Today’s cinema adventure: Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino’s 2012 epic revenge-fantasy western, a movie that generated (and continues to generate) much controversy over its handling of the still-raw issue of slavery in the American past. The tale of a freed slave who joins forces with a white bounty hunter to rescue his still-captive wife from a Mississippi plantation, it’s a characteristically violent entry to the Tarantino canon, paying homage to the exploitation films of old and using a mashed-up blend of genres to address complex social issues in a way that flies in the face of contemporary ideas about political correctness. Unsurprisingly, it has drawn both passionate praise and passionate objection, primarily focused on its depiction of racism and its over-the-top violence.
Tarantino’s screenplay, like most of his others, brings together explicit influences from numerous pieces of cinematic history, most notably the spaghetti westerns and “blaxploitation ” films of the ’60s and ’70s- with a liberal sprinkling of the prime-time television shows from the same era. Most specifically, he takes inspiration (and the theme song) from a particular 1966 spaghetti western called Django, directed by Sergio Corbucci, a bloody tale of revenge which was considered at the time to be the most violent western ever made. Though its plot has no resemblance to Tarantino’s story, nor does it involve issues of racism or slavery, the spirit of this original film is nevertheless a tangible part of Django Unchained– a title which also references Hercules Unchained, another Italian epic about a mythic hero who breaks the bonds of slavery to rescue the woman he loves. Alongside these pulpy pop-culture sources, though, Tarantino draws from the Nordic legend of Brünhilde and Siegfried, adding a deeper mythic connection to the story and rooting its true thematic purpose to an archetypal level that transcends the racial subject matter on its surface. Set in 1858, the film opens as a pair of slave traders march their chained captives- barefoot- through the Texas desert at night. They are intercepted by a horse-drawn wagon driven by a courtly German, a traveling dentist named Dr. King Schultz, who has traced a particular slave to them. After questioning the man he seeks, whose name is Django, Schultz offers to buy him, but the traders, uncomfortable with the German’s attitude and wary of the manner of his approach, refuse to sell; they order Schultz to leave and threaten to shoot him if he does not comply, at which point their visitor draws his gun and fires, killing one trader and trapping the other under the body of his fallen horse. He gives the wounded survivor money for Django, takes the keys to unchain his purchase, and leaves the rest of the chain gang to free itself and deal with their former captor as they see fit. Schultz, as he informs Django, is a bounty hunter, who tracks wanted criminals and kills them for the reward money; he is very good at his job, and he has sought out his new companion because the men he is now tracking were former foremen at a plantation upon which Django was once a slave, and he needs someone who can positively identify them. He tells Django- whom he treats as an equal- that in exchange for helping find the wanted men, he will receive his freedom and a share of the reward. As the two men travel in search of the fugitives, Django reveals that he and his wife had both been slaves on his former plantation, but after they had tried to run away together, their owner had them sold to separate buyers as punishment; he plans to use his share of the bounty to pay for her freedom, but Schultz fears that a black man, legally free or not, will be at high risk if he returns to the heart of the slave empire alone. The German makes a proposition- if Django (who clearly has a knack for the work) will partner with him as a bounty hunter for the winter, the two will find and liberate his wife together. Django agrees, and the pair begins a series of adventures that will culminate in a deadly confrontation with one of the most notoriously cruel slave owners in the country.
Tarantino makes movies that are a critic’s dream, in the sense that they are- for better or for worse- an unapologetic expression of love for the medium of cinema in all its forms. He borrows elements from all genres, disregarding accepted notions of worthiness or quality, and puts them together in an eclectic mishmash of style that is distinctly his own. He is as much an auteur as Kubrick, as great a showman as DeMille, and as much a master of exploitation as Russ Meyer, and, without discrimination between these differing aspects of the medium, he blends them into one audacious approach that invites comparison to another great maverick filmmaker, Orson Welles. It may be premature to place him in such company, but his impact on the art form has been substantial and significant, legitimizing styles and forms from outside the mainstream that were previously dismissed as irrelevant or inferior, confronting difficult or taboo subject matter in a way which challenges and provokes his audiences, and breaking the established rules and conventions of cinematic storytelling even as he uses them like a master. In short, his movies elicit strong reactions and give us a lot to think, talk, and argue about. Django Unchained, with its pulp-fiction storyline constructed squarely around the inherently divisive subject of racism, is unquestionably his most provocative effort to date- and that’s saying a lot.
