In an upcoming episode of my podcast Motion Pictures, I revisit Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, one year on from his ninth film being debated, discussed and dismantled by a hungry film-going populous. We discuss several of the film’s controversies, including how Tarantino represents Bruce Lee and ultimately approaches diversity in general… which brings me to his seventh movie, 2012’s Django Unchained.
Having missed the film in cinemas during 2012 (I have no idea why), I first enjoyed Django in the spring of 2014 and hadn’t seen it since, so with Tarantino back in the mind’s eye, it felt like a good point to take another run at a film that Spike Lee openly pilloried for the use of the ‘n’ word at the time, part of an ongoing back and forth with QT about how he portrays people of colour. I wondered if Django Unchained might have taken on new shades in the tumultuous shadows of the second half of the 2010’s.
First though, here’s what I made of it back in 2014 on first viewing…
The seventh film by Quentin Tarantino, right from the outset, is uniquely once again a work from this controversial modern auteur who continues to divide opinion across the board. Is he truly a great filmmaker or is he a repetitive hack? Django Unchained surely must provide evidence he’s the former, because it’s frequently quite a remarkable piece of work.
It’s interesting to watch after the release of 12 Years a Slave, a film that almost immediately has become the defining cinematic experience of African-American slavery, because Tarantino doesn’t shy away from it here either – in fact in places this reminded me of Steve McQueen’s masterpiece. The key difference of course is that Tarantino inevitably doesn’t treat the issue with the same serious eye, framing his exploration of the evils of slavery through the lens of a heightened Deep South, the texture of a spaghetti Western–or as he dubbed it, a ‘Southern’–and all of the established Tarantino stylistics: acres of claret, episodic long-form conversations exploding into violence, and moments of absurdist comedy sitting alongside blood-letting. Nonetheless, Django Unchained seems to have depth Tarantino at times lacks.
His previous two pictures divided opinion greatly in this way. Death Proof, his Grindhouse homage, was seen as dragging & indulgent, while Inglorious Basterds to some was scattershot, overlong and downright ludicrous. Both, it has to be said, were far sillier and less grounded, less grown up and less powerful than Django Unchained. The opening credits pertain to a pulpy revenge Western of old and threaten we might be in for another gimmick from the director, yet we’re soon disabused by that in meeting our central duo: Christoph Waltz as German bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz & Jamie Foxx as the eponymous freed slave Django, both of whom are two of Tarantino’s best creations. Waltz deserved his Oscar, and perhaps even betters his turn as Hans Landa in Tarantino’s previous work – he’s charming, funny, ruthless and fascinating to listen to.
Waltz just has an ear for how Tarantino writes that few performers he’s worked with can match, and one hopes they continue working together. Foxx is a strong counterpoint – quiet, brooding, noble, a fusion of Solomon Northup & The Man With No Name; they make a successful combination and their journey is a frequently exciting one as they tear up the Old West in an unlikely partnership that casts a hard light on the vicious prejudices of the age and here is where Tarantino surprises. Normally his films are a mesh of characters, storylines, interludes & time-shifting narratives, but he plays this purely as a singular narrative following Django & Schultz that really helps build their characters & make their journey into the evils of slavery all the more powerful, even when Tarantino softens his violent blows with plenty of comic doses.
It means that by the time he introduces arch ‘villain’ Calvin Candie, a good hour or more into the piece, it really feels like he’s earned it. Tarantino spends a long long time here, constructing the complex dynamic of the Candie set up, fully introducing Kerry Washington’s Broomhilda – the wife of Django & ultimate goal of their journey, she imbuing the imperiled slave girl with a resolve only since topped by Lupita Nyong’o’s Oscar winning turn. This becomes really a showpiece for two actors: Leonardo DiCaprio, absolutely adoring playing against type as the loathsome slaver Candie – dripping in wealth, exuding a misplaced confidence and grubby elegance he attempts to maintain, playing a long-framed dance with Schultz that taps into the psychology of slavery, as does Samuel L. Jackson’s old butler Stephen, perhaps in many ways the most interesting role in the movie.
Yes, Jackson gets to drop the requisite ‘muthafucka’ you’d expect from him in a Tarantino role but he also essays the role of a black slave sympathetic to his own oppression which is quite a fascinating reflection of what Django stands for. Admittedly, Tarantino spends too long in ‘Candieland’ with the set up, at times falling back into his overlong stretch of conversations, but when the uber-violence explodes it hits you like a shot to the heart – masses of stylised claret fly out of bodies, heads explode, the lashings of the whip crack the bones of those tormented, and both Schultz & Django display a Western-styled cool that adds to how well crafted they are. It’s surprising actually how well Foxx does especially in a role that requires him to say relatively little, with Django in many ways being us on his journey – surrounded by larger than life examples of a corrupt, prejudiced world, he slips into a quieter, background space while always still being central to Tarantino’s story.
By the epilogue of Django Unchained, you may feel it could have shaved a few minutes away, but chances are you’ll still be basking in the gorgeous lensing & cinematography Quentin Tarantino affords his piece; this might well be his most beautifully shot work, evoking the searing heat of the West & the smoky, bubbling cauldron of hate in the South with its exorbitant plantations & lavish wealth, which perfectly juxtaposes the monsters that lie within many of Tarantino’s characters. It looks sumptuous throughout, and as it compliments a wide range of excellent performances from established Tarantino players and indeed newcomers–with Foxx & Waltz particularly holding court superbly as our leads–as well as perhaps one of Tarantino’s best scripts, again worthy of the Oscar he won, it makes for undoubtedly one of the directors best pictures.
If he hasn’t quite yet shaken off the shackles of pulpy exploitation he’s dabbled in since his best work, Jackie Brown, this edges him closer to the filmmaker we all want him to be – distinctly Tarantino, but making films for his grown up self & not simply the excitable teenager within.
I would still largely agree with this summation. I still think QT could shave 20 minutes off Django in the second half and it would power up the pacing, as there is a slight drag that doesn’t feel present in his latest movie. I’m less sure, with distance, that Django can be equated with the seriousness or power of Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave.
We’re in the midst of a cultural awakening when it comes to the black experience. Protests and movements the world over are discussing slavery in a new, wide-eyed context. Statues of slave traders are toppling. Educators are being encouraged to embed tough, reflective discussions about colonial history, on both sides of the Pond, for new generations to learn and understand about the darker aspects of their states’ past. As a white man of privilege, in my own context, I wonder how the pulp, comic-book violence, the bloody nihilism of Django’s vengeance, and the cartoonish super-villainy of Tarantino’s white supremacists looks today. It feels more throwaway. It feels intentionally designed to entertain rather than explain or educate.
This is not necessarily a bad thing, if we place Django in the realm of heightened fantasy most of Tarantino’s films exist. Hollywood’s title points it out as a fable set in the dying days of counter-culture. Basterds explosively revels in a Nazi-killing catharsis. Django could be placed alongside those pictures as examples of Tarantino looking at cultural American history through the lens of privilege, but intentionally twisting truth and fiction through a grotesque, funhouse mirror. Django is a world of heroes and villains and our place, as an audience, is to enjoy the visceral exploitation of it, rather than anxiously worry about how faithfully the film depicts historical reality.
Have you seen it lately? If not, it’s worth revisiting, especially in the context of where we are right now.
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