I’ve been surrounded my entire life by black faces. I only have one question:
Why don’t they just rise up and kill the whites?
What would happen if a slave decided to take revenge?
It’s the scenario that’s made white folks quiver for over a century, and I’ll argue it’s still the reason why rednecks and white supremacists would rather die than give up their right to bear arms. If you want a graphic representation of how this scene would play out, get thee to the movie theater to see Django Unchained.
I honestly had no idea what to expect when I went to see Django Unchained. I know nothing of Spaghetti Westerns, and I’m not too familiar with Quentin Tarantino’s work save for Pulp Fiction. I expected it to be a solid, B movie at best, but I was floored by the rave reviews and award nominations the film has gleaned since its release. Then, I saw it.
The film is good. Really, really good.
But the problem with reviewing a film like this is that it’s unlike anything I’ve seen before. The best way I can describe it is as a combination of Blazing Saddles and Pulp Fiction. Part blaxploitation, part satire, part Western, part drama, and part dark, dark comedy, Django Unchained lives up to the hype.
The Reader’s Digest version of the plot is this: former dentist and now bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) recruits freed slave Django (Jamie Foxx) to help him find an outlaw he has been hunting. Soon, he offers Django a partnership of sorts in the bounty hunting business. Together, under the guise that Schultz and Django are a team looking to recruit Mandingo fighters for their plantation, the two travel to rescue Django’s wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) from a notoriously brutal Mississipi plantation called Candyland, owned by plantation master Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).
There are literally so many things to say about this film that I’m not even sure where to start. Excellent, comprehensive reviews have already been posted everywhere, namely Todd McCarthy’s review for The Hollywood Reporter. As I usually do, I will concentrate on the strong and weak points of the overall film.
Christoph Waltz: I won’t lie: I saw Django Unchained for Leonardo DiCaprio, but this man completely stole the show. I did not know Christoph Waltz before this movie, but I am now hooked. He is so fabulous in this role — dry, witty, and subtle. His German accent and never wavering cool demeanor even in the stickiest of situations are pure perfection. It is almost as if Tarantino wrote this role specifically for Waltz — his delivery and Tarantino’s lines fit together perfectly. Simply the fact that a white German man and a freed slave are traveling to rescue his German-named black wife is proof enough of Quentin Tarantino’s talent for penning a hilarious labyrinthine plot — one that is very much worthy of his nomination and win for this year’s best screenplay. But while Django emerges as the real heroic character of the film, Schultz should be given credit for being his producer. The two have amazing on-screen chemistry, and in the end, his profession also becomes his kryptonite as he bumps off Calvin Candie, resulting in a lengthly on-screen bloodbath that would make Eli Roth squirm.
Jamie Foxx: I was surprised to read that some thought Jamie Foxx didn’t quite pull off the lead role as well as he could have. I disagree completely. I think that Foxx’s cool-as-a-cucumber demeanor throughout the film represented the “shut up and keep your head down” mentality that slaves needed to adopt to survive. Don’t forget that Django essentially needs to pretend to be a white person in a black man’s body in order to maintain the guise that he is a freed slave who is never looking back. You can literally feel the anger seeping out of him throughout the first 3/4 of the film, and you know that eventually the bough is going to break.
I think his strongest on-screen moment is the scene where Candie is unrelenting in his punishment of runaway slaves, and Schultz pipes in to suggest that he should stop. Candie looks to Django to ask if he thinks the slaves’ punishment is just, and Django replies without moving a muscle in his face, “they’re your niggers.” Tough stuff, and another example of Tarantino’s excellent writing. Another of my favorite scenes in the film is when Dr. Schultz formally asks Django to be his partner: the two enter a clothing store to buy Django a new outfit for the part. Django emerges in a bright blue suit complete with a frilly lace collared bow — a getup that would make Outkast jealous. It was a funny scene, but also thought-provoking, almost like a nod to the big pimpin’ representation of African Americans that’s so prevalent today.
Leonardo DiCaprio: This man has turned into a full-fledged, grown-up actor. I’ve known this already, but seeing him in roles like this just prove my point. Gone is any resemblance of the twenty-something hearthrob we’ve all fallen in love with. He is replaced by someone who looks like he’s seen the world, for better or worse. There is no hesitation in his movements or speech, and he was completely unwavering during the more violent scenes of this film. While I do agree that Christoph Waltz was the stronger actor in this movie — and he’s got the Golden Globe to prove it! — Leo really steps up here, never competing for the spotlight.
