Much has been said and written of Quentin Tarantino’s latest movie, Django Unchained. This isn’t surprising given that any new Tarantino film is anticipated by audiences while also carrying high expectations and demands from critics. The 90s poster boy of the indie movement has grown into one of Hollywood’s biggest luminaries. Not bad for someone whose career is basically making high quality B-movies that touch upon greater themes. Even so, Django has faced greater criticism that most of his movies given its topic and the abundant use of the “n-word.” But we’ll get to that in a moment.
Django Unchained starts out with five men chained to one another as they walk out West. The five men are black slaves, purchased in the slave market in 1858. They and the slave traders that are driving them run into Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a dentist turned bounty hunter, who is after the one slave who can identify three of his targets. That slave turns out to be Django (Jaime Foxx), who was tortured and sold by the Brittle brothers – Schultz’ targets. Schultz, a German immigrant who has no love for slavery, agrees to free Django and help him retrieve his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) if Django will help him bring the Brittle brothers to justice, dead or alive. Their joint quests will bring them into the heart of the Dixie South and on a collision course with slave owner/Mandingo-fight promoter Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his servant Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson).
For this movie to work, it requires two things to happen: 1) you have to root for Django and Schultz and 2) you have to have no problems in enjoying the wanton violence that befalls slave owners, plantation bosses and Klansmen. Guess what? Both things happen. Foxx and Waltz are a blast to watch. The scenes of Schultz training Django are good and their quiet conversations where Schultz and Django learn about one another are never boring. Say what you will about Tarantino, but he has grown as a writer. These characters never feel like they’re spouting “Tarantino-isms” but rather are speaking from their own minds. Obviously, it helps to have actors like Foxx and Waltz. There’s never a moment when you aren’t mesmerized by Waltz’s Schultz – right down to his twirl of his whiskers. Meanwhile, Foxx does a great job of balancing the very difficult path of Django — from lost and confused slave to neophyte bounty hunter through pretend Mandingo fight expert and finally to hero. At no point, do you get lost as to where he’s coming from and what his goals are. The final act becomes his exam – putting all the lessons Schultz gave him to accomplish his dreams of vengeance and freedom.
Likewise, a tip of the hat to DiCaprio and to Jackson who manage to be both frightening and amusing at the same time. DiCaprio makes Calvin Candie into a someone who is putting on an act – a slave-owner who considers himself sophisticated and refined. He asks others to refer to him by French monikers (when he doesn’t speak French) and references Alexandre Dumas. Candie is a boy, pretending to be a man, who is putting on airs and, like a boy, only unleashes his rage when he finds out he’s been fooled. And it’s Jackson’s Stephen who acts as his eyes to reveal this fact. Jackson does an incredible job here, losing himself into Stephen, the old, cranky, untrusting head house slave who cosigns any and every statement Candie makes. It’s as far away from The Avengers’ Nick Fury as you can get. The rest of the cast – Washington, Don Johnson, Walton Googins, Michael Parks – all acquit themselves well.
Meanwhile seeing violence doled out against slavers has to rank just behind seeing violence doled out against Nazis in terms of quality family fare. The bounty hunts are fun. The trap for the Klan is nice. But it’s the the action scenes towards the end that take the cake. I have to tip my hat to the special effects teams as they don’t skimp on the squibs or the blood or the fireworks. This is a violent movie. Again, this is another area where Tarantino has grown – from the static action of Reservoir Dogs (where the violence primarily occurs off-screen) to the violence of Kill Bill and Inglorious Basterds to now Django’s shootouts where you are never lost as to the geography of the participants. This is very much in the vein of Sam Peckinpah and The Wild Bunch – blood paints the walls.
