(WARNING: MILD SPOILERS)
Okay, right off the bat, I want to say that this is not going to be an article about the ideologies and racial politics behind Quentin Tarantino’s latest movie. Not that I don’t have anything to say about the subject, or that there’s nothing worth saying, or even that I won’t change my mind while writing this and talk about it anyway halfway through. I recognise that it has generated a buttload of controversy in the States, and some of my American friends have talked of moments when they were genuinely uncomfortable being in the theatre and witnessing the reactions of other patrons, both black and white, to certain moments in the movie. But I’ve watched it in a British cinema, free of any personal or cultural sting, and I want to approach it chiefly on its cinematic merits.
I’ve found myself more of an admirer of Tarantino than a zealous fan. For me, PULP FICTION and KILL BILL VOL.1 remain his acme, while his other movies have for me ranged from the watchable to the somniferous (three times I’ve sat before DEATH PROOF, and three times I’ve fallen asleep. Literally). Now, all I knew about DJANGO UNCHAINED in the weeks prior to its release was that it was going to be Tarantino’s Spaghetti Western, the name alluding to both the 1966 Italian classic western DJANGO as the 1959 sword and sandal epic HERCULES UNCHAINED.
That he chose to marry this genre with a blaxploitation tale about slavery in the Deep South was a strange surprise to me. It made no sense; the expected times and places for each genre were years and hundreds of miles apart. But then of course, this was the director who in his last film ended World War 2 early by slaughtering the Third Reich at a premier in a French cinema (incidentally, QT says that in his alternate movie universe, this divergent event is the reason all his other characters tote guns and talk pop culture a lot!)
Anyway, DJANGO UNCHAINED takes place in 1858, which a caption says is two years before the American Civil War (actually three years, but like I said, leave any desire for historical accuracy at the popcorn counter). A band of slaves shackled at the ankles are marched through a cold Texas night by two white slave traders. Suddenly a strange horse-drawn carriage with a tooth bouncing on top appears, a carriage driven by a jovial, soft-spoken and obviously-educated German immigrant, Doctor King Shultz (Christopher Waltz, who is ready, willing and able to steal this movie like he did with INGLORIOUS BASTERDS).
Schultz stops the traders and questions the slaves, looking for one who might have information he needs. The traders, not liking this strange man with his literacy and his tendency to treat the slaves like human beings, tries to get rid of him, earning a bloody response from him, killing one trader and crippling the other. Schultz purchases one slave, Django (Jamie Foxx), and frees the other slaves to deal with the surviving trader. This is a sequence that is at turns cold, bloody (animal lovers should be forewarned), and funny, as only Tarantino can manage it.
The urbane Schultz is a bounty hunter who offers Django a new life, and a chance to earn not only his freedom but the opportunity to locate and liberate Django’s wife, Broomhilda ‘Hildy’ Von Shaft (Kerry Washington, and according to QT the character is meant to be the distant ancestor of another black character named Shaft. So Now You Know). Django proves to be a natural gunslinger, helping Schultz collect bounties on a number of fugitives through the winter, becoming friends as well as partners, Schultz wanting to help them because the couple’s plight reminds him of the german legend of Broomhilda and Siegfried..
Eventually the duo tracks down Hildy at Candyland, the southern plantation of the execrable Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), who keeps black women as whores for his white customers, as well as stages lethal ‘Mandingo’ fights between black men. Django and Schultz pose as businessmen interested in purchasing a fighter, but Candie’s elderly major domo Stephen (Samuel L Jackson, looking like Uncle Ben but sounding like he’s got some long-grain whoop-ass to offer instead) is suspicious of the two men and their cover story, and sets events moving towards the inevitable bloody climax…
This is a quintessential Quentin Tarantino movie: lush cinematography, quotable and profane dialogue, eclectic and anachronistic soundtrack, and sterling performances from a solid cast, many of them familiar faces in QT’s body of work. Of the principals, the frontrunner for me remains Christopher Waltz, investing his Schultz with humanity, humour, a decency and even fragility as he is exposed more and more to the horrors of the slavery system, yet maintaining his lethal panache. Also outstanding (a good thing too, considering he’s the lead!), Jamie Foxx brings to the eponymous role an intensity that’s tempered with a dry humour but never sways far from his goal of reuniting and freeing his wife (he sees her in visions throughout the first half of the movie, and is barely able to restrain himself when they’re finally together but still not out of danger).
On the bad guys’ side, Samuel L Jackson’s opportunistic old man, one who has risen to a prominent place on the suffering of his fellow slaves, is easily and understandably hateful and hated, though he’s rivalled in this by Leo DiCaprio as the effete, slimy but still vicious man who needs his blood shed.