Samuel L. Jackson: I did not even recognize Samuel L. Jackson in this film. Talk about disappearing into a role! Jackson plays Stephen, a slave in Candyland who has been around for multiple generations, and who is Candie’s right-hand man. He is as close to a white person as a slave can get in Candyland, and it shows. Instead of fitting the stereotype of a benevolent, white-haired old slave, Stephen is cantankerous and every bit as racist as Candie. But we can’t really blame him, can we? Think of what a man like that has seen in two generations of plantation owners — the almost perverse amount of wrongdoing that he would have had to witness and keep his mouth shut about. A man like Stephen doesn’t have many options if he wants to stay alive — how else does a black man move up in the south during that time?
Realistic, graphic, disturbing imagery: Want to see runaway slaves being torn apart by vicious dogs? Or see a beautiful young woman put in a metal underground “hot box” on a broiling summer day as punishment for dropping eggs? How about watching that same woman’s face be branded with a scalding hot iron? And let’s not forget the scene in which we meet Calvin Candie as he oversees two of his slaves engaged in bloody, sweaty Mandingo wrestling to the death in his parlor. This is some of what we see in Django Unchained. I have to say that out of all the movies I’ve seen that deal with slavery, Django was the most visually striking and thought-provoking, for better or worse. There are scenes of shackled slaves being moved through the center of town wearing iron bands around their heads. When you see something like this and realize that yes, it is historically accurate, you can’t help but stop and think, “Wow, we are one fucked up species.”
Soundtrack: I sat in the movie theater thinking, “I can’t wait to go home and download this soundtrack.” The music in this film is amazing — Jim Croce’s “I Got a Name” gives us a break from the emotionally heavy content of the film as we watch the beautiful and almost peaceful scenes of Django and Schultz traveling across the beautiful American landscape: so much beauty amidst such a mess we’ve made of things. Breaks this like this are calming and motivating, while darker pieces like “100 Black Coffins” by Rick Ross represent the slow-burning anger present in Django as he moves closer to his goal. I think my favorite selection is Anthony Hamilton-Elayna Boynton duet “Freedom” whose arrangement is backed by a percussive beat that sounds almost like slaves’ chains moving as they are marched towards the hellish terminus of their trek.
Costumes: The perfect blend of campiness and richness – the costumes, hair, and makeup in this film were absolute perfection. Candie’s house-slaves were made up to look like a perverse version of a Disney princess, which Candie’s clothes looked every bit as expensive and perfectly tailored as I’m sure he would have had them.
Cinematography and editing: This film was beautifully filmed, despite some of the rather disturbing images that we are exposed to through surprising cuts. The scene where Django is freed by Schultz and he tosses off his scratchy wool blanket to reveal a back full of whipping scars is particularly powerful and signifies the transformation of his character from just another slave to something more. The torture scenes are just long enough to make their point but not long enough to really overdo it.
The lighting in this film is spectacular, especially in the first sequence which takes place somewhere in the south in the middle of the night. A soft light appears as Schultz drives his horse-drawn carriage up to a group of transported slaves (Django included), calmly approaches, negotiates with, and then shoots and wounds the man transporting them. Despite the violence, the sheer loneliness of this scene shines through, and the fear that the now almost accidentally freed slaves must have felt is expressed through the shots of them standing, barefoot, still shackled, in the middle of the woods. To be out in the middle of nowhere in the cold and to have to literally run for your life must be the most terrifying experience. Later, as we see Django and Schultz make their way down to Candyland, the scenes are almost reminiscent of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid — showcasing beautiful America in an almost pastoral way.
Screenplay: I’ve mentioned it a few times already, but Quentin Tarantino did good work with this screenplay, and his Golden Globe was well deserved. He created the perfect canvas for his actors to really develop these characters and give them each a unique personality. For example, in the opening sequence after Schultz seriously wounds the slave-transporter and decides to free Django and take him with him, he steps towards the remaining slaves and says, calmly and eloquently:
Now as to you poor devils? So as I see it, when it comes to the subject of what to do next, you gentlemen have two choices. One: once I’m gone, you could lift that beast off the remaining Speck, then carry him to the nearest town. Which would be at least 37 miles back the way you came. Or Two: You could unshackle yourselves? take that rifle, put a bullet in his head, bury the two of them deep, and then make your way to a more enlightened area of this country. The choice is yours. Oh, and on the off chance there are any astronomy aficionados amongst you, the North Star is that one. Tata.
