Christoph Waltz as King and Jamie Foxx as Django. Click on the 'Play' button above to watch the trailer for Django Unchained.
January 15, 2013
(Republished June 4, 2013)
Quentin’s gonna do what Quentin’s gonna do, and we should all stop feigning surprise when he does. He will readily deploy that most controversial of racial epithets because he doesn’t feel he needs the permission of anyone – particularly Spike Lee – to do so. He will reinvent history on a whim to better suit the requirements of his story’s arc. He will cast has-beens, coulda-beens, and never-weres until there are no more careers left to resurrect. Django Unchained, his eighth feature, is one of the few major American productions to explicitly deal with the slave trade from that country’s not-so-distant past. Some are angry with Tarantino for “trivialising" it, which roughly translates to “making a Quentin Tarantino flick out of it.”
Don't they see? The fault lies not with QT but with ourselves! Those waiting for a director to treat the cruel injustice of slavery with grave solemnity shouldn't have expected him - of all people - to pick up the slack. Save your blame for the other filmmakers and studios who’ve failed to address the topic over the decades. It’s not merely unfair to feel disappointment in Django Unchained for not absolving Hollywood of its prior sins of omission; it's flat out misguided. Just because it's a hoot and a half (and another half hoot) doesn't mean there isn't also something thoughtful lingering beneath the cartoonish violence, self-referential nods to cinema of yore, and Rick Ross theme song. How dare the self-proclaimed 'art police' suggest Tarantino can't imbue a real historical tragedy with humour and romance - and that we can't delight in its revisionist, red-blooded revenge - simply because few others have bothered to investigate this incendiary subject before him?
Foxx and Leonardo DiCaprio as Candie.
A softly spoken and effortlessly compelling Jamie Foxx stars as the title character; a downtrodden slave forced to trudge along the chilly American south by his keepers. He's purchased by German bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz, played by Christoph Waltz (clearly relishing a rare good-guy role and the opportunity to inhabit yet another one of Quentin's verbose creations). Schultz has no interest in lording over a human being, promising Django freedom once he helps eyeball some elusive targets: his one-time owners, the detestable Brittle Brothers. Their mission is a success, and Schultz fulfils his end of the bargain whilst also proposing a partnership. As a bounty hunter himself, Django could earn some cash over the winter, and then with his coffer full, start a new life with wife Broomhilda (an underutilised but excellent Kerry Washington). "Kill white people and get paid for it? What's not to like?" Okay, so maybe Tarantino does feel a little white guilt after all...
One montage later, and Django has evolved into Richard Roundtree. Schultz, pleased with their arrangement, agrees to help reacquire Broomhilda from Candyland, a plantation run by Francophile Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). They pose as rich, bored slave traders looking to get into the "Mandingo wrestling" game, in which healthy black men literally fight for their lives until they've got no more life to give. There, DiCaprio's devilish, grimy-toothed southern dandy is introduced, and we think we know where the final act will take us. Then, Samuel L. Jackson appears as Calvin's house slave Stephen, an audacious depiction of the 'Uncle Tom' trope taken to its logical, outrageous conclusion, and everything changes.
Samuel L. Jackson as Stephen and Kerry Washington as Broomhilda.
Stephen is a demented flip of the "magical negro" cliché; this is a big 'eff you' to the purveyors of good taste who have predictably attacked Django Unchained for not slotting into their narrow guidelines. Watching a cool black man "kill white people and get paid for it" is indeed a giddy amusement, particularly as a means of easing long-pent-up aggression. However, Tarantino toys with some fascinating dynamics with this late revelation, achieving something fairly significant in the process. He turns the race war in on itself, leaving Schultz to deal with Candie, and leaving blaxploitation hero Django - torn from the 1970's movement in which African Americans returned some agency to black characters on celluloid - to face off against Stephen, a despicable archetype created by whites as a means of keeping the status quo. Tarantino often reminds us that film can be used as a weapon (literally so in Inglourious Basterds). Here, he purges all that racial ugliness from the past not by asking its left-leaning audience to whoop and cheer at whitey's demise, but by having our hero do battle with screen history itself, manifested in Samuel L. Jackson's fearless performance.
The gore is, expectedly, both horrific and hilarious. When the bad guys die, they burst with bloody squibs that recall a Gallagher-induced watermelon explosion. There are moments that seriously challenge too; anyone accusing Tarantino of taking slavery lightly must have visited the restroom while the escaped Mandingo wrestler was brutally torn apart by dogs. In that sequence. he smartly turns the camera away, only cutting back elliptically (here we must credit cinematographer Robert Richardson and editor Fred Raskin, replacing the late Sally Menke). As a conductor, he knows how violence can inspire elation in an audience, and he loves using that as a crowdpleasing tool, but he also knows violence carries weight, and in some instances, should frighten and upset us. You would think his constant reminders that we are indeed watching a motion picture - the anachronistic musical cues, direct lifts from previous spaghetti westerns - would lessen the impact. In fact, just the opposite occurs. As he expertly displayed with Inglourious Basterds, movies done right do something to us. We know it's all a fakery, yet still we care about the characters, and carry them with us once the credits roll. Django Unchained's battle is not against the reality of slavery - because there is no unringing that bell - but with the ugly film culture that followed in its wake, and sadly lingers today. Now that's a battle Quentin Tarantino can win.
Django Unchained is available on DVD, Blu-ray, and via Pay Per Play from June 6, 2013.