In Django Unchained, Leonardo DiCaprio Helped to Give Me The Most Terrifying Moment I’ve Ever Witnessed on Film

A few days ago it was Leonardo DiCaprio’s birthday. He deserves flowers not just for his lovely face, but for his inexhaustible efforts to save our planet from us and for his ability to embody every character he has ever played with nuance and charm. There is so much excellent DiCaprio work to choose from. But, if I could have given him accolades in the form of his well deserved first Oscar for just one, it would be in his turn as true villain, Calvin Candie, in 2012’s Django Unchained.

I have been intermittently haunted by that scene in Django where the two Black men are fighting to the death for the amusement of a small White audience (lead in epic and mesmerizing fashion by my perennial childhood crush and birthday boy, DiCaprio). The scene is still entirely unwatchable for me. The action occurs while DiCaprio whoops and coaches in a sticky southern drawl and jumps about erratically. Actors portraying enslaved Black people work stoically in the background as the men tussle violently and passionately. I find myself attempting to watch the scene from their perspective.

Tarantino has created what for me is a trifecta of horror: Trauma. Metaphor. Violence. He’s gritted down the whole issue of slavery and racism to some of their rawest forms, as he so often does with his subject matter. It’s worth watching or contemplating it again with a 2020 lens if you haven’t watched it lately or at all. It gives new meaning to the term, “Black on Black crime,” and an opportunity to reflect on, to the extent crime tends to require proximity and to the extent that our country is still dramatically segregated, its true root causes.

I know everyone talks about the scene where DiCaprio cut his hand open and smeared blood on the face of a shocked and professional Kerry Washington, which was truly Oscar worthy, Jamie Foxx, muzzled, hanging upside down by his feet with his back covered in tree branch shaped scars from repeated whipping as they torture him in another poignant metaphor for fears of Black male sexuality, and of course, since this is Tarantino, the bloody climax of the film, but I struggle most in every attempted re-screening with this one two minute segment.

I watched it in the theater with my hands over my eyes. I see and hear the biting and flesh ripping, the glistening sweat, and the weight of Black bodies slammed on the ground. I see the hammer raised through my fingertips with my mouth parched and my heart in my throat. I’ve never seen how it connects. I hope I never do. While they deserve as much praise for never breaking form as DiCaprio does, I don’t know the names of the men tasked with wrestling in this scene, but I can see they are giving it their absolute all as if it really were what it is intended to represent: to the death. Their anonymity is another part of the metaphor. Two other nameless Black men lost to violence. I don’t think it is unintentionally ironic that I do know the name of the White man who kicked them and jeered them without flinching in Tarantino’s perverse revisionist historical fiction.

It’s a graphic form of art that I can’t fully experience and therefore am unable to adequately critique or even understand. But, I still wonder, eight years later and a day or two after DiCaprio’s birthday, if these few minutes do more for the cause of illustrating the intractable nature of the relationship this country has and has had with Black men than it does by way of retraumatization of the Black psyches like mine who are forced to witness 400 years of Mandingo mythology played out in macabre microcosm on screen. I know Tarantino intended it to supercede the myth, but I still can’t watch it and so I don’t think I’ll ever know the answer to this question even as I am in awe of DiCaprio’s and the other actors’ craft.

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