Speaking of blood, there’s a lot of it in DJANGO UNCHAINED. Violence throughout really. For the most part, men aren’t just shot, they have chunks blown out of them, and the geyser-like spatters are painted in that rich, bright red that violent movies of the 60s and 70s like THE WILD BUNCH and BONNIE AND CLYDE favoured. There is a truly amazingly bloody shootout towards the end, one that will make you both gasp and laugh at how over the top it gets.
And if shootings aren’t enough for you, there are men ripped apart by dogs, bones broken, whippings, brandings, threatened castrations, and eye gouging (though QT is adept enough not to go too graphic, expecting people in the audience to imagine more from behind their hands than he actually needs to show).
As stated above, the movie is quintessentially Quentin Tarantino, and people who love or hate his movies are going to love and hate this one for the same reasons as they did his previous works. Nitpickers will find fault with things such as the appearance of dynamite years before it was actually invented, and the fact that the heroes seem to travel hundreds of miles by horse in no time at all. The female characters here are passive, existing as eye candy or princesses to be rescued, or actively whoring themselves to the white men; the likes of The Bride, Elle Driver and O-Ren-Ishi from KILL BILL are nowhere to be found here.
And of course Quentin has to make a self-indulgent cameo as an Australian (why someone from Australia? Quentin? Was that the only accent you could do?). The dialogue is peppered with profanity, including (especially) the N-word, though arguments that this was common for the time and place are offset by the fact that it definitely was not commonplace, especially not in civilised company (sorry, DEADWOOD), and listening to Jackson’s Nineteenth Century Mississippi servant speaking like he was a Twenty-First Century L.A. gangster is jarring at times. Same thing with the violence, though Quentin and his supporters will tell you that far worse was done to slaves at this time.
DJANGO UNCHAINED is probably one of Tarantino’s best movies, and while probably not the best homage to the Spaghetti Western – I still think Sam Raimi’s THE QUICK AND THE DEAD retains that title – it is still a very entertaining slice of exploitation. He’s talented.
He’s also an idiot.
This leads me, despite what I said earlier, into the controversies that have arisen around the film’s themes. Many have criticised Tarantino for making an exploitation film involving what is inarguably America’s most shameful time, that DJANGO UNCHAINED is little better than all those notorious and tasteless Nazi Camp torture-porn movies from the 70s that I know none of you will have watched because of all the sex and violence in them.
The fact is that anyone going into this expecting anything with the gravitas of ROOTS or AMISTAD will be disappointed. That’s not to say that he is making light of what happened (though there are humorous scenes in this, they tend to be at the expense of the bigots, in particular one scene involving a gang of proto-Klansmen). Quite the contrary: not once did I feel that QT was minimising the horrible loss of life and limb, of liberty and dignity under which millions suffered because of their race.
But at the same time, reading the passages in his script for DJANGO, he really hasn’t changed all that much from the kid who dropped out of school at 15 to end up working in a video store, getting most of his life knowledge from the movies he watched and admired rather than from formal education. With DJANGO he set out to make an action movie first and foremost, and in it he follows many of the expected tropes and patterns of the genre that he wouldn’t have if he was aiming for something more serious.
So instead we have the bromance between the two bantering partners, we have the damsel in distress, the hero being tortured, the escape and return for revenge, etc. In a way he’s like the kid who’ll stage a battle in his back yard with his GI Joes, Barbies, dinosaurs and Transformers, not caring about context or even logic so much as what looks and sounds ‘cool’ or ‘awesome’ to him. This could almost just as easily have been a movie about the ancient Judeans under Roman rule, or future humans under alien occupation. For Tarantino, it’s about entertainment first, and has said as such in interviews. Taking Race out of the equation, you can see where he’s coming from.
But you can’t really take Race out of it, can you?
Which is where the Idiot part of him surfaces. Because he’s dressed up his violent, entertaining movie in clothes and words that he would have known would provoke reactions like what he has experienced, had his experience of black culture extended beyond SUPERFLY. And because now in the face of criticism from the likes of Spike Lee and others, QT is going around arrogantly and incorrectly claiming to have given audiences their own black hero (they’d like to make their own, thanks) and that his movie is the only one around to address slavery (tell Spielberg and his own movie LINCOLN). Hell, even ABRAHAM LINCOLN VAMPIRE HUNTER touched on slavery, making an interesting connection between the practice and the book/movie’s vampire antagonists.
Going in expecting nothing more than violent entertainment, DJANGO UNCHAINED will not disappoint. Far from it. But someday I’d like to see him tackle a heavy subject without resorting to gunfire, squibs and one-liners.
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Plot: 5 out of 5 stars
Gore: 8 out of 10 skulls
Zombie Mayhem: 0 out of 5 brains
Reviewed by Derek “Deggsy” O’Brien