So much has already been written and said about Tarantino and his work; I’ve discussed him in my earlier review of Death Proof (a vastly inferior movie to Django Unchained) and I don’t feel it necessary to repeat myself here. A description and analysis of his signature style is available in a vast number of other places. In discussing Django Unchained, it is far more relevant to address the elephant in the room; by making a movie about slavery in which a black hero avenges himself on the white people who have perpetrated unspeakable cruelty upon him and his kind, the filmmaker throws aside any semblance of a protective veil and confronts his audience squarely with the difficult issue of race- or, perhaps more accurately, of attitudes towards race, both within the setting of the film and in contemporary society. Here is a white filmmaker, using a traditionally white milieu (the Western, with all its mythic reverberations in the ethical and psychological landscape of American culture) to tell a story about white guilt and black revenge; this in itself invites debate about everything from Tarantino’s suitability to address the topic to his motivations and methods of doing so, as well as invoking questions of social responsibility in the approach he has chosen to take. The film has been accused of racism against both blacks and whites, criticized for its perceived advocation of violence, and even described as an incitement to race war; it has been lambasted for both exaggerating and trivializing the horrors of slavery and for making this abhorrent institution the basis for a piece of slick pop culture escapism. It has also been acclaimed for daring to address the subject of America’s heritage of slavery without equivocation, apology, politics, or preaching. In other words, like all great art, it serves as a mirror; the interpretations and reactions of its audience are reflections of their own viewpoints. Like an ink blot, it shows us the content of our own psyche.
This is not to say that Tarantino has put nothing of himself into the film; obviously, it is an extremely personal statement for him, one which expresses his own character and personality and clearly- in my interpretation- reflects his utter disdain for the entire concept of racism. Django Unchained assumes at its core the inherent wrongness of racist thinking. Without exception, those who embrace the idea of slavery are depicted as monsters, and though racism is the central condition of the movie’s world, it is ultimately a symptom of the overall inhumanity that pervades the social order. Though it is a film which deals with race, the conflict here is not between black and white, but between ignorance and enlightenment. Furthermore, it reflects a populist sensibility in its suggested equation of the proponents of slavery to the economic elite, who maintain their wealth and power by means of a legally-sanctioned hierarchy of enforced dominance; this is underlined by the fact that one of the film’s most loathsome villains is in fact a black man, completely indoctrinated into a system that dehumanizes himself and the rest of his race by the personal status he holds within it. Conversely, the white Schultz, despite his mercenary profession, is clearly a fierce opponent of racial inequality and injustice (he refers to slavery as “malarkey” at one point), risking his own life and livelihood to strike a blow for freedom whenever the opportunity arises; and despite the title character’s assertion that his new vocation is appealing because he gets to “kill white people” and be paid for it, his true purpose is to seek justice for himself and the woman he loves. Django and Schultz are champions of the oppressed and downtrodden, and neither their compassion nor their wrath are conditional upon race. The story here is classic western fare, really; a wronged man seeking frontier justice against those who have done him harm, except instead of the archetypal white cowboy he is a freed black slave. Though some may find this new twist to the old formula to be somehow disrespectful or inappropriate, the real shame, in my view, is that it took until 2012 for a mainstream Hollywood film to attempt it. It’s a natural fit, and the inescapable sociological questions that it conjures, however difficult or painful they may be to those who would avoid them, are long overdue for confrontation.