This dialog is so funny because to the slaves, as well as the audience, the choice is clear. It also shows how Schultz, despite being a white man who is not exactly overly sympathetic to the slaves’ plight, does not patronize them. This is the quality that the audience grows to love about him: despite being a bounty hunter, he is a decent human being.
Another perfect line emerges when Django and Broomhilda are finally reunited, in secret. Broomhilda is under the assumption that Candie has arranged for Schultz to have a rendezvous with her because they both speak German. Instead, Schultz brings Broomhilda into his room before opening the door to the adjacent room to find Django standing there. This is the money moment that we’ve all been waiting for throughout the course of the film. I was on the edge of my seat, anticipating what would happen next. As Broomhilda tears up in absolute shock and elation — after all, this is the man she hasn’t seen in years, the one she was taken away from when she was sold to a separate plantation, the one she thought about day and night as she endured a nightmarish life — the only smooth line to emerge from Django’s mouth is simply:
“Hey, little troublemaker.”
A Word About the N-Word:
I would be remiss not to mention the big elephant in the room about this movie. I know that lots of people, namely Spike Lee, were in an uproar over the liberal (and that’s an understatement) use of the word nigger. Believe me, I loathe the word, in any context, but I think here it actually helps drive home a point. If you hear something over and over again (approximately 110 times), you expect to become desensitized to it. That’s almost the case here, as we hear both blacks and whites use the word when referring to blacks:
“They’re your niggers.”
“I count six shots, nigga.”
“I count two guns, nigga.”
“You can’t treat him like any of these other niggers around here, cause he ain’t like any of these other niggers around here.”
But instead, something else happens. You never really become comfortable with the word — especially in my case, as I was sitting in a row between almost all black people in the theater — and instead, it’s like a rock in your shoe: you know it’s there and it’s bothering you, but you can’t do anything about it. To me, the final explosion of the film, when the bullets finally start to fly, you think, “Wow, they’ve finally had enough.”
The weak links:
Length: Boy, this movie was long. I saw this as #2 of my New Year’s Eve Double-Feature after seeing the cadillac Les Miserables, and boy, was the circulation in my legs close to dying. I felt the scenes that dragged the most were the revenge scenes at the end. After establishing that shit was going down and people were going to die, I thought that they could have condensed the scenes which directly followed where Django is again caught and imprisoned in Candyland before making his final escape.
Gore: I know that gore is Tarantino’s middle name. And as I said earlier, I think that a lot of what was shown should have been shown, like the slaves being whipped, branded, and torn up by the dogs (I even hate typing that!). However, in the two final bloodbath scenes, I felt that there was just too much blood and gore. I mean yes, you are happy on the one hand that Django is finally getting his revenge, but on the other hand, how many times can you watch someone be blown to smithereens by a shotgun?
All in all, I would say that this film is a 9/10. Most importantly, it makes you think. One would assume that in a plot like this — slave turned freeman getting to inflict horrible revenge on those who wronged him — that the violence would be welcome. But somehow, it’s not, at least to me. As a matter of fact, the scene where Django leaves a wounded, crippled Stephen in a house burning to the ground almost made me tear up. Yes, Stephen did re-capture Django after Schultz killed Candie, hang him upside down in a barn and threaten to chop off his balls with a scalding hot knife — but it just illustrates the complexity of history: it’s not a clean-cut fight between blacks and whites. There are always the in-between characters and parts of the population who get caught in the mix, whether it’s by their own will or not.
Coincidentally, January 1, 2013 marked the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.
Two of this year’s film heavyweights Lincoln and Django Unchained tell two very different stories of that frightening time. It poses an interesting question, doesn’t it? If you were taken from your homeland against your will and transported to another continent and treated as property for generations — never knowing how to establish a nuclear family and having to surrender your self respect — and then suddenly set free, what would you do?