In as few words as possible Django Unchained is full of gun-slinging cowboys, swear words, and a lot of dead people. Like, a lot.
The film’s plot is pretty simple; the trailer sums it all up nicely: Django, a slave, is freed by a bounty hunter who promises him his freedom in exchange for help tracking down some wanted men, after which Django will be allowed to find and rescue his wife who has been sold to a greasy Southern plantation owner, Calvin Candie.
Seriously, I do not think Django Unchained is more complex than that despite the maelstrom of controversy that has surrounded the film since its release. It is, after all, a Quentin Tarantino film. He is not known for mentally or emotionally challenging his viewers with Shawshank Redemption-like films which question morality, justice, or exemplify the courage and triumph of the human spirit. He is definitely not known for directing coming-of-age stories like Dead Poets’ Society. And, no, his entire filmography does not contain any film I would present to a visiting alien as a prime example of the creative insight possessed by the human race. For that I would go to other directors. Tarantino makes the have-gun-will-shoot-after-a-long-speech variety found in Pulp Fiction; winding scenes of loquacious dialogue which culminate in five-point-palm-exploding-heart techniques in the Kill Bill series, baseball bats to the head in Inglorious Basterds, or car crashes that decapitate a group of girls in Death Proof.
He makes the films that become pop culture. He makes films for t-shirts. It is what we know him for. It is what we love him for.
Django Unchained is no exception.
It is a mixture of saddle-up, shoot-em-up cowboy Western action sequences you will see in classic Wild West tales like Tombstone. There is an overarching revenge plot fuelled by a damsel-in-distress love story. All of it takes place in the antebellum US South. A counterfactual rendition of slavery provides the platform for Tarantino to visually shock the audience with the gruesome violence which has become his calling card. Female slaves are horsewhipped; black men are hunted, chased down and mauled by dogs. The few that are not are forced to fight to the death like prize cocks while their white masters drink brandy and smoke cigars, and, throughout, the word nigger is used like a punctuation mark.
It is vintage Tarantino: he starts shooting his film eight hundred cuss words away from the normal limits of social and cultural propriety.
And he does it well; Django is an entertaining film. It is riddled with pockets of humour and tweet worthy dialogue; it has some amazing camera work—Tarantino does not skimp on the wide framing and slow close-ups he uses to build tension and repulse the audience when the guts start flying around—and the costume and production design lets your eyes float effortlessly from scene to scene. It is visually rich, at times gluttonously so. But it works well in Django.
The sound editing is crisp and the soundtrack is impressive too. From the long title sequence set to Luis Bacalov’s “Django” tune, to Rick Ross’ thumping “100 Coffins”, and Anthony Hamilton and Elayna Bonyton’s haunting “Freedom”, Django Unchained is an eclectic sampling of country tunes, Spanish ditties, heavy hip-hop beats, and funk melodies that does not bore.
At two hours and forty-five minutes Django is a long time to be sitting in a cinema, especially if you are unfamiliar with Tarantino’s slow build-ups and, at times, self-congratulatory scriptwriting. But if you are a Tarantino connoisseur Django is—forgive me—off the chain.
Jamie Foxx portrays the film’s namesake, Django Freeman. Foxx’s performance as the grizzly, slick-talking, sharpshooting former slave is tense, angry, and menacing. Django’s character is cool in ways that have cinemas clapping at each turn of wit or every bullet he sends lacing across the screen. I have never been a Foxx fan but he wins me over as Django. Django should go one to become as iconic as the Bible-quoting Jules Winfield from Pulp Fiction. Everything he says is amusing, everything he is dripping with panache. Foxx’s performance expertly hovers between the cocky foulmouthed routine he used in his stand-up routines and the wrathful anger of the black avenger. From head to toe Django is one of the coolest black characters I have seen on a cinema screen despite the fact that his past remains a mystery and Tarantino devotes little or no time to character development. Django is one-dimensional, and even though there are moments where you can catch glimpses of the man behind the smoking pistols he is cold and smooth throughout.
Christopher Waltz is the verbose German dentist-turned-bounty-hunter, Dr King Schultz, who frees Django and promises to help him rescue his wife, Broomhilda, played by the bite-the-back-of-your-hand beautiful Kerry Washington. Waltz’s performance is solid, even if it seems like an extension of the cold but disturbingly amiable Jew hunter he played in Inglorious Basterds. Waltz’s garrulous performance has already won him the Golden Globe for best supporting actor.
Not much can be said about Washington in this film, though. Tarantino did not give her much to do in this macho tale other than being exquisitely pretty and in need of a saviour—she does that well. Forget feminism in this film. Women are there to serve and provide brainless conversation.