Django Unchained is not, however, the first mainstream Hollywood film to address the issue of racism in a controversially irreverent manner; it’s not even the first western to do so. In 1974, Mel Brooks similarly outraged and shocked the movie-going public with Blazing Saddles, a raucous and raunchy lowbrow farce that attacked the issue head-on, openly mocking racial stereotypes and exposing the inherent racism of Hollywood’s traditional myth of the Great American West. Brooks’ film created controversy with its deliberately excessive use of “the ‘N’ word” (which I will not use in this forum, to avoid opening myself up to the same kind of controversy), intended to detoxify it through over-exposure and to turn it against itself by using it as an instrument of comedy. It’s ironic that Tarantino’s film, 38 years later, has fallen under criticism for breaking the exact same taboo, using the epithet so much that it becomes a mere banality. Ironic, but not surprising, considering that Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, written well over a century ago, still falls regularly under criticism for the same reason despite its anti-racist message. Django Unchained is not Huckleberry Finn, nor is it Blazing Saddles, for that matter, though these works form an artistic heritage from which it is definitely descended. Like them, it addresses a serious social issue- perhaps, ultimately, the most serious one affecting American culture- with a considerable amount of humor. To be sure, it’s a grim sort of humor, to say the least; but it is irresistible, and the way he connects it with horrific imagery is one of the most significant devices he uses to give Django Unchained its unique power. Nevertheless (though some have suggested it), Tarantino’s film is not a comedy- not even a dark one. Like all of his work, it defies exact classification; though it follows the formula of a melodrama, it’s infused with elements of so many other genres, and marked by such a ferocious and unrelenting pattern of escalating tension and ultra-violent release, that the most accurate description is probably just to call it a Tarantino film and leave it at that.
Like the other movies that fit into that exclusive category, Django Unchained is not for every taste; those sensitive viewers who are easily disturbed by profanity and excessive violence- including violence towards animals- will likely be out of their depth here, and those for whom the issue of race relations is an uncomfortable topic are almost certain to find themselves offended. For the rest of us, however, it’s a film that offers a wealth of cinematic riches. Gorgeous cinematography by Robert Richardson evokes the visual qualities of Tarantino’s beloved filmic influences while asserting its own distinct flavor; imaginative, detailed costume design by Sharen Davis adds its own subtle commentary and playfully- but meticulously- incorporates iconic inspirations that help to establish the purposefully derivative pop-culture tone; the eclectic, carefully chosen mix of musical selections, which includes everything from segments of scoring lifted out of other films to ’70s pop standards to modern rap, continues Tarantino’s tradition of deliberate anachronism on his soundtracks, a technique which helps contemporary audiences to connect to the material and provides its own kind of commentary through the associations it creates; and, of course, there are the performances.
Tarantino’s writing, like Woody Allen’s, requires his actors to convincingly speak in his own voice, another hallmark of his canon; his dialogue, laced with intricate wordplay and possessed of his own distinctive syntax and structure, at once creates vivid individual characterizations and unifies his work with a singular verbal style, and challenges his actors to strike a perfect balance of stylization and reality. The cast of Django Unchained meets this challenge triumphantly, with solid and unforgettable performances from all. Jamie Foxx makes a perfect western hero, a seamless blend of Clint Eastwood and Isaac Hayes that bridges the gap between genres and helps the film to successfully accomplish the same feat; Leonardo DiCaprio is well-cast against type as the dissipated and off-handedly sadistic slave master into whose empire the heroes must venture to achieve their quest; and Kerry Washington, playing the object of that quest with quiet dignity, shines in her relatively silent presence amidst all the bombastic rhetoric spewed around her. There are a number of familiar faces in smaller roles, ranging from TV icon Don Johnson (complete with white jacket) in a featured turn to screen veteran Bruce Dern in an unbilled cameo; even Franco Nero, the original “Django” from the aforementioned 1966 classic, turns up to participate in the most blatant of the film’s many in-jokes. All these players contribute to Tarantino’s vision, both with their talented work and by virtue of the associations they bring with them.
The standouts, though, are the mesmerizing performances of Tarantino stalwarts Christoph Waltz and Samuel L. Jackson. As Schultz, the former glitters with wit and intelligence without once letting us lose sight of his serious subtext; he gives us a man of scrupulous honor, grim determination, and unparalleled capability, as charming as he is deadly and as noble as he is practical. He makes his character a ray of dazzling light in a very dark world, and brings the ethics of contemporary reason into the film’s primitive setting like an inexorable wave of progress bent on sweeping away the stubborn ignorance of the past. In direct opposition to this paladin-like force of justice is Jackson, as the “old retainer” of DiCaprio’s household; a re-invention of the well-worn “Uncle Tom” figure, he fumes with what one of my friends called “misdirected rage,” diverting his considerable intelligence and power towards the protection of his master’s world- in which he enjoys his own high status- at the expense of his own people. Wily, cantankerous, and proud, he is the true villain of the piece, having gone beyond mere acquiescence to an oppressive and inhumane system to become a ferocious guardian of it; in his complete lack of compassion, and in his unrepentant commitment to upholding the brutal status quo, he becomes arguably more reprehensible than the master he adores, and Jackson- though he finds the human truth of this twisted soul and plays it with utter conviction- makes no attempt to sugarcoat or shy away from the ugliness of this character. It’s a delicious performance, perhaps the finest of the actor’s career, and its lack of sentiment drives home the movie’s indictment of compromise in the face of racial inequality by peeling off the benign mask of a stereotype and revealing the tragic betrayal of humanity that it represents.
