Unchained Genius

#45 – Django Unchained – Quentin Tarantino – 2012

(this film ranks in the top 100, but I’m not giving its place until I get there in the list).

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This review is going to be structured in a rather odd way. Firstly I’m going to address some concerns and controversies that have been brought up surrounding race, what I can and can’t say about them, and what the greater impact those have on my opinion of the film. Secondly I will address the film itself in what I loved and the few things left to be desired.

Django Unchained is Quentin Tarantino’s latest feature and it stars Jamie Foxx in the titular role along with Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Samuel L Jackson, and Kerry Washington. The story begins with Waltz purchasing Django from some slave traders to help him collect the bounty on a trio with whom Django is familiar. This turns into a brotherly partnership and after months of collecting different bounties, the two go to find Django’s wife Broomhilda who is currently owned by DiCaprio.

Many concerns have been brought up, most famously by Spike Lee who claims that the film is “disrespectful to my Ancestors.” While I don’t usually give much credence to people blasting films without having seen them, I can understand Lee’s frustration.  On its most basic level, it is deeply problematic that Tarantino, a white director who almost seems to fetishize black culture, decided to make a movie about slavery. Secondly, the fact that the film seems to portray a white man “saving” the black man from slavery is so racist its cliché. The third concern which I’ve found in some reviews of the film is that its use of violence doesn’t portray the real brutality of slavery as well as that the ‘N’ word is used too frequently.

As a white person, I can’t really criticize Lee’s reaction other than that I don’t believe you should criticize something you haven’t experienced. As for the overarching concern of Tarantino’s place in telling this story, I, again, cannot be the definitive voice, but due to his choice to have Waltz’s character be in the film, I don’t find it as problematic as if he had just made a movie telling the story of black people for them. He seems to have tried to make it a story about the antebellum south rather than a story about slavery, and in my eyes that is somewhat redeeming. Next is the “White Saviour” problem which to me isn’t actually a problem when you see the relationship arc. I saw a great parallel between their relationship and the transformation of the Anakin/Obi-Wan relationship in the Star Wars prequel trilogy. Beginning as a paternalistic relationship (the kind of which many “compassionate” white folk may feel towards the “unfortunate downtrodden people of colour”) it transforms into this beautiful friendship and true partnership where both sides learn from the other and have a meaningful impact on the relationship. This is only my perception of the relationship, but you can understand why I feel the criticism is unjustified. Finally, I will go over why I disagree with the use of violence criticism in the second part of the review, but I do feel that the use of the ‘N’ word was overboard, in particular because it was the only word used when words such as ‘negro,’ ‘black(add suffix),’ ‘slave,’ and others could have been used while still keeping the accuracy of the racist language of the time. Lastly, these things don’t impact my opinion of the film. The way that the film comes together reflects a serious tone that I was amazed by, and I feel that just on a tonal level, it is a scary and deeply moving story that supersedes any of the potential racist clichés it is being accused of. And now, on to the film.

When I walked into the theatre to see Django, I was expecting another Tarantino film: witty dialogue, stylistic action, and some ironic humour thrown in for colour. I knew that Waltz and DiCaprio had been nominated for Golden Globes and that Foxx had not. As the film laid itself out however, I started seeing the fantastically portrayed character arc from Jamie Foxx. From a tired (physically and emotionally) man on the edge of desperation, to a hesitant hero learning from first a mentor, then a friend, and finally composing himself as the antithesis of all of the things that he hated so much about his experience up until that point. He is truly the star of the film and gives one of the best performances of the past 10 years.                

Another interesting performance in the film is that of Leonardo DiCaprio. There are villains that you love to hate, villains that you identify with, and then there are villains that are truly just the scum of the earth. In the first category you have the Joker from The Dark Knight, the second is Denzel Washington in Training Day, and representing the third we have Calvin Candie from Django Unchained. This man is the definition of evil and truly the scum of the earth. He gives the chilling performance of a slave owner that we all imagine: men who honestly saw these slaves as property worth nothing more than the dirt off their boots. While a good performance, it doesn’t match up to Christoph Waltz partner/mentor role. Waltz shows his diversity of skill by playing a calm controlled character that shows some subtle and honest emotions in his best scenes.

This brings me to the concern I mentioned earlier, as well as what makes this film the best Tarantino film since Pulp Fiction. There was a criticism that this film didn’t portray the brutality and emotional distress of slavery properly, especially in terms of the gratuitous violence. I honestly think that we couldn’t have been watching the same film. Tarantino uses the violent and abhorrent treatment of slaves, not as a stylistic joyride, but as a truly horrific viewing experience. While DiCaprio’s character may have been laughing and egging the behaviour on, there was always the counterpoint in the faces of Fox and Waltz. There is a scene when Django brutally whips one of his former owners, and while visually stunning, the brilliance comes from the pain on Django’s face that hints at a lifetime of suffering in which this outburst is based. These scenes alongside Django’s character arc create what is easily the most serious of Tarantino’s film. While there is some humour, it is only there to relieve the tension brought upon by these fantastic and horrific dramatic pieces.

The only criticism’s I have relate to the use of the ‘N’ word, which I have already touched on, and Kerry Washington’s role. If I could have asked for one change to the film, it would have been an extra fifteen minutes to really delve into the passion of the relationship between Broomhilda and Django. Washington only has maybe 5 lines in the whole film and is on screen little considering her importance to the plot.

Overall, this film is a masterpiece. It deserves a slew of Oscar nods, and unless Lincoln, Life of Pi, Silver Linings Playbook, or Zero Dark Thirty wow me more than this did, it deserves a lot of statues as well. Nominations for Supporting Actor (for Waltz), Cinematography, Editing, Costume Design, Art Direction, and Sound Mixing should complement wins for Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, and Actor (for Foxx). This is (at the moment) my favourite film of 2012, not only because of all I mentioned above, but because Tarantino shows that he does care about more than just the style of his films. He has a heart for substance, story, and character development that bleed into the very fabric of this brilliant film.

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