So have you seen Quentin Tarantino‘s latest – Django Unchained – yet?
Or have you opted to give this film a pass because you heard plenty of negatives about it, including this from Spike Lee,
‘I won’t see it, because the film is disrespectful to my ancestors’ and ‘American slavery was not a Sergio Leone spaghetti western’.
That’s pretty much all Mr. Lee said, and I’m not sure what his problem is. That doesn’t mean that the film isn’t offensive, and a lot to handle for most folks – black or white, but what is Spike’s gripe? The repetitive use of the ‘n-word? Is it the carnage? Or is it the taking of a difficult and ugly period of history, and using that as a platform to produce a film that will turn a huge profit
Anyway Spike Lee is no stranger to bringing racial tension, hatred, and even violence to the screen. Check out School Daze, Mo’ Better Blues, Jungle Fever, and Do the Right Thing. All of these films touched on a mixture of race, sex, and politics, in one form or another. Whether Spike was shining his lights on Italian Americans or blacks, he never took a step back and worried about people seeing his films.
Now Tarantino is well known for the vast amounts of violence in his films, for his penchant for being outrageous, and for his willingness to go to the filmi well again and again to haul up another bucket of revenge. Kill Bill was about Uma Thurman’s revenge against Bill. In Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino created a fantasy revenge film about payback to the Nazis for the Holocaust. Django Unchained is another revenge film. But that’s not even half of what Django Unchained was about.
As the film begins the setting is the pre-civil War USA, specifically Texas and we have one man, a Dr. King Schultz, played by Christoph Walz, who in 1859 was a bounty hunter, going around the country in the guise of a dentist. He wanted to collect the bounty for a vile gang called The Brittle Brothers, only he had no idea what they looked like. But a particular slave, Django – D-J-A-N-G-O – with the D silent, did know the Brittle Brothers. Somehow, Dr. Schultz acquired this knowledge about Django, so Schultz tracks down a group of chained and hobbled slaves, who were being forced marched across the country by a pair of white overseers.
Schultz tries to convince them it would be profitable (and in their best interest) to sell the slave Django to him, but they’re unconvinced. But Schultz closed the deal by using his weapons which did put certain finality to the term done deal.
Once freed, Django and Schultz begin their friendship and business partnership (as bounty hunters). They stop people in their tracks as people are astounded to see a black man riding a horse rather than walking in chains behind one.
They have a set-to with a typical southern ‘gentleman bigot and slave owner’ known as Big Daddy who is played by an almost unrecognizable Don Johnson. Or maybe I was surprised to see him rather than almost missing him.
From there, Schultz and Django set out to rescue Django’s wife, Broomhilde (played by Kerry Washington) who is in the clutches of the evil plantation owner Calvin Candie played in a delightful mustache twirling style by Leonardo Di Caprio. To make a long story short, Django comes out of this film unscathed. Can’t say the same for every one else on-screen.
But what about us folks in the audience? Was the film entertaining? Offensive? Over-the-top? Well-made?
Yes to all of the above. Tarantino went to great lengths to ensure that the number of admirable figures in the film could be totally counted on the toes of the three-toed sloth. Schultz was refined, at least as refined as one might be considering he was in the bring-em-back-dead-or-alive business. Django was heroic and noble. Broomhilde had little to do for the actress portraying her except to serve as the visual representation of Victim – in this case a generic term as nearly every one who appeared in the film either began or ended as a victim.
There is a character not mentioned yet who was there to serve as the spear-catcher for all that was evil and ugly about the film. That would be Calvin Candie’s head-of-the-household slave called Stephen . Played with a lot of gusto and enthusiasm by Samuel L. Jackson, Stephen was Candie’s ‘boss’ over the slave population of the plantation and was a slave himself. Yet he was Candie’s confidant. I can easily see how people will be offended by Stephen. Not by Jackson’s performance as Stephen but by Stephen the character.
It is simply an easy task to detest Di Caprio’s Calvin Candie – because the character was a user and abuser of the slaves he owned. Which is not to legitimize or say that slavery under more ‘kindly’ slave owners was acceptable. This slave owner was born into the whole 9 yards of being the owner of a plantation and a slave owner. Candie was proud to say that he was just following in the steps of his Daddy, and his Granddaddy.
But Stephen was an opportunist as well as corrupt and above all else – a predator. There was no one he wouldn’t throw under the bus, er, under the horse and wagon, to help him keep himself elevated above all the other slaves on the plantation. Maybe this is what Spike meant when he used therm disrespectful?
Any way, the blood flows freely in this film. If you are in the mood for folks being shot up, blown-up, or strung up, if you want to see the worst abuses of slaves, if you want to see Tarantino hint strongly at such things as incest, and if you want to see folks killed for money – then by all means go see Django Unchained.
It looks like a western, but Tarantino calls it a Southern. But be warned it is excessive from any perspective that you might choose to measure. It is long, violent, and bloody; and the main ingredient is revenge. And haven’t we seen plenty of this in the past from Quentin? You bet we have.
I’ll rate the film at three-point five zero and recommend it. But I will say this – I simply don’t see my self buying the DVD of this film any time soon. Seeing it once was enough. And it can’t possibly show up on broadcast TV. Pay Cable TV, sure. But not any time soon.