What do Django Unchained and Love Actually have in common? Not much, except a tie to Christmas and contract questions. Love Actually is my favorite Christmas-themed movie (thanks largely to Liam Neeson, Colin Firth, and Hugh Grant). Django Unchained, on the other hand, is not a feel-good Christmas movie at all but was released on Christmas day this year (and is a good movie dealing with a very difficult subject).
In addition to their connections to Christmas, both Django Unchained and Love Actually also raise contract questions. In Django Unchained, Dr. King Schulz tells Django that he’ll give him his freedom and $75 if Django helps Dr. King find and capture (dead or alive) three wanted men. In Love Actually, rock star Billy Mack (the great Bill Nighy) promises to perform naked on Christmas Eve if his Christmas pop song, Christmas is All Around, is the number one Christmas song that year. Are either of these promises binding agreements?
To have an enforceable contract, there are a few basic elements that must be met: (1) an offer; (2) acceptance of the offer; (3) a meeting of the minds; (4) each party’s consent to the terms; and (5) execution and delivery of the contract with the intent that it be mutual and binding. See Tyco Valves & Controls, L.P. v. Colorado, 365 S.W.3d 750, 772 (Tex.App.–Houston [1 Dist.] 2012). Contracts, with some limitations, may be either verbal or written.
In Django Unchained, Dr. King was clearly making an offer that Django accepted. There was no misunderstanding over the terms of the agreement and both parties agreed to and wanted the contract to be binding. So it’s enforceable, right? Maybe. One of the many, many injustices wrapped up in slavery – and the U.S. legal systems’s role in perpetuating that horrible system – was that courts refused to enforce contracts to which a slave was a party. See Sanders v. Devereux, 1860 WL 5729, at *3 (Tex. 1860) (stating that, in general, a slave can neither sue nor be sued, nor can he make any contract which either a court of law or equity can enforce).
The Texas Supreme Court provided one exception to that rule, however, stating a slave can maintain a legal action to obtain his freedom, although he must do so through a guardian. Id. So there is a slight chance that Django would have been able to make Dr. King free him once he helped Dr. King find the three wanted men, although he would have had to find somebody to bring the lawsuit on his behalf. Fortunately, Dr. King followed through on his promise, even though he probably didn’t have to.
On a much, much lighter note, in Love Actually, Billy Mack also makes a promise to the people of Great Britain – he’ll get naked if they make his song number one. The contract at issue here (and I’m doing all of this assuming US law would apply as I’m no expert on English law) is actually a “unilateral contract.” This type of contract consists of a promise on the part of the offeror (Billy Mack) and performance of the requisite terms (making his song No. 1) by the offeree (the music-buying audience). See Tacoma Auto Mall, Inc. v. Nissan North America, Inc., 169 Wash.App. 111, 129 (Wash.App. Div. 2, 2012).
Unlike a regular contract, which is usually executed before either party performs, a unilateral contract is only executed if the offeree performs (e.g., makes Billy’s song No. 1). Once the offeree performs, then the offeror is bound by the terms of the contract. So once his song became No. 1, Billy Mack was contractually bound to follow through on his promise. (Another example of a unilateral contract is the wanted dead or alive reward posters that featured so prominently in Django Unchained. The courts offer to pay for the delivery of the bad guy and once the bounty hunter shoots the bad guy in reliance on that offer, the courts are obligated to pay up.)
Of course, anyone who tried to sue Billy Mack if he didn’t get naked would have to show that she purchased his song in reliance on his promise. There’s also the possibility that a court may refuse to enforce the contract – involving public nudity – because it’s contrary to public policy. See Liberty Mut. Fire. Ins. Co. v. Mandiie, 192 Ariz. 216, 220 (App. 1997) (recognizing that contracts contrary to public policy are void).
So both movies’ contractual plot lines are questionable, not that movies ever worry too much about getting the law right. Other than that, the two movies have nothing in common, although I recommend watching both of them this holiday season.