Movie Review: Django Unchained (2012)

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Seen: At the Kendall Square Landmark Cinema in Cambridge.

So this is what everyone’s been talking about, huh? After reading several articles about it and having multiple real-life friends want to discuss it with me, I figured I should finally see Tarantino’s latest revisionist period piece, Django Unchained. Jamie Foxx stars as the titular Django, a freed slave who teams up with chatty German bounty hunter King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). After brutally destroying three sadistic overseers who were wanted for murder, the two plot to rescue Django’s still-enslaved wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) from the clutches of Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), a malicious plantation owner whose delusions of highbrow pretension make him easy to manipulate.

Ok so yes a lot of people have a lot of problems with this movie, and I can understand why. I am not qualified to go into the various nuances regarding race and Hollywood and exploitation and whatnot, though many other well-informed writers already have. But I do have a few things to say, I guess. My main concerns/questions regarding racism/sexism in this movie stem from wondering about Tarantino’s intentions, and his awareness of his fanbase. On the surface, the premise of an ex-slave avenging the shit out of some asshole white slaveholders seems like an easy thing to support. And I’m sure that’s how a lot of viewers might see this movie. You can either read a lot of subtext and details in the script and characters, or take it at face value. I’m afraid too many people might be doing the latter, especially since I’ve heard many reports of audiences laughing at things that aren’t particularly funny. I just can’t say how much Tarantino meant to be funny or one-dimensional- is he fully to blame, or is it partially his audience? Of course for many viewers and commentators, the biggest issue is that this type of story had to be told by a white filmmaker, since black filmmakers would likely meet a lot of resistance if trying to do this through a studio.

This movie does reinforce certain stereotypes- the stoic, macho black man, the damsel in distress, the complacent slave/Uncle Remus, the white savior- and in some ways it can get a pass because of its obvious foundation in exploitation and western genres. Some of these are archetypes known to those types of movies, and I guess no one’s walking into a 60’s western expecting strong female characters (unless it’s True Grit!). But you know what? This isn’t 1960’s-70’s grindhouse. This is 2012, and I would like to think that Tarantino might have learned a little bit about character development in his many years of filmmaking. I couldn’t stand Kerry Washington’s put-upon Broomhilda, whose sole purpose is to be shown in many scenes of torture or pretty, silent visions, acting only as a goal for Django to reach, a trophy to be reclaimed. I know this isn’t her story but jesus, SOME agency or even personality would have been nice, all I know about her is she can speak German and she’s got a badass husband.

It’s the white savior stereotype that stuck out to me the most, primarily because I really enjoyed Christoph Waltz’s performance as King Schultz. He’s funny and endearing and he gets most of the best dialogue. He also represents another angle of racism in 19th-century America (and beyond), in which even those who are anti-slavery did not view black men and women as equals, but something more akin to children. Schultz considers Django his friend and partner, but also frequently speaks down to him, never fully trusting his intelligence and often acting like he is some sort of unskilled teenager when he’s at least in his 30s. He claims to be against slavery, yet still uses its laws in his favor when he needs Django’s help, and upon setting him free he “feels responsible for his well-being” or something to that effect. Their relationship is interesting, and I’d like to think that had it been given more time Schultz would have eventually realized that despite his good intentions he was acting like a condescending jerk- I really wanted Django to call him on it at some point but he never did. And so again I must wonder, how much of this somewhat subtle racism is intentional in Tarantino’s writing? And how much is picked up by casual viewers? Schultz is definitely meant to be a good guy, and hey, I rooted for him, but I hope everyone realizes that his type of character is also part of the problem.

Ok jeez I promised myself I wouldn’t get too rambly and yet here I am, sorry. Anyway. Django Unchained has a lot of things to recommend it despite its other issues. I loved the visuals- the bright colors, detailed costumes, and sprawling landscapes. The eclectic soundtrack is excellent, pulling from different periods and genres to aptly match Tarantino’s many references and inspirations. The cast is great, clearly, with Waltz stealing the show but Foxx, DiCaprio, and Samuel L. Jackson all getting in some fantastic scenes. It’s funny too, including a ridiculous bit concerning the precursor to the KKK that reduces them to utter fools. I didn’t mind the gory violence since it was pretty stylized, suitable to the overall grindhouse vibe, and there are some fun and memorable action scenes. The only part that grossed me out was DiCaprio wiping his bloody hand all over Kerry Washington’s face, since I knew it was real blood and I could only mentally weep for Washington’s many difficult experiences while working on this film. The movie as a whole is waaaaay too long, but hey, that’s kind of Tarantino’s thing, so I can’t say I was surprised. Just… antsy.

ONE final thing that bothered me, then I’ll let you go. There’s some comment about Django being that “One N-word in 10,000”, like he’s the ONE who could liberate himself and take revenge on his oppressors. I know it was meant to just be a good line at the end of the film, but it struck something with me. It sounds to me like Django considers himself the only slave strong-willed enough to take action, to save the princess, to kill the bad guy. Are the other unnamed 9,999 slaves so unwilling, so unmotivated, so unable? Pretty sure that’s not true, and its this reductionist view of the time period that rightly angers a lot of the film’s critics. Taking a very serious, traumatic moment in this country’s history and presenting it through the showy, simplified lens of a spaghetti western just doesn’t quite work the way Tarantino wants it to, even if the good guy wins in the end. There’s too much you’re forced to ignore.

3.5/5

Pair This Movie With: There were a few points where I was reminded of Blazing Saddles, and I think that’d be an ok pairing. Alternatively, the concept of a fast-talking white bounty hunter teaming up with an intimidating black bounty hunter reminded me of The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr, especially since Lord Bowler (played by Julius Carry) is my favorite character on that show. Or hey, if you want to learn a little bit about real blaxploitation and black filmmakers, check out the absolutely amazing Baadasssss!

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