I saw Django Unchained in theaters, and although I included it on my top ten films of 2012, I never managed to review it fully. But the Blu Ray release provides ample opportunity to correct this lapse.
I stand by my original assertion – it was one of the ten best films of 2012. But there are many who will say that this is a let down, and nowhere near as funny as Pulp Fiction or Inglourious Basterds. That isn’t true at all. It only seems that way because Django does something far more important – it captures the emotional truth of slavery far more than any other film in recent memory.
The result will probably make people feel uncomfortable. Indeed, many people criticized the film for being historically inaccurate or otherwise trivialization the national shame of slavery. Those people missed the point. I’ve said it before – films are not about facts. If you want facts, go find an encyclopedia. Films are about emotions. It is one thing to read about the Holocaust on Wikipedia. It is quite another to watch Liam Neeson’s tearful speech in Schindler’s List about the death and destruction it caused.
Django Unchained, with its fights to the death, sadistic slave owners and house slaves, and satisfying revenge by a former slave against his oppressors is bound to make any American uncomfortable, even with the exciting action sequences and the hypnotic performances by every actor. And you know what? A film about slavery and racial hatred is supposed to make people uncomfortable. If we judge films by the emotional truths they reveal, Django Unchained may be the greatest film Tarantino has ever made.
It’s certainly more overtly satirical than Basterds. One scene, which has a proto KKK organization preparing to hunt down the former slave Django Freeman (Jamie Foxx) and German immigrant Dr. Schultz (Christoph Waltz) after they kill a slave master to collect the bounty on his head. The problem is that the eye holes are cut so badly into the bags that no one can see as they ride on horses.
What follows is a sketch that could be inserted into Chappelle’s Show with no revisions. The group argues amongst themselves, attempts to tear the holes to make them bigger (which makes the problem worse) considers going home, considers taking the bags off even though this would defeat the purposes of anonymity, and otherwise completely making fools of themselves and the racism they represent. The scene ends with a giant explosion rather than a punchline, but there has been nothing like it in Tarantino’s entire filmography.
Now, Django Unchained is primarily a spaghetti western, a revenge story in which Django is on a quest to free his wife Brunhilda (Kerry Washington) from a brutal plantation where slaves are made to fight to the death. It’s structured in the same way as a Leone film – that is, the plot is secondary to the amazing visuals and set pieces. Indeed, the plot thread about the Brittle Brothers prominently mentioned in the trailer is resolved in a half hour or so. Calvin Candie and Brunhilda are the two primary driving forces – as are the scenes of Calvin feeding runaway slaves to dogs and sticking Django’s wife in a hot box to punish her. Yes, a coherent story is secondary to the emotional set pieces, but Tarantino’s plots have never been strong. He’s about creating characters and their obsessions. Those items have never been as urgent in his films as they are here.
Of course, the fact that the film is also the most poignant and revealing in Tarantino’s career means that people have attacked it. They attack the scenes of Django proudly killing white men for the reward money (even though another white man assists him), they attack the plantation owners to force their slaves to fight to the death (mandingo fighting) as unrealistic, and they attack the finale as a glorified revenge fantasy meant to incite racial hatred. These are strengths, not hindrances. The fact that those elements are being attacked demonstrates that Django Unchained has caused the appropriate reaction in audiences. When was the last time a film about slavery provoked any reaction in anyone? We’ve grown up watching Roots. We know slavery was bad. Django makes us feel it.
There are many moments that do well in causing this, but for me, most of the emotional core was created by the two villains. Waltz won the Oscar, those two were the most interesting characters in the film and the actors tackled them with a rare ferocity. Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) and the head house slave Stephen (Samuel L Jackson) are confident in the roles, and act as though that their place in society is predestined. They are both seemingly obsessed with their evil, and take an almost Bond villain style glee in their actions. Waltz won the Oscar, but he was nowhere near as fearless as those two actors in their roles. They held nothing back.
Jackson in particular stood out for me. Late in the film, a monologue of his where he discusses how Django will be forced to work in a mining facility and what that would be like, is among my favorite scenes of the last year. Jackson, in that moment, disappears into Stephen and speaks with such a convincing manner that most people will be planning protests at the fictional mining company for crimes against humanity. He was the man who truly deserved an Oscar nomination. The character was just too evil for most Americans (those outside of Mississippi trailer parks) to want to praise.
Just because Django Unchained is not as pleasing to watch as some of Tarantino’s other films. But then, it deals with far more important issues than the usual “70’s B grade schlock and old cereal was great” themes of Tarantino’s filmography. But those grindhouse films could insert important messages that would not be allowed by a studio picture. Indeed, at the time, certain underground films and B-grade westerns were among the few films that could be aimed at minorities and discuss some important themes. Remember how Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song was “rated X by an all white jury” and helped usher in a new trend of black filmmakers making movies on their own terms? Tarantino has taken those movies to their logical conclusion, portrayal the disturbing emotional truth of slavery in a slick action film. Come for the explosions, stay for the important revelations about our past. What more can you ask for?