Leonardo DiCaprio is horribly captivating as Calvin Candie, a cruel slave owner with the vocabulary of an accomplished thespian and evil charm capable of driving anyone to Stockholm syndrome. DiCaprio’s Southern dandy persona is a long way from the brooding characters he is known to play when Oscar season is around the corner, but he is effortlessly greasy, and he uses the intense hawk-like gaze he perfected in The Aviator to icy and unnerving success in Django. His performance is enough to make you hate anyone with a Southern twang.
The most memorable performance of the film is provided by Samuel L. Jackson who takes black-on-black crime to new heights as Stephen, Candie’s chief “house slave.” He looms over the other slaves but cowers to Candie’s demands. On occasion he trades banter as though the two are equal, but Jackson’s stooped and wrinkled performance is able to show the subservience bred (or beaten) into him from years of bondage. Like Django, Stephen has no back story; he is thrust upon the audience with no character development at all. While Django’s slave past is given via flashbacks (but only the violent ones) nothing is said about Stephen. Tarantino merely uses him as fodder for the revenge plot. It is a shame because Stephen was Tarantino’s best bet of showing how cruel slavery was. If he was really hell-bent on making a film that shamed slavery to its very core he would have spent more time fleshing out Stephen’s character. But he does not. And it is the ease with which Tarantino glides over character development which convinces me he had no intention of making a historical film at all. He just wanted the action.
As a simple transaction, Django Unchained is worth your money. If you can suspend your sensitivities for two hours you will enjoy it. But if you are going to enter the cinema on the witch hunt for a tale which explores slavery in the US in great emotional detail you are watching the wrong film. This is a Tarantino. It is by that guy who makes up Bible verses for Jules to quote right before he puts six ringers in Brett.
While the aesthetic and cinematic excellence of Django Unchained is largely unchallenged, the viewing experience is. US audiences do not find it easy to watch Django, and with good reason too; slavery is part of US history and it is a particularly thorny topic to address in even the most skilfully crafted films. The same goes with the random spraying of the word nigger every two or three seconds. Granted that few people find it easy to watch racial dramas (I have watched The Help once and never again), US audiences are especially sensitive about them. They pussyfoot around slavery and the use of the “n-word.” If it is used in Amistad, or Glory then it is okay. If it is used in hip-hop music by black people or in all the episodes of The Boondocks, well, that is just black people being black people, right? Django really set the cat amongst the pigeons, though. Everyone was calling everyone else a nigger. And that did not sit well with US audiences. It is no surprise, then, that most of Django’s critics crucified the film for its shoddy portrayal of slavery and the careless way the n-word is bandied about.
Most of the criticisms are misplaced though. Django has nothing to do with slavery. It does not explain its roots or its motivations. It does not delve into the practices, the broken families, the exploitation, the political resistance, the alienation, and the means black people had to resort to in order to survive. It does not explain Stephen. It sure as heck does not explain Django. It merely focuses on the violence and the pejorative n-word. And it does that because it is all Tarantino needed to fuel Django. Just as he did in Inglorious Basterds, he took exactly what he needed from history in order to create his action flick. Nothing more.
Although I think some US audiences took it a bit far with Django’s criticisms, I do understand their ire. It is the same frustration South Africans feel when an Apartheid film ignores something central to black suffering. It is the same anger I feel whenever I have to watch some ignorant documentary or film about Rwanda. African-Americans are touched by having their history exploited or falsely portrayed in the same way that black Africans are pissed off whenever the accents are overdone (Leo in Blood Diamond), when the politics are muddied (The First Grader, anyone?), and our cultures are homogenised in films. If Django had substituted nigger with kaffir South African audiences might have walked out of the cinema. It all comes down to context, really. I enjoyed Django Unchained because slavery is something that happened there, not here. Not in my immediate past. I would feel quite differently, though, if it focused on a theme much closer to home.
For what I would call a standard Tarantino film—guns, gore, and dialogue– Django Unchained managed to tick off quite a few people. Most of the criticisms are valid, even if they are misplaced. For the most part, though, Django is just another film to add to your must-watch list if you are into violent capers which involve sly humour and genre subversion.
Author’s note: Have a look at the following interesting Django Unchained reviews:
- Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino’s crap masterpiece published in The New Yorker, which I think is the best summation of the film, the director, the cast, and the impact of the film.
- Surviving Django, published on Buzzfeed, which is about an African-American’s experience watching Django Unchained in a small US town, largely populated by whites.