Few filmmakers in recent memory have proven more controversial than Quentin Tarantino (Inglourious Basterds). From his penchant for violence, to his excessive use of the “n-word,” his movies have sparked discourse amongst critics and fans alike. He’s one of my favorite directors, so quite naturally I was looking forward to Django Unchained, his highly anticipated antebellum spaghetti western. Before viewing Django, you’ll need to dispel notions of historical accuracy and political correctness, and that should make the film easier to digest. Despite the much-ballyhooed use of the n-word, I enjoyed Django largely because of its memorable performances, though I wouldn’t rank it highly among my Tarantino favorites.
The movie begins appropriately with the introduction of the titular Django, (Jamie Foxx, Horrible Bosses) a slave who has been separated from his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington, A Thousand Words) and sold to a different plantation. Slave traders lead Django and several others in a pitiful procession across a desolate Texas landscape, en route to his new plantation home. Eventually they cross paths with an amiable bounty hunter by the name of King Schultz (Christoph Waltz, Water for Elephants), a resourceful and charming man who masquerades as a traveling dentist. He is in hot pursuit of three outlaw brothers, and Django may know their whereabouts. Django is willing to help Schultz locate the trio, provided that Schultz agrees to help him find and rescue Broomhilda from her new plantation. After the not-so-small matter of separating Django from the slave traders is solved, the pair set out on their quest. Not only does Django locate and dispatch the initial three outlaws with Schultz, he helps him execute other bounties as well. On the surface Schultz and Django would appear to make strange bedfellows, but the German dentist holds no prejudice, limited only by the rigid, cruel social constructs of the day.
Despite the small victory of the initial bounty, Django knows that he cannot rest until he finds Broomhilda. It is the driving force for everything he does, and Tarantino hammered the point home with flashbacks to Django and Broomhilda on their plantation, including a scene where she was whipped brutally. Schultz keeps his word to track Broomhilda, and eventually he gets a beat on her. She is in the possession of one Monsieur Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio, J. Edgar), a rather debonair slave master with faux Parisian sensibilities. Under an elaborate ruse, Django and Schultz find themselves in a position to rescue Broomhilda from Candie’s clutches, while dispensing a little old-fashioned justice along the way. The motif is one common to Tarantino’s previous work: a singular character with laser-like focus on revenge.
The most satisfying aspects of the movie were its rich performances, particularly those of Foxx, DiCaprio, and Waltz. Foxx will probably end up being remembered for this role just as much as he was for Ray, and I thought he portrayed Django with a cool, understated fury. This is the second Tarantino film for Cristoph Waltz, and I hope the trend continues. He is a wonderful actor and I’ve been impressed with his abilities in every performance. Lastly, Leonardo DiCaprio was deliciously evil as the cruel Calvin Candie, showing once again there is not much of which he is not capable. I was a little disappointed with Kerry Washington’s lack of meaningful dialogue or screen time with Jamie Foxx, but the movie was written such that Broomhilda and Django are apart for the majority of the film, and he is its unmistakable star. It’s not called “Broomhilda Unchained,” so I can live with that.
Django is a complicated film that certainly will not suit everyone. I enjoyed it, but I’m not going to hop on the Django bandwagon. Some feel that the movie trivializes and parodies slavery, due to the abundance of humorous elements. Particularly comical was Samuel L. Jackson’s turn as the quintessential house negro who vies for “Massa’s” attention and approval. His character’s contentious jealousy of Django is amusing, but unfortunately accurate. That type of dissension still exists within the Black community today; though I’m not sure Tarantino intended this parallel. As a matter of fact, I’m not sure Tarantino wanted to do anything with this movie other than entertain his audience; and that’s ok. He certainly did not thoughtfully explore the underpinnings of slavery, though he did provide an accurate snapshot of its savagery. I’m not complaining about his depiction, but I can understand the criticism of those who feel that he didn’t portray the subject with the gravity it requires. To those folks, I would simply say that if you view this movie as a revenge movie set during slavery, you’d be less disappointed. This is not Roots; this is not Amistad. I don’t think Tarantino was trying to be profound or accurate at all. I think he just wanted to make a “cool” movie, and the idea of a slave killing a bunch of white people just sounds badass.
Although I enjoyed the performances, there wasn’t much character development – but maybe that’s just not what this movie aims for. Revenge movies are more about the accomplishment of the avenging act, not the protagonist’s metamorphosis. At the end of the day, I think Django Unchained was a good (not great) film that doesn’t quite live up to its staggering expectations. It’s a worthy addition to Tarantino’s catalogue, but I wouldn’t rank it among his best.
This article first appeared at Poptimal and was reprinted with permission.