The true star of Django Unchained, however, is Quentin Tarantino himself, and I’m not referring to his signature cameo appearance late in the film; no matter how big the names in his cast, it is his own name above the title which provides the biggest draw, making him part of an elite club of filmmakers whose reputation and celebrity in itself is enough to ensure substantial box office sales. He has earned this status by his ability to make films that provide visceral, audience-pleasing thrills while still stimulating the intellect and stretching the boundaries of the art form. Django Unchained is no exception; he keeps us riveted with a story which compels us at an almost primal level, confronts us with situations which force us to think about difficult issues, and dazzles us with his technical and aesthetic mastery of the medium. He provokes us by finding visual poetry in horrific violence, creates profoundly resonant imagery with the elegant simplicity of his composition, and combines lowbrow content with highbrow concept to manipulate our emotions and bring us to a catharsis that satisfies on every level at once. Perhaps most important (and ultimately, perhaps, most controversial); he invites us to laugh at things which would normally disturb us, helping us to distance ourselves from the issues at hand and simultaneously letting us share in his own perspective on the absurdity of human behavior; like his penchant for building tension through dialogue and his heightened, over-the-top stylistic choices, his use of macabre and ironic humor as a tool for audience alienation betrays an unmistakably theatrical sensibility, yet thanks to his gift for the medium of film, what he creates with these elements is pure cinema.
I could, of course, go on and on about Django Unchained, dissecting its details, tracing its themes, identifying its influences, and analyzing its effect; as I said, we love to write about Tarantino films. In the end, it’s up to individual viewers to determine the merits of his latest piece of “dangerous art” for themselves. As I mentioned above, it’s a movie that gives us back what we bring into it; Tarantino himself has discussed, in interviews, his love for “subtextual criticism,” the discussion and analysis of facets of a film that were not, in fact, intended by its creator, but which are present, nonetheless, by virtue of their having been perceived by the viewer. It’s no surprise, therefore, that he builds his work in a way that encourages these kind of individualized reactions, and it’s highly likely he would acknowledge the validity of any point of view towards Django Unchained, no matter how far it veers from his own intentions in making it. For myself, I’ve expressed my take on the issues at hand, and I’ve probably made my admiration for the movie itself pretty clear. If I were to make comparative value judgments, I would probably place it pretty high on my list of Tarantino’s films, slightly above the youthful bravado of Pulp Fiction, about equal with the devilish boldness of Inglorious Basterds, and slightly below my personal favorite, the sublimely elegant two-part (so far) Kill Bill saga; but such distinctions are unimportant, really, when one considers his entire body of work as a series of variations on his recurring themes. One arrangement of the melody may please you more than another, but it’s a pretty good tune all the way through, regardless. For those who would avoid Django Unchained out of objections to any of its content or its handling thereof, there is probably nothing I can say to change your mind; but in addressing at least one of these concerns- the idea that Tarantino’s ultra-violent fantasy of revenge is itself a call to violence- I think it is important to remember that film, like all art, presents a metaphor for reality. Though Django exacts a high payment in blood from his oppressors, and the filmmaker takes great pleasure in making us enjoy his lethal victories and cheer him on as the body count gets higher and higher, he- and the scourge of his vengeance- are not meant to be emulated in a literal sense, but rather to be seen as a symbolic cleansing of antiquated, ethnocentric fallacies, once and for all, from our culture. We must be as ruthless and unforgiving in our quest to eradicate racism in our thinking as Django and Schultz are to eliminate the racists who stand against them. That’s what the ink blot shows me, anyway. You may see something different; but whatever it is, it’s a pretty sure bet that you will never forget it. Django Unchained is that kind of movie; it stamps itself on your mind immediately, and refuses to fade away. For that reason alone, there’s no arguing that, whether you love it or hate it, it’s destined to be a classic.