Arguably, one cannot make a film about slavery without making a comment on it, and neither can one star a black man in a white-directed, white-produced movie without commenting on race. While many may not see Tarantino as a serious director (and for excellent reasons: I refer you to my esteemed blogger-comrade Rémy) I do feel that his movies make a comment on the subject matter, even if it doesn’t seem that way at the time.
Django Unchained is, at heart, a vengeance tale set within the Western style of movie-making with a big, fat budget of $100 million. It riffs on blaxploitation movies, slavery, violence against women, black-on-black crime, ownership, love and revenge. It has time to segue into phrenology, that terrible pseudo-science, as well as German folklore. Don’t get me wrong: the plot of Django is very straightforward. Man loses his wife under terrible circumstances, and makes deals to get her back. Like Inglorious Basterds, like Kill Bill, it is revenge. Glorious, varied and endless revenge. And don’t get me wrong: the vengeance is as gratifying as it is visceral. We want to see Django’s enemies destroyed, for they are very, very bad men. At no point in this movie are white slavers ever given an ounce of sympathy. They are given only our scorn, and our glee at their punishment. Like Inglorious Basterds, we like to see the bad guys punished, as so few were at the time.
Is Django Unchained controversial? Yes. Should it be? No. In my opinion, Tarantino says some fascinating things about slavery, but none of them are pro-slavery. He shows the violence visited upon black bodies without hesitation. It was a terrible, horrific time to be black. That anyone should be shocked by violence in a slavery setting is ludicrous. Women were whipped on the smallest pretense.
Raped to pass the time, or produce more slaves. The hot box, the horsewhipping by the preacher – these are not fantastical scenes. Anyone with even a cursory understanding of American slave history will recognise the bit, the collar, the whips, the terrible items of imprisonment and torture. If Tarantino really wanted to make a movie about just vengeance, he could have done it without the background information that was seeded throughout. Bills of sale, forced marches, familial separations, the induction of black slaves into liking/loving their masters through incessant torture and grooming. Why go to all that effort to not make a movie about slavery, in some way?
Toni Morrison’s epigraph for Beloved reads: ‘the sixty million and more’ who had no monument, no museum, not even a bench to mark their loss and pain in America when the book was published in 1987. While the number is still not certain, it still runs into the millions. America, who had nothing to do with the Holocaust, has numerous museums dedicated to those who died in the Holocaust, but almost for the slaves who died on their land, building their country. It has been left up to authors and directors to make some kind of memorial for them. Which brings me back round to my point: Tarantino might be a bit insufferable at times, but at no point did Django Unchained pretend to be anything other than an unforgiving look at an unforgivable time. After all, there were enough scenes of horror that could only have been enabled by slavery: tearing a black man apart with dogs, whipping a woman for dropping eggs, threatening to shoot a black man for riding a horse, branding women with hot pokers. The scene with the proto-KKK (the Regulators) was hilarious, pointing out the cowardice and childishness of that movement, which continues to be ridiculous today. The evangelical overseer with his whip and corpulence was a point of ridicule rather than awe.
I want to look at Django himself. Hollywood still has ridiculous hang-ups about avengers and ass-kicking, and who should get to star in such movies. There’s Die Hard numbers 1-10, and Crank, any movie with Liam Neeson in it, the Bourne series and about 70 James Bond films (ugh). There’s Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jean Claude van Damme, Chuck Norris (UGH), Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hardy, Jeremy Renner, Val Kilmer, Christian Bale, Matt Damon, Robert Downey Jnr, Jude Law, Nicolas Cage, John Travolta, Chris Evans. All men as white as the driven snow in movies by Tippex-white directors. Hollywood doesn’t mind when black directors choose black actors, but it has been a very long time since we’ve seen a black man take his own vengeance in a big, serious movie that wasn’t being sold as something like Bad Boys. Look at the number of the movies with white heroes with black sidekicks. (I won’t even talk about horror movies.) The movies starring black men as action heroes nearly all star Will Smith. And more Will Smith. Even Morgan Freeman is always in a supporting role as a magical negro. Now with Django, we have a black hero who is unrepentant in his role, who can be as brilliant and heroic and sexy as the next action hero. At no point is he ever made fun of, and when people try they end up coming off worse (“The D is silent.”). If you think this is an exaggeration, try come up with a serious, big-budget movie with a famous white director starring a black action hero that isn’t Will Smith or Samuel L Jackson. (Oh, wait, and Eddie Murphy, who went on to be The Nutty Professor.)
Right, moving on to production values (see, I know when to tone it down!), the soundtrack is outstanding, and very fairly priced on iTunes – particularly worth noting is Rick Ross’ 100 Black Coffins and Too Old to Die Young by Brother Dege. And there’s some extra dialogue that didn’t make it into the movie for your consideration. The settings were luscious, showcasing the American South in all its natural glory and slavery-built opulence. Add to this incredible prop detail (notably the different slave collars that popped up in the background and on Django twice) makes this a stunning movie just to look at and listen to.
Two performances stand out in particular for me: Leonardo Di Caprio’s portray of Monsieur Calvin Candie, and Samuel L Jackson as Christopher. While Jamie Fox was outstanding and Christoph Waltz can do no wrong, Candie and Stephen took over the movie on
their terms, with commanding performances. Stephen interests me as a skewed portrayal of the male equivalent of the Mammy character, a character which appears so often without interrogation (like in The Help, that awful movie that pretends to be more important than it actually is). It is difficult to determine how much of it is happiness in slavery, but we are left with questions: can someone can beaten into loving someone? Is this Stockholm Syndrome? Is this what happens when one raises someone else’s children because they aren’t allowed to raise their own? Why does he seem to genuinely care about Candie? Does he hate all black people, or is it just in front of Candie? Or just Django? Again, why have such a complex character if this is just a shoot-em-up?
And then there’s classy, greasy, sister-kissing Candie, who has the manners and heart of a Southern gentleman: he has harps playing while he signs over the life of another and uses phrenology to explain the supposedly inherent servitude of slaves with the skull of the black man who raised him, Ben. (It is deeply disturbing that they had the flesh melted off so that they could keep the skull, denying him dignity even in death.) Did he get Christopher to believe in phrenology? He has Lolita-dressed maids flitting about, a detail that plays in nicely to his understanding of the purpose of black women. But to see Leonardo play a very, very bad man was such a pleasure. He took what could have been a cringe-worthy, two-bit cartoon villain and filled him with charming, terrifying menace. That little hammer was given all the weight of a sledgehammer, all the threat of a cannon. An excellent change from his usual roles (not that he has ever turned in a poor performance.)
If you’re a Tarantino fan, you’ll enjoy this, even if it isn’t his best work. It is a bit overwrought at times, and Tarantino really, really needs to stop appearing in his own movies. I don’t know if its a Stan Lee kind of attempt to seem relevant but it smashes the fourth wall to pieces for those of us who knows what he looks like (and really wish we didn’t.) I wish Kerry Washington had had a bigger role – she is talented, and deserved more lines (though she does screaming well). She is a bit wasted here in this ultra-manly movie, but if we’re lucky she’ll appear in Kill Bill 3.
But for Django’s properly bad-ass reckoning, for Candie as the worst man you’ll see on screen this year, for Christopher and his classic “you’ll have to burn the sheets!” monologue, this movie is still very much worth your time. And go see it on the big screen – you’ll be glad you did.