Starring: Jamie Foxx, Leonardo DiCaprio, Samuel L. Jackson, Christoph Waltz, Kerry Washington
Written And Directed By Quentin Tarantino
Is there a recent film that has caused more heated discussion before it even came out than Django Unchained?
But let’s state the obvious here – Django is a film that’s supposed to be controversial and I find that there’s nothing wrong with that.
I’ve always believed that controversy is good for the soul. People need to get upset from time to time. Too many films, and most TV shows for that matter, are conceived to be passive entertainment designed to lull you to sleep.
I would rather have a film getting people upset and leaving the theater in a rage than to have people dragging themselves out after seeing a film nodding to themselves: “Oh that was okay, I guess.” I think that films should, sometimes, engage and outrage.
Of course, a film that deals with slavery is a touchy subject, even in this 21st Century. Especially when it comes to Black folks. We’re still too conflicted over dealing with this “peculiar institution” as it was called.
There are those who wish to ignore it altogether, pretend it’s something in the past to be ashamed of and forgotten. However, there are others who feel that we still don’t talk enough about it and the still-lingering psychological effects it has on Black people.
However, when it comes to the cinematic treatment of slavery on the screen, that’s when the fur really begins to fly. It’s no secret that slavery has been woefully and inaccurately portrayed in cinema throughout history.
Too often it’s portrayed either as a romantic fairyland of happy, contented slaves serving their White masters without complaint or some female house slave who falls in love with her White master with dreams of a happy life together. The horror and brutality of slavery has rarely been seen in films and it’s no surprise that people are reluctant to see it.
Granted there have been Black directors who have dealt with slavery before in films such as Haile Gerima (Sankofa), Charles Burnett (Nightjohn), and soon Steve McQueen when his 12 Years A Slave comes out next year. I find it interesting that of those three, only one is African American, the other two being British and Ethiopian.
Which brings us to Django Unchained and what it is not. It is not the definitive, ultimate film about slavery and it was never intended to be that. It is, after all, a Hollywood studio movie made for the main purpose of entertainment.
What it is, is a fantasy of sorts. A sort of wish fulfillment of what one wishes might have been, of Black avengers righting wrongs. A Black hero who goes through hell and high water to save his damsel in distress.
There have been a million movies like that with White characters, so what’s wrong with having a Black one doing that for a change? When was the last time you saw a Black man on the screen going through the gates of hell and back again with one single purpose in mind, to save the woman he loves? I’m thinking like, never.
Some have called Django a “Black revenge” film and there’s nothing wrong with that, though some have complained about it. I don’t recall anyone complaining about Jewish revenge films like Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds, Spielberg’s Munich, or Edward Zwick’s Defiance.
Didn’t hear a peep. No one had a problem. But see a Black man getting payback against slave owners and suddenly people, lots of whom are Black, are getting hot under the collar.
Something else is that though the film is very funny at times, none of the humor comes from scenes involving slavery or the degradation of Black people. In fact, it’s just the opposite. There are painful and quite disturbing scenes of the brutal treatment of Black people being whipped, branded with hot irons, torn apart by dogs.
It’s violent, brutal, and extremely ugly. Not for the squeamish or more sensitive types. The point is that, that is what happened, along with even worse atrocities than that. Would you rather see a film that tries in some way to reveal the horrors of slavery or Halle Berry in Queen?
But after all that, what’s the deal on Django in the final run?
The result, as far as I’m concerned, is simply fantastic! In fact, I consider Django one of Tarantino’s stronger films, far better than Basterds, which tended to meander into other subplots that interrupted the basic dramatic flow of the main story. Django is all of one piece with a forward moving narrative.
And for a film running 165 minutes, it moves. It never feels draggy or long-winded. And like all of Tarantino’s films, it features all his trademarks.
There’s the mixture of film genres. Django is a wild mixture of blaxploitation films such as Slaughter’s Big Rip-Off, the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone and Sergio Corbucci, Goodbye Uncle Tom, Blazing Saddles, Mandingo, and the late 1960’s TV western show The Outcasts, with an eclectic music soundtrack featuring everything from Ennio Morricone’s music for Two Mules for Sister Sara to Verdi’s Requiem to Rick Ross.
