Reel To Reel: Django Unchained
Going Rate: Full price for Quentin Tarantino fans, rental for all others
Starring: Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Samuel L. Jackson, Leonardo DiCaprio
Rated: R (borderline NC-17)
Red Flags: Graphic and intense violence and inhumanity, including highly bloody shootings and torture of slaves. This film is not for young people and not for many adults, either.
Director Quentin Tarantino loves two film sub-genres above all: spaghetti westerns and blaxploitation. Django Unchained is a blaxploitation film masquerading as a spaghetti western, and a particularly black blaxploitation film with its themes of black comedy, black liberation and black revenge. If it had come out 40 years earlier, people in theaters with enormous Afros would be yelling, "Right on, Jango! You stick it to The Man!"
Django (Foxx) is a slave being herded through a forest in the antebellum South, when out of nowhere comes Dr. King Schultz (Waltz), a dentist driving a funny wagon with bobbing tooth on top. When Dr. Schultz stops the group to inquire of Django, we quickly see how good a shot the doctor is for somebody who supposedly pulls teeth. He frees Django for a specific purpose: Schultz is really a bounty hunter, and he's looking for three men in Texas with a big price on their head. He doesn't know their faces, but Django does, since all three of them beat and oppressed him and his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), who was sold to another master.
We don't know why the good dentist became a bounty hunter, or why somebody so polite and caring is able to kill people so easily other than saying it's what he does. But we do know he hates slavery, and he offers to help Django find Broomhilda after dispensing with their other duties. It turns out Django is a natural for the bounty-hunting trade. He's a good shot and a good actor, willing to do what it takes to get access. I will never forget a scene of Foxx wearing foppish 18th Century-style knee breeches and white stockings in order to disguise himself as a "valet" while accompanying Dr. Schultz to one plantation.
Eventually they learn Broomhilda is in the possession of Calvin Candie (DiCaprio), owner of the conveniently-named Candieland plantation, a place we're told every slave hears about at one time or another. Candie doesn't just buy slaves for his fields, he buys slaves who fight other slaves to the death for his entertainment in the parlor while he smokes and cheers them on. Schultz and Django realize they won't be able to buy Broomhilda's freedom outright, so they pay a visit to Candie on the ruse of scouting for quality slave fighters.
Django Unchained draws its villains as nearly stereotypical goons, with plantation owners looking like lost members of Colonel Sanders' family. But the film saves its wickedest, most disgusting character for Samuel L. Jackson, who plays Stephen, Candie's top slave who talks with the mouth of Ordell in Tarantino's Jackie Brown. He is the kind of person you hear labeled "Oreo" and "Uncle Tom," the slur reserved for a sell-out black who oppresses his own people while enjoying favor and privilege from the white race. He exposes Schultz' and Django's plan to get Broomhilda, and that eventually leads to a cascade of bloody violence Tarantino loves to present.
Part of the exercise of watching a Tarantino film is discovering what films influenced it. In addition to spaghetti westerns, several scenes reminded me of Blazing Saddles, including a hilarious prelude to a raid where members of the raiding party complain about the bags over their heads not fitting properly. And while you can argue about whether Django glorifies violence, it certainly glorifies film violence, with blood splashing out of charters' bullet wounds as in Sam Peckinpah's films and people who don't just die, they die screaming and crying.
Many of you have heard about this film's use of the n-word, which is uttered more than 100 times. Tarantino and others have pushed back against the controversy, saying the word was common in slavery America, and I reluctantly agree. If Lincoln, released a couple of weeks earlier, aims to heal this nation's Civil War and slavery wounds, Django Unchained delights in putting more buckshot in our national behind. It can't resist rubbing our noses in the muck of white racism and white sadism, telling us how horrible we once were to the people we dragged out of Africa.
I will admit to you I'm a fan of Quentin Tarantino. I love the film-geek sensibilities he brings to his productions. I liked Inglorious Basterds even with its violence because it delivered so much inhumanity to those who were so inhumane. But I found Django Unchained harder to watch because now he's treading on our own troubled history as Americans are still working to atone for the sins of their ancestors. And personally, it's hard watching the beauty of the antebellum South juxtaposed with its brutality. The era of the hoopskirt is also the era of the whip.
Blazing Saddles made points about bigotry and cretinism 40 years ago in a comically refreshing way, even with the use of the n-word. It shocked you, but it also made fun of racism's stupidity. That's why it holds up so well nearly 40 years later. We'll come back four decades from now and see if Tarantino's film is something film scholars study or dismiss.