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Law Review: Django Unchained

Submitted by on January 29 – 2013No Comment


Jamie Foxx stars in the new film by Quentin Tarantino, which advertises itself as “The New Film By Quentin Tarantino.” In case you are not an 18 to 34 year old fanboy and don’t know what that means, you are going to watch top tier actors dropped into a story that screams “direct to DVD,” start working you over with charmingly witty dialogue until you suspect that you might just be viewing a thoughtful historical piece, until it all comes crashing down in a sea of blood and wounded genitalia. Happy Holidays!

While Foxx is the movie’s headliner, the great scenes are stolen once again by Christoph Waltz, who played a menacing multi-lingual SS colonel in the 2009 war movie “Inglourious Basterds.” Waltz returns to Tarantino’s world this time on the side of right as a European bounty hunter who is appalled by slavery in the American south.  His name is Dr. King Schultz, and he frees a slave named Django, played by Foxx. Did I mention his name is Dr. King and he frees a black man?  Subtle, eh?

Waltz is at his best as he patiently explains, in his precise German-accented English, Schultz’s function as an officer of the federal court. He often finds himself holding up a legal document and waxing on about circuit judges while the body of a man he just gunned down lies in the dirt at his feet. As Schultz, D.D.S. and his trusty comrade Django merrily blast their way across the antebellum south, producing legal warrants to silence objections to the killing spree, the movie begs the question: is this how the criminal justice system worked back then?

Pretty much. According to Jonathan Drimmer, writing in the Houston Law Review, Nineteenth Century bounty hunters played a role similar to that of law enforcement officers.  Bounty hunters could use “all necessary force, including deadly force, in obtaining custody over a suspect.” As agents of the bondsmen who bailed a criminal suspect, bounty hunters enjoyed the bondsmen’s broad rights to recapture bail-jumping suspects and return them to state custody in order to recover bail money.

But bringing suspects home to stand trial sounds more like an episode of “Dog the Bounty Hunter.” This is a Tarantino film. What we really want to know is: could a bounty hunter walk up to a man, have a pedestrian conversation about the weather—and then shoot that dude in the face?! Once again, pretty much. A bounty hunter needed only return proof that the suspect was dead in order to recover the bail money. Also, a bounty hunter’s power in the Old West extended beyond that of a law enforcement officer. He had a law enforcement officer’s power to seize a suspect, but since the bounty hunter acted as the agent of the bondsman, and not as an officer of the state, he was not limited by the constitutional or state law protections for criminal defendants. Accordingly, bounty hunters received wide latitude from the courts. In fact, various legal commentators like Drimmer and Gerald D. Robin in Criminal Justice still assert that modern bounty hunters enjoy far too much leeway when searching for, questioning, and detaining actual and suspected bail jumpers. The moral of the story: if a bearded German dentist is asking around about your identity, you should probably skip town for a while.

“Django Unchained” also stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Kerry Washington, and Samuel L. Jackson. It is rated “R” for strong graphic violence throughout, a vicious fight, language and some nudity. It is two hours and forty-five minutes long. It will probably appeal to viewers who enjoyed Tarantino’s other films, especially “Inglourious Basterds” and the “Kill Bill” films. It will probably not appeal to viewers who are not amused by strong violence, especially gun violence.

–Austin Murnane