Django Unchained (Quentin Tarantino, 2012)
I will admit, I was rather worried as to how much I would enjoy Quentin Tarantino’s newest film, Django Unchained. That’s not true; I was really excited. Perhaps ‘worried’ is the wrong word. My apprehension towards Django Unchained drew from its controversial plot and how the easily identifiable Tarantino style—which we all know to be bold, lurid, and often comical, would depict this. It goes without saying, there’s nothing funny about slavery, and it certainly isn’t a topic meant for show. This could easily slip into an offensive tone. It’s a moral dilemma, really. And on that Christmas Evening at the 7:20 showing, as the trailers ended and the lights dimmed, I got a little shifty-eyed, broke into a cold sweat. Not necessarily to my surprise, but with a noted sigh of relief, Tarantino pulls it off.
Django Unchained takes place in 1858, two years before the start of the Civil War. Jamie Foxx stars as leading lad, Django, a slave set free from a chain gang by a German bounty hunter named Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). Schultz, who has a much more evolved view on equality, offers Django the opportunity to become his right-hand man in the bounty hunting business—bagging criminals for generous compensation. With the chance to have his revenge on the white folk who formerly tortured and victimized him, the newly freed slave accepts. Together Schultz and Django go from town to town collecting criminals wanted dead or alive. But gunplay isn’t the only task on Django’s agenda. He longs to rescue his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), from Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), a cruel and charismatic plantation owner.
Tarantino indeed put together an incredibly stylized film, paying homage to such genres as spaghetti westerns and 1970s Blaxploitation, dusting them off and mashing them up into fully formed, unapologetic amusement. Tarantino provides his usual creative methods. He slaps the audience in the face with extraordinary art direction—portraying this super campy, southern style. He’s got all kinds of saturated colors against stunning landscapes, like the glamorous Candie mansion, standing alone but surrounded by rich, cultivated fields. It’s remarkable. He allows us to savor the visuals, as the camera lingers on intense scenes of heavy dialogue. Trying not to let it go in one ear and out the other, we listen to cheeky, talk-talk-talky-talk-yap-yap-yap, and then BOOM—blood all over the cotton fields. It’s brutal. This film is incredibly violent, per usual, but it’s appropriate given the score, and these scenes are choreographed so beautifully. Django Unchained is epic, and Tarantino holds nothing back to portray the gruesome horrors of slavery, in a way that rather amazingly splices together history, style, and dark comedy.
The performances in this film are outstanding. Jamie Foxx plays the usual Tarantino star as the beady-eyed, revenge stricken, one-dimensional, single-minded anti-hero. I don’t particularly care for Jamie Foxx as an actor, but he really does present the visceral misery and slow burning truth behind Django perfectly. Will Smith was rumored as a consideration for this role. I can only imagine this would have been an entirely different performance had this been so. He doesn’t have the right eyes for Django. Well done, Jamie Foxx, but please step aside, because the supporting characters stole the show. I was so impressed with Leonardo Dicaprio. He gets a bad rap sometimes (some fools think he’s an “over-actor”), but after every scene in Django Unchained, I just wanted to smooch him on the mouth and tell the world to fuck off. He portrays this evil dandy of the south in a way that is so charming and terrifying all at once. He’s like the Willy Wonka of slavery, only his love for candy is secondary to his love for Mandingo fighting. Christoph Waltz—marry me? He’s just a handsome, sharp-shootin’ gentlemen, and I was so glad to see him in a role where he wasn’t playing the antagonist. Drum roll please for Samuel L. Jackson, who plays Stephen, the master slave of the Candieland Plantation. With an awesome transformation by the make-up department, he plays this sassy old-fart of a man and a proud, loyal companion to Calvin Candie. If one looks deep enough, they might find a comparison between the Schultz/Django relationship and the Candie/Stephen relationship. Then again, I could just be saying things.
My favorite part of the Tarantino experience is his constant desire to reference other films and genres throughout cinematic history—mostly because I can utilize my degree in Cinema Studies, which is useful nowhere else :-( In Django Unchained, one minute, we see zoom shots of vigilantes with their low-crowned hats, holsters, and menacing slouches against a clanging soundtrack, and we thank Tarantino for the tribute to spaghetti westerns. The next minute, we’re reflecting on Blaxploitation watching two massive, sweaty slaves fighting like gladiators to the death, merely for the entertainment of a slave owner. Now, I wondered if this was an act that actually existed during slavery, so I did some research. I was like, “Hold up, Tarantino. What’s this all about?” This is a human cockfight known as Mandingo Fighting. Turns out, it didn’t actually exist. However, black gladiator fighting appeared in pop culture of the 1970s from time to time. Most notably in the Richard Fleisher1975 blaxploitation film Mandingo, which Tarantino has cited as one of his favorite movies, SO THAT MAKES SENSE!!
Django Unchained is one of the several Civil War Era films of 2012, and I think it is safe to say it holds the title of front-runner—Lincoln as runner-up, Abe Lincoln Vampire Hunter as second runner-up (or Ms. Congeniality). It is fearless, and demented, and totally absurd—just your regular, run of the mill, Tarantino film. I truly feel that this will translate well into a ballet piece…One day, perhaps.