No doubt people will criticize the extreme violence in the film, where bullets seemingly tear out chunks of people’s bodies when they get hit. But that is historically accurate. Large caliber bullets during the 19th Century traveled more slowly and were made of heavier material, and as a result would rip out people’s flesh. If you didn’t die from the shot, you would bleed to death screaming in agonizing pain, as a lot of people do in Django.
Of course, there’s Tarantino’s patented, long dialogue scenes that slowly rise in tension to a sudden climax, before reverting back down before building again in suspense to a more explosive and violent final climax.
And there’s his quirky choices in casting: including Walton Goggins; the original Django himself, Franco Nero, in an amusing cameo bit; Lee Horsley (from that ABC detective show Matt Houston back in the mid-‘80’s – where did he find him?); Don Johnson, who is great as an evil plantation owner; Bruce Dern; and, of all people, Don Stroud, who played villain Ed McMahon’s hit man in Slaughter’s Big Rip-Off.
As for the performances, all of them are terrific, but Leonardo DiCaprio must be the standout. As Calvin Candie, a plantation owner who breeds Mandingo fighters, he’s both charming and frightening at the same time. There’s always a glint of madness in his eyes.
It is a truly mesmerizing performance and one extended dinner table scene alone – which starts off calmly, but turns into a truly frightening display of terror – may be his best work to date in a film in years.
Christoph Waltz is also charming and very charismatic as Dr. King Schultz, the bounty hunter who partners with Django. There’s a practiced theatricality in his style and mannerisms – half actor, half killer. Waltz just received a “Best Supporting Actor Academy Award” nod for his performance.
What is interesting though is that unlike what people have been thinking what his character is without seeing it, Schultz is no White savor. He’s a businessman and killer who sees Django as a means to an end to get what he wants. Something that Django quickly understands.
If someone else could have provided that for him, Schultz could have gone with him. As a result, Django uses Schultz as an opportunity to get what he wants – his wife back and bloody revenge.
Jamie Foxx’s performance as Django is subtle and complex. Some will complain that he doesn’t seem to say much in the film, but that’s missing the point that’s right in front of them. Django is, like Schultz, an opportunist, but unlike him, for a righteous cause.
Once freed of his shackles, he quickly learns the tricks of the trade of being a bounty hunter and becomes his own man. Something that he always was, even before the chains come off. Something he does to one of the traders who was transporting him at the beginning of the film reveals that.
After learning the ropes of the bounty hunting trade and being a natural deadly shot, he takes his situation into his own hands and in what is the most pivotal scene halfway in the film, tells Shultz that from now on things will be done his way…and they are. This is not the White savior/Black pupil situation that some feared their relationship would be in the film.
Samuel L. Jackson is the horse of a different color playing what is essentially the King of Uncle Toms. It’s actually a rather brave role for Jackson to play – a character who is meant to be despised and loathed kowtowing to his White master DiCaprio and doing everything he can to subvert and undermine Django.
He’s so despicable that I suspect even White people in the audience will have nothing but contempt for him. In many ways he’s a parody of the devoted slave stereotype seen in countless anti-bellum plantation movies of the 1930s and 40s, usually played by an actor such as Clarence Muse, but taken to an even more extreme level.
Kerry Washington, one would argue, compared to the other actors, is underdeveloped in terms of characterization. Yes, she is brutalized and whipped, though not raped in the film. But one must argue that that’s what happened back then. The ugly reality is that Black women were considered chattel. But nevertheless, Washington’s character is yet strong and resilient. That she is not as fully fleshed out as the other major characters is perhaps the film’s only shortcoming.
No doubt people will be upset with my take on the film (I can hear the angry comments already), but that’s what Django does. It demands an emotional response whether you like it or not. That’s great as far as I’m concerned. I wish there were more films that could create this sort of furious debate and conflicted feelings.
But I absolutely love and was blown away by Django Unchained and I can’t wait to see it again, and again after that. In a way, I’ve been waiting to see a film like this about a Black hero for the last 30 years.