Django Unchained (Quentin Tarantino, 2012)
I hope this film ends up on a lot of film critics’ Top 10 lists, as it is not only exceptionally good fun and very well made, but also important as a magnificent reversal of the hundreds of films we have seen where the person-of-color sidekick must die to allow the white hero to triumph, as A.O. Scott pointed out in his review today. Here, not only does the opposite happen, but Jamie Foxx’s Django (“The ‘D’ . . . is silent”) does more than just survive. He kills lots of white folk, for money and for pleasure. And it feels right.
The last time I saw a movie where so many whites were massacred by blacks was 1993’s Sankofa, which was a little bit too preachy to be an enjoyable film experience. Quentin Tarantino, however, does the opposite of preach. He invites us to a party, where we can get down and join the fun.
But like all good parties, this one gets a little messy. Tarantino is the master of pastiche, as witnessed by his Kill Bill: Vol. 1 and Kill Bill: Vol. 2 films, but in this latest film he runs the risk of throwing a little too many overly stylized images and sounds into the mix. Still, unlike in those films or in Inglourious Basterds, he is working, in Django, from a tightly structured script, and so the stylistic digressions function more as appealing atmospheric window dressing than unnecessary digressions.
The plot of Django: Unchained is simple enough. The year is 1858 – two years before the start of the American Civil War, as the opening title card tells us, and Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) – a wily bounty hunter – frees Django (Jamie Foxx) – a slave recently separated from his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), after a failed runaway attempt – in order to secure his help in tracking down some wanted men whom he knows Django to be able to recognize. And so a partnership and friendship is born, as Schultz’s dislike of slavery draws him into Django’s story, eventually leading him to help Django find his wife. It turns out she has been purchased by Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), and so off the bounty hunters go to “Candieland” to rescue her. Along the way, many people are shot, and much blood is splattered. This is the kind of film that the NRA claims is more dangerous than actual guns.
And yet, if you take this film as a cross between a “Spaghetti Western” and a “Blaxpoitation” film, then the (mostly) cartoonish violence is not horrifying at all, but part of the revisionist approach of the story. It is only by combining an iconic white-guy-hero-genre with one of the few credible black-guys-with-guns genres that Tarantino can make his larger point about the evils of slavery and racism. He announces his intentions in the opening credits, with music and red text titles that hark back to the 1960’s Italian-produced Westerns, even including the music by Luis Bacalov from the original Django movie (which starred Franco Nero, who plays a small role in this new film as the Italian in the bar who asks Django his name). This opening also references an early parody of this genre, Blazing Saddles, which itself was also tapping into the Blaxpoitation currents of the time in which it was made. Interestingly, the two most violent scenes in the entire film do not involve guns: the one is a brutal fight between two slaves staged by DiCaprio, and the other involves a man being torn apart by dogs.
For some, this craziness might not work, but for me, it did. The fact that the cinematography, by Robert Richardson, is beautiful and of gorgeous locations, does not hurt, either. Nor do the outstanding performances by all of the actors involved. From Jamie Foxx to Christoph Waltz to Leonardo DiCaprio to Kerry Washington to Samuel L. Jackson – even to Don Johnson as a plantation owner named Big Daddy – the cast raises the film to great heights, even when Tarantino gives in to too many juvenile urges, as he does upon occasion (it’s like he just can’t help himself – and who’s going to tell him no?). Jamie Foxx, especially, gives an amazingly nuanced performance that is both cocky and wary – he knows that at any moment the white folk could kill him, and it shows. The worst performance in the film was from Tarantino, himself, as a slaver with an Australian accent (why?!?).
There were some odd editing choices in the film, both temporally and geographically, but I grew to like them. They actually lend the film the aura of a parable, since we frequently jump forward to a scene, then cut back to an explanation of how we got there. Or we cut to an image that explains something a character is discussing, yet we are not sure where or when it is. The story still flowed in a linear fashion – not always the case with Tarantino – but these touches force the viewer to think about what is being seen.
The only part of the film that really annoyed me at any point was Tarantino’s musical choices. The Ennio Morricone pieces made sense, since he was the musical godfather of the Spaghetti Western genre, but some of the other tunes were just too much. And when Tarantino finally brought in some contemporary hip hop, it was just too much pastiche for me.
And so I conclude by saying that, in spite its flaws, and much to my surprise, I thoroughly enjoyed this film and think it is not only one of the best films of the year, but also one of the most important. Killing white guys for money? What’s not to like?