Django Unchained

Published on January 25th, 2013

django2By Laurence Barber

Writer & Director: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Samuel L. Jackson, Kerry Washington, Walton Goggins
Length: 165 min.

When Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a German dentist-cum-bounty hunter, tracks down two men transporting a group of slaves, he reveals himself to be in possession of two things: a quick wit and a special interest in Django (Jamie Foxx). Schultz abhors slavery, but at the same time he can’t help but see the benefit in the layout of the situation. He wants Django to identify three slave-driving brothers at a particular plantation who are, in reality, outlaws. Promising Django his freedom and a cut of the bounty, they set out on a journey to find the nefarious Brittle brothers.

As it turns out, Django has quite the flair for the bounty hunting game. Having been sold away from his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), Schultz agrees to help track her down. She now works for the evilly charming Francophile Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) on his tartly-named plantation, Candyland. Candie has a keen interest in Mandingo fighting, where slave owners essentially force black men to fight each other to the death. Posing as a potential buyer of a Mandingo fighter, Schultz and Django travel to Candyland to find Broomhilda, raising the suspicions of Candie’s housekeeper Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson) and squaring off with one of Candie’s men, Billy Crash (Walton Goggins).

There’s a hell of a lot at play in Django Unchained, but that’s just how Quentin Tarantino likes it. It’s a film marked by his trademark smooth dialogue, a world of stylised violence, and like Inglourious Basterds (2009) before it, a desire for retribution against one of the most pervasive evils in history. While the two films bear fundamental similarities, there is plenty to set them apart. This film borrows the title and main theme from the 1966 Sergio Corbucci-directed Django, includes a nod to The Great Silence (Sergio Corbucci 1968), and features an Ennio Morricone song, but never relies on being a series of cheap references. It is an homage filtered through the lens of modernity, as evidenced by the wonderfully anachronistic soundtrack.

With a strain of caustic humour woven through it, Django Unchained is anchored by its co-lead performances. Waltz again acquits himself strongly as an enigmatic man driven by a kind of hostile politeness, where in Basterds his Hans Landa was typified by more of a polite hostility. His developing sympathy for Django’s plight is enjoyable to observe. Foxx puts in what is easily his best performance since Ray (Taylor Hackford 2004) as a man slowly coming to terms with his newly acquired agency, before turning that agency into intense badassery. DiCaprio is terrifically villainous, cast against type and evidently relishing the chance to cut loose.

There are certainly some aspects of the film that don’t quite gel. The ending feels tacked on solely for the sake of being triumphant, Washington is barely given anything to do, and evidence of excised subplots fray at the film’s edge. Jackson’s Stephen, too, is a character whose motivations never quite seem apparent other than obvious indoctrination and fierce loyalty, the source of which goes unexplored, which proves a disappointing absence from the thematic concerns of the film.

django3That said, the depth of thought in Django Unchained is what elevates it beyond a wildly entertaining actors’ showcase. There are thousands of words to be written both for and against its elastic account of history. Some argue that Schultz is taking pity on Django and only helping him out of a sense of white guilt, as though the right thing can only be done through the veil of tokenism. Another fascinating subject is how Tarantino’s inclusion of Mandingo fighting, and the portrayal of Candie as a wealthy bachelor, points to the innate homoeroticism of man enslaving man. It shines a light on what writer and activist Yolo Akili calls “white men’s consumption and fascination with black male bodies”, a perspective which is consistent with innumerable historical examples of sexual exploitation in enslavement of both men and women.

In his book Male-Male Intimacy in Early America: Beyond Romantic Friendships, William Benemann describes why this largely went undocumented in the slavery era:

Recently, Charles Clifton has attempted to decipher homoeroticism in published slave narratives, and in presenting his research has pointed to one serious barrier to our understanding. In an attempt to claim for themselves the dignity of white-defined manhood, male former slaves needed to suppress references to their sexual degradation.

Given the nature of some of the violence depicted in the film – much of which is shockingly reflective of reality – it seems that Benemann and Clifton make a salient point that Tarantino has quietly punctuated.

Opening to the glorious strains of the original Django theme performed by Roberto Fia, Robert Richardson’s camera tracks a line of shuffling slaves through terrain both bleak and beautiful. It focuses on the poorly healed lacerations on their backs and the chains shackling them to each other, symbolic of a shared history of oppression. The subjugation of African-Americans is likely the most shameful aspect of American history, and in Django Unchained Tarantino seeks out cinematic revenge in this elastic, bloody and exhilarating historical revenge fantasy.

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