpt the happy ending that Tarantino was prepared to withhold from him. Thus, Tarantino’s cameo works as another level of tyranny that Django must conquer to save Broomhilda and adds an extra level of depth to the film.