Much has been written and discussed about Quentin Tarantino's latest project. Django Unchained has garnered praise, criticism and awards as a race film, a western and a spaghetti western. But after seeing the movie last night, it is clear to me that Tarantino did something else. He successfully realizes all of the classic elements of a spy film in a uniquely American setting.
As I wrote in an earlier post (How to Write Spy Fiction), every spy story boils down to the secret struggle for a magic It. The plot of Django is easy to fit into the classic spy formula when it is looked at from this perspective. Without revealing any spoilers, consider the following milestones that occur in many spy stories and also happen in the film;
- The spy is recruited into his profession by an older, experienced mentor.
- He learns his trade and struggles with the morality of what he is doing as his skills improve.
- He engages in some form of deception to manipulate his opponent and get closer to his goal because his opponent has superior strength, numbers and society on his side.
- Some form of counterintelligence is used against him to reveal his plot.
- He is forced to engage in another spontaneous deception, surpassing his mentor to secure the Magic It.
All of these elements were defined and structured well in Django Unchained. They are difficult to see if you’re not looking for them because Tarantino uses a controversial setting and an atypical protagonist to tell his story. But this is just as much a good spy film as Argo, Skyfall or Zero Dark Thirty and should be appreciated in that vein.
It could be that Django is easier to define as a spaghetti western than a spy film. It might be more popular to focus on how many times the word nigger was used in the script or how graphically violent the film was. It wouldn’t be far-fetched to say that because I’m in the middle of writing a spy novel I see every movie or story in those terms. But none of that takes away from what Django reveals. By shining a light on America near the end of Slavery, Tarantino gives us a look at a struggle that was just as treacherous as the Cold War or the War on Terror. Not every spy story that deserves to be told concerns only the evils of the modern Middle East. Some stories can clearly be found in the systemic human trafficking of America’s own past.