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A dish best served with swagg and style
(Spoiler alert) Review contains spoilers.
Can a movie about slavery be entertaining? According to Django Unchained, the answer is enthusiastically, overwhelmingly yes. The latest cinematic firebomb from the febrile mind of Quentin Tarantino, Django Unchained is—for the most part—a highly exciting, irreverent and funny monument to political incorrectness and historical inaccuracy, a stylish, Western-blaxploitation revenge fantasy splattered with blood and possessing cocksure swagger to spare. Alex Haley’s Roots this isn’t.
Set in the American South just before the Civil War, it tells the story of a slave, Django (Jamie Foxx), who is freed by a German bounty hunter posing as an itinerant dentist, Dr King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), and who, in return for assistance in capturing some outlaws, will help Django rescue his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). A lot of deadly violence is perpetrated against white males along the way, in this insolent and anachronistic upending of history as we know it.
That’s only part of the equation, however. As with Pulp Fiction (still his best film) and indeed all of Tarantino’s work, Django Unchained is a movie about the movies, and it celebrates the passion that this one-time video-store clerk and unabashed movie fan has for them.
So much of Django Unchained indulges Tarantino’s geek-like knowledge of cinema history. The film is a loose reworking of an ultra-violent 1960s spaghetti western named Django (though the slavery element is new). There are endless references to other vintage westerns, as well as a 1970s blaxploitation-slavery mash-up, Mandingo. The star of the original Django, the Italian actor Franco Nero, has a sly cameo, while a host of old B-movie stars pop up throughout.
Django Unchained is deep in blood and high in body count. It begins in Texas with Django, freshly sold, an untamed afro on his head and “r” for runaway branded on his cheek, in chains and being taken to his new plantation. Up rides Schultz (Waltz in a volte-face from his turn as a slimy Nazi officer in Tarantino’s last outing, Inglourious Basterds) in his dentist’s wagon, a large fake tooth attached to a bouncy spring on top. A man of Old-World bearing and easy charm, Schultz never uses one word where five will do, and his eloquent loquaciousness stupefies most of the rednecks he and Django come across. If this movie is fairly scrupulous in the presentation of its black characters, it has no compunction in indulging in stereotypes when it comes to the white ones.
Schultz needs Django’s help in identifying the murderous Brittle brothers, and so, after quickly dispatching the men transporting Django and then freeing him, he proposes a deal. Django agrees to become Schultz’s partner in bounty hunting, and once they have accumulated sufficient funds Schultz will help Django find Broomhilda.
So begins the righteous retribution. Django, unsurprisingly, turns out to be an expert marksman, and much is made of the fact that a black man gets to kill white men for money. Of course, “black” isn’t the term most used to describe Django and the other characters of African descent. That word (you know it) is uttered liberally throughout the film. This is not new for Tarantino, and is one reason some people do not like his movies. The irony is that here the use of the word is potentially at its most subversive ever in a Tarantino film.
Django—now sharply coiffed and dressed in cowboy-chic threads—and Schultz make their way across the antebellum South in gleefully violent style. Some of the violence is not just intense, but genuinely, audaciously shocking: when have you ever seen a black man whip a white man (in slow motion), or a posse of proto-Ku Klux Klan riders blown to smithereens, or a close-up shot of a white man’s blood staining the fluffy ripe bolls of a cotton plant? These moments often follow laugh-out-loud funny ones; Tarantino’s almost offhanded knack for successfully juxtaposing humour and violence remains impressive.
The pair come at last to Mississippi, where Broomhilda has been sold to a large plantation, Candieland, owned by the sadistic and affected Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). A cigarette holder at his lips, DiCaprio plays his character with unctuous, sister-kissing relish; it’s the best thing he’s done in ages.
But that’s nothing compared with Stephen, Candieland’s head house slave and chief Uncle Tom, incarnated by a diabolically malevolent Samuel Jackson. Grey-haired, with a piercing stare, and a wizened stoop and body tremble that only enhance his chilling demeanour, Stephen is a shrewdly judged blend of insolence and obsequiousness. He utters more profanities than anyone else, and could be an ancestor of Jules, Jackson’s Jheri-curled enforcer from Pulp Fiction.
Pretending to be involved in one of Candie’s interests—the brutal so-called sport of Mandingo fighting, where slaves fight each other to the death in hand-to-hand combat—Django and Schultz insinuate themselves into Candieland. There follows a masterfully executed dinner-table sequence, full of excruciating tension, as Stephen works out the ruse while Candie makes a humiliating spectacle of Broomhilda’s whip scars and then expounds his racist theory of phrenology.
Once the game is up, however, out come the guns again and from here on in, no white life is spared—none. Django’s transformation from seething slave to punishing avenger is grimly complete. Yet, as the main character, and not merely the sidekick to a white lead, Django is curiously inert. Yes, he becomes a man of physical action, but Foxx never fully stamps his presence on the film in the way Waltz, DiCaprio and Jackson do. Django, in a way, remains chained.
And whatever you think of the film’s revisionist racial politics, the gender ones remain squarely fossilised. The women in Django Unchained are almost unnecessary. All Kerry Washington does is be victimised, or look alluring, as required; she shows no resourcefulness and plays no part in her own rescue. Broomhilda and Django don’t even have sex, though there are undeniable homoerotic undertones to the film.
Django Unchained is not a deep and considered rumination on slavery and its horrors. It is entertainment—and with its fine performances, eye-popping visual style, quotable dialogue, rich production design and potently eclectic soundtrack featuring 2Pac, Johnny Cash and Beethoven’s Für Elise, it is entertainment of a high order. But it has stirred up more discussion (in the US) about slavery and acceptable portrayals of it than anything in recent times. (Spike Lee, America’s most visible black filmmaker, absented himself from the conversation when he declared rather ostentatiously that he wouldn’t see the film.)
Here the reactions so far have been, as in the States, quite mixed. As too are the audiences. I have seen the film twice now, and at both screenings the crowds were decidedly multi-ethnic, and given to much laughter and cheering, and, at the end, applause.
Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino
Starring Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Samuel Jackson
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