He’s further aided in having some of the most beautiful cinematography of his career. While his flair for 70s-looking cinema is obvious, the crispness and beauty of the scenes comes clear. The trailer shot of blood spray hitting blooms of cotton is going to be remembered for a long time. So is the desolate vistas of Texas desert or the serene beauty of the snowy mountains where Django hones his craft. That 70s touch continues with the traditional Tarantino music, where Ennio Morriconne, Jerry Goldsmith and Luis Bacalov are mixed in with Rick Ross, John Legend and a remix of James Brown & 2Pac. It’s all very Tarantino and it works.
Which brings us right into the whole controversy over the “overuse” of the “n-word.” I am not sure how comfortable you may be in reading it. Suffice it to say, I am not comfortable in writing it. Thus I shall use its famous euphemism in its place. If that offends you, I apologize. It’s not intentional.
Someone counted 110 uses of the “n-word” in Django Unchained. I’m going to go out on a limb and assume that those offended by this quantity didn’t have an issue with it when it came out of African-American actors, but rather when it was spat out by Caucasian actors. Furthermore, I’m going to double-down on my assumptions in that these offended parties – which do include director Spike Lee – are probably more disturbed by its overbearing presence, even when they account for it being a movie set in the late 1850s, in the South, when slavery was an accepted practice.
I’m not going to get into guessing what was getting on in Tarantino’s head. I can’t. I can, however, point out that this is hardly new from him. I’m more surprised that no one seemed to have an issue with it when the man himself was using it in Pulp Fiction. Remember “did you see a sign that said ‘dead n—-r storage’”? And that was to Samuel L. Jackson’s face! Likewise, it’s present in Jackie Brown – although there it is more limited to just Pam Grier, Chris Tucker and Jackson – and it’s the same with its very limited use in Death Proof, where only Tracie Thoms uses it. That said, it was absent in both Kill Bills and in Inglorious Basterds.
I guess the point I am trying to make is that Tarantino isn’t a racist fool. He’s using the language of the cinema that he grew up with, steeped in and absorbed. And that’s genre cinema of the 70s. Let there be no doubt: Quentin Tarantino is the greatest genre movie director of the last 25 years. He’s taking all the old, good, bad and ugly films of his youth, remixing them into something new by adding elements from other movies and his own prism and voice. Tarantino is to film as the RZA is to music. Sonny Chiba and Sergio Leone inspired Kill Bill. Coffy and Foxy Brown were at the heart of Jackie Brown. The Dirty Dozen and Where Eagles Dare are the forebears of Inglorious Basterds. But in every instance, it’s those movies plus whatever Tarantino adds that makes them different.
And Django Unchained is his take on Blaxploitation genre films like Mandingo and The Soul of N—r Charlie and Boss N—-r. Blaxploitation fare that touched upon race issues and violence by casting uber-masculine black figures in the lead and pitting them against a system that did not recognize their worth or value as human beings. If this movie was being made in the 1970s, it’d be Fred Williamson in the role of Django.
Where Tarantino adds his touch is in making each character more nuanced and complex. In a 70s blaxploitation flick, Candie would have been an overbearing slave owner who delights in brutality and would likely rape Broomhilda. DiCaprio makes him a fool; someone who is too greedy and whose cruelty is far more nefarious and simmering. Look at the scene with the escaped slave, D’Artagnan. In that scene, Candie never appears angry at D’Artagnan – he’s more upset with his slave chasers – but that belies Candie’s brutality. He waits for D’Artagnan – and by extension, the audience – to drop his guard and trust him before sic’ing the dogs upon the poor slave. The violence in this movie takes on a more serious tone as it regards to the horrors of slavery – never allowing the slave owners the kind of slow-motion, cinematically gratuitous shots that Django gets.
If you haven’t figured it out, I loved this movie. I can’t wait for more views to dig deeper into it. I find that Tarantino is a potent mixer of ideas, concepts and images, both old and new. Should that mean we allow Tarantino a free pass when he does go over the edge? Obviously not. But I have yet to think his intent is to be excessive for its own sake. Rather, it’s to make certain points. For all the culture of Candyland and of the refined slave masters, it is the two riders out of the snowy mountains in the West who are bringing civilization to them – civilization at the end of a gun.