Michael's Review of Django Unchained
The anti-racial parable has been so prevalent a staple of American cinema that at this point I feel as if it is much a genre of film as something like science fiction, or Westerns. On more than one occasion, I have seized upon the opportunity to express my disdain and offense at the trends in several of these critically and commercially popular films; some of which I have enjoyed ("The Help"), others which I have loathed ("The Blindside"). While I feel all of these films were probably made with the most altruistic of intentions, there was one consistent element that permeated from all of them that made me look to them with a rather jaundiced eye: in every single one of them, the "evils" of racism are always defeated by a white person. A young white girl uses journalism to defeat racism. A sassy Southern woman takes in a young black man and challenges the evil of racism. I fervently maintained a hope one day to see a movie of this type where, for a change, the disenfranchised black individual in the film could rise up against his antagonists and challenge the prejudice with his own hands.
Enter "Django Unchained", Quentin Tarantino's symphonic Epic Western (or as Tarantino has come to refer to it, his "Southern"). To be fair, Tarantino is no stranger to this kind of wish-fulfilling catharsis where a classically antagonized group of individuals rises against their enemies; Tarantino explored the same conceit in "Inglorious Basterds", with a group of ragtag Jews exacting revenge against the Nazis. With "Unchained" though, Tarantino pushes his filmmaking talents and the content of the film to extremities even he had yet to explore, and which weren't explored nearly as much as previous anti-racial pictures. Slave owners brutally whip and degrade human beings at moment in this picture, to the point that it is at several moments emotionally gripping. Black characters are casually and openly demeaned by deplorable racists. And in one of the most controversial aspects of the film, the "N-word" is likely used in this film more pervasively than any other movie before it. But to any of the masses criticizing Tarantino for choosing to include the word so excessively, they are clearly missing the context in which it was used. All of these elements are not only meant to show how despicable the villains in this picture really are (which also means their comeuppance is that much more satisfying), but if you read any commentary from that era, it is actually accurately representing just how reprehensible the treatment of black individuals in pre-Civil War America truly was in that era. Tarantino does not have excessive racial slurs and violence towards slaves to revel in vile racist actions; it is portrayed IN ORDER to horrify and repulse his audience, so that the cruelty of Django's enemies is never lightened or softened. I believe the more racist action to take is to handle racism with child gloves and making it seem somehow less vulgar than it truly was. For all its swagger, operatic grandiosity, and sense of absurdist satire, "Django" in many ways feels far more honest and respectful to the genuine struggles that black America faced in the past.
"Django" tells the story of a horribly mistreated slave (Jamie Foxx) who is purchased by a decidedly anti-slavery German dentist-turned-bounty hunter (Christoph Waltz) as a business move to track down a trio of slave owners, with the promise of giving Django his freedom after and assisting him in saving his wife (Kerry Washington) from a tyrannical plantation owner (Leonardo DiCaprio). The film is an almost 3-hour movie, and yet it breezes through that time frame and maintains its epic scope through the entire running time. Tarantino's direction is impeccable throughout; the color in this film is sweeping and beautiful, and especially the shots on the plantation with the hanging moss from the trees and the immaculately managed grounds looks gorgeous. Starting with "Kill Bill" Tarantino made the very wise decision to use Martin Scorsese's recent cinematographer Robert Richardson, and as a result it has made his films since look increasingly more magnificent in scope, and for as large as it felt in "Inglorious Basterds" it reaches a fever pitch in this film. With its own twisted view on morality and scarred view of decency, the plantations of the South actually make a perfect fit for a Western, so much so it is surprising it has not been exploited for such reasons til now. And that Tarantino dialogue......oh how I fetishize it as a movie snob. Any actor who has any real love of the craft should be giving their right arm to have one of the monologues crafted in the best of Tarantino's work.
And speaking of the actors, I would be remiss if I did not mention the bravura performances throughout the picture. Nearly every performer is at the top of their game in this picture uniformly, but there are several performances that deserve special praise. First and foremost, Christoph Waltz and Leonardo DiCaprio both deserve the highest praise of the picture for playing conversely the most decent and heroic figure in the film and the most disgusting piece of filth in the movie. Waltz's performance would initially seem surprising, as he is no doubt one of the heroes of the film and he played such a chilling and original villain in "Inglorious Basterds", but Waltz proves he is an actor so versatile his undeniable charisma radiates no matter what side of the moral line he is on. Waltz is funny, clever, and cool, and is also the character who appears to be the most emotionally troubled and pained by the horrors afflicted on the black masses as a result of slavery. While Django fights to free himself and others from a way of life he despises but accepts initially as a part of society, Waltz's Dr. Schultz is the one that cannot fathom or resist the urge to challenge the injustice that slavery represents. The movie's pre-eminent abolitonist comes in the form of a slightly silly yet undeniably smart dentist-turned government killer.
As for DiCaprio's plantation owner Calvin Candie, it is shocking how much you will loathe him for the filth that he is in this picture. DiCaprio has never truly played a villainous figure, and for his first foray down that road, DiCaprio gives a performance that I feel is worthy of the highest of acting accolades. DiCaprio is an unapologetic racist who shows a complete lack of concern or value for the worth of African-American lives. The only black face that he greets with any measure of respect is the horrible house servant Stephen (an unrecognizable and equally impressive Samuel L. Jackson as the ultimate traitorous Uncle Tom figure). If you watch him closely, DiCaprio actively avoids any real moment to even so much as touch any non-white individual, and never misses an opportunity to discuss them as if they are mere property. The now-infamous dinner table scene, in which DiCaprio accidentally sliced his hand open during an intense moment and yet continued to finish the entire scene never once breaking character, is one of the most frightening moments in the film. Any question of DiCaprio's talent after his performance here should be met with laughter at the absurdity of such a notion.
And last but not least, there is Jamie Foxx. It is almost unfortunate that the deserved praise of Waltz and DiCaprio seems to be eclipsing Foxx's performance to some degree, because what Foxx brings to this film is indispensable to making the film work as well as it does. Django is not a one-dimensional character; he begins as a frightened, resigned, emotionally and physically wounded slave who with training from Dr. Schultz finds the courage to be a heroic figure who can stand against his foes. While he may begin the film as more submissive and frightened, by the end of the film he is a cocky, confident, swaggering cowboy hero who won't stand for any disrespect towards him on account of his heritage. In essence, the story of Django ends up being Tarantino's story of how the first blacksploitation hero was born. Foxx carries the strut of that beloved 70's staple with aplomb, and it is very obvious his character is meant to echo that. Even when his name is shown on a series of documents it is revealed his last name is "von Shaft", an obvious reference to the iconic blacksploitation hero.
Django is no doubt a film that lives for excess. Genitals are shot off more than once, entire people are exploded, chunks of meat fly off when people are shot, and everything is done in an overtly stylized manner. But wow is it beautifully shot, intelligently written, beautifully acted, expertly paced, and WOW, is it a hell of a lot of fun.