What Quentin Tarantino did (gloriously) for Jews with his last film, "Inglourious Basterds," he now does for blacks with the brilliant, innovative, and explosively entertaining "Django Unchained," one of the best films of 2012. Its Oscar nomination for Best Picture was well deserved -- ditto for its Screenwriting, Cinematography, and Acting nominations.
Whereas "Inglourious" was a Jewish revenge fantasy that ended with a massacre of Nazis, "Django" depicts a slave turning the tables on one of the sickest and most violent plantation owners in 1858 Mississippi. Let's just say that a lot of bad people are killed in the end, and it's done magnificently. No one does a kill scene with more gusto and meaning than Tarantino.
Jamie Foxx stars as a slave, Django, who is purchased and then freed by a German bounty hunter named King Schultz. Christoph Waltz plays Schultz with delicious panache. (Waltz, an Austrian character actor, won an Oscar for his eerie, remarkable performance in "Inglourious" and is now nominated for his work in "Django.")
Schultz needs Django's help to locate a group of criminals with a bounty on their head. They do that job and then decide to stay together as partners. Schultz is profoundly moved by Django's quest to find his wife (played by Kerry Washington).
Schultz just about falls off his chair when he hears that Django's wife is named Broomhilda, a bastardized version of the name Brunnhilde, the goddess of Germanic mythology (who, incidentally, is a major character in Wagner's mammoth "Ring" opera cycle).
In the legend, Brunnhilde is set atop a mountain and encircled with fire. A hero named Siegfried eventually frees her. To quote Schultz (paraphrasing): It's my obligation as a German to help you on your quest, Django. It's not every day that a German gets to meet a real-life Siegfried.
Schultz explains the Siegfried/Brunnhilde myth beautifully. I don't think I've ever heard traditional German culture spoken of so warmly in an American movie. It's a wonderful way for Tarantino to demonstrate that his bloodthirsty hatred of Nazis is in no way an indictment of all German culture. Tarantino in fact seems to be saying that certain aspects of old-time German culture could enrich all of our lives today.
After several adventures, one that involves a hilarious parody of the KKK (reminiscent of Mel Brooks's parodies of the Nazis), Django and Schultz finally find Broomhilda. This brings them to Candy Land, the most notorious plantation in Mississippi, headed by the deeply twisted Calvin Candie (played with scary magnetism by Leonardo DiCaprio).
Schultz and Django develop a ruse where they pretend to be in the market for a "mandingo fighter." This brings us to mandingo fighting, something I had never heard of before seeing "Django." In the film, it is depicted as human cock fights. Two black men must fight until one of them is dead. This is where the film gets most dark and gruesome.
But was there really mandingo fighting in 19th-century America, or was this something Tarantino dreamed up? Based on the little research I've done, it is not historical. It was probably dreamed up by Kyle Onstott, a California dog breeder turned novelist, who wrote the best-selling novel "Mandingo" in 1957, which was turned into an infamous B picture in 1975 directed by Richard Fleischer, who also directed "Soylent Green". Tarantino has praised "Mandingo" as one of his favorite American exploitation movies. (I've never seen it, but I would love to.)
The word comes from the Mandingo people of West Africa, who are also referred to as Mandinka.
Even though mandingo fighting is probably not historical, it serves a purpose in the movie. It allows Tarantino to explore the somewhat eroticized sadism of the master-slave dynamic. It is no surprise that the mandingo fights are shown to take place in a brothel. But Tarantino soft-pedals the eroticism. For the most part, the fights are depicted the way Nazi atrocities would be: pure evil.
At Candy Land, we also get the opportunity to meet a "head house Negro," played by Samuel L. Jackson. This character has a hatred of black folks that rivals his master's. This gives the film interesting complexity and much food for thought about the nuances of power. I've had some interesting discussions with black friends about this. They found the Jackson character true to life, a type of racist black that has almost never been shown in movies.
Tarantino brilliantly uses music to punctuate the many adventures that Django and Schultz have. I honestly can't remember ever enjoying music in a non-musical movie as much as I did in "Django." Tarantino's taste in music is astonishing. He's known for his use of little-known 1960s soul songs, and he uses those here quite a bit. But he also uses rap and a few other genres to great effect.
The cinematography is also breathtaking. In the first half of the film, there are many scenes filmed outdoors (in Wyoming). It's not exactly innovative. It's fairly traditional Western photography, but the best example of it that I've seen since "Brokeback Mountain." It may be the first time an African-American character has been shown against a classic Western backdrop. I loved that. In so many ways, black history is being made by this film.
The overall art direction, including sets and costumes, is also top-notch. Tarantino has become an overall movie craftsman of the highest order. He's always been known as a snarky screenwriter, but he's become much more than this. His overall command of the cinematic medium is now rivalling that of Hitchcock.
I won't say how it all turns out, of course. But there are several nail-biting twists and turns in the last hour, and several major characters are killed.
"Django Unchained" is a grand epic, nearly three hours, that goes by faster than most 90-minute movies. It contains so much content, presented in such an entertaining way, that it felt like three movies in one. You always get your money's worth at a Tarantino flick.
The overall message is a glorious celebration of black liberation. Django is the center of the movie. In the first half, it's Schultz with his black sidekick. In the last third, the roles reverse. It becomes Django (Siegfried) and his charming, lovable German sidekick.
The final shot involving a gigantic conflagration is a joy to behold, the perfect way to end the movie. It should be remembered that "Inglourious" also ended with a huge fire -- in a movie theater no less!