Tarantino’s latest film takes place in 1858, two years before the Civil War- the year that William Wells Brown published the first Black drama, Leap to Freedom; John Brown held an anti-slavery convention; Abraham Lincoln said “A house divided against itself cannot stand;” The Richmond Daily Dispatch reported that 90 blacks were arrested for learning. Early that year a series of events hostile to Blacks happened in San Francisco. The case of the escaped slave, Archy Lee, heightened conflicts between pro- and anti-slavery contingents in town. Black children were excluded from public schools and legislation was introduced to ban black immigration into California.
Tarantino made his engaging, well-acted and directed film in the true spaghetti-western style, with Ennio Marricone adding to the soundtrack as he had for Sergio Leone’s films which featured Clint Eastwood. However, he tackled a more serious issue than that of the typical pulp western of revenge, show-downs, and gun-battle one-upmanship. Django Unchained is a seriously nutty “comedy” that elicits a sober discussion on enslavement, and its portrayal over the years by slaves to Hollywood. Put bluntly, he does not employ mushy sentimental platitudes a la Spielberg in Amistad or The Color Purple. It is about the deadly craziness of racism and slavery’s particular horrors.
“Django” stars Jamie Foxx, Kerry Washington, Leonardo DiCaprio, and the incredible German actor, Christopher Waltz, for whom Tarantino wrote delightful, erudite, highfalutin exchanges (as he did for Waltz in Inglourious Bastards). He also wrote a lot of inflammatory dialogue for the white guys and some “domesticated” Blacks, including generous use of the “n” word. Tarantino’s love for Japanese samurai films is evident in lots blood splattering, gushing, and spraying.
Dr. King Shultz (Waltz), a meticulous record keeper, is a bounty hunter who tracks wanted men: Dead or Alive. He’s masquerading as a traveling dentist, evidenced by the oversize spring-mounted molar that jounces and wiggles on top of his horse cart as it rumbles along . During a chance meeting in the woods at night, he comes across Django, an escaped slave in a chain gang. Shultz frees him because he knows where the bad guys are and elicits his help. Django agrees only if Shultz helps find his wife, Broomhilda (an obvious play on the name Brunhilda of Wagnerian lore), played by Kerry Washington. She is a slave at Calvin Candie’s Mississippi plantation. When they ride into a town, the townsfolk are shocked: “Looka there! A n- – – – – on a horse!” and dumbstruck. A tavern owner shouts, “Get that n – – – – outta here!” Over beers, Shultz tells Django that bounty hunting is “like slavery, a flesh-for-cash business.” He convinces Django to play his valet so as to come off more a business man than bounty hunter, and sends him off to a costume shop. Django emerges dressed as Gainsborough’s The Blue Boy (Tarantino does have a wicked sense of cultural reference). To his credit, Tarantino uses flashbacks sparingly; showing them only to flesh out character, such as Django and his wife and his early days as a slave.
Many scenes are shot through with gory brutality wreaked on blacks that are difficult to stomach, one of whipping a half-naked woman for breaking a few eggs. Shultz and Django rile up white slave owners who resort to forming a hooded posse (precursors to the Klan?) who complain about the hand-made hoods- the eye holes, especially, which is hilarious; much needed levity in this bloody, violent film. In one scene, Shultz asks Django about Broomhilda’s name, then tells him the German myth, how the hero, Siegfried rescues Brunhilda. He then convinces Django to act like a slaver himself, to ingratiate themselves with Candie, outfitting him in fine, well-to-do cowboy attire and a beautiful, hi-steppin’ horse, on which he cuts quite a figure.
By now, almost half-way into the near three hour film, I was getting impatient- when would meet we Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio)? After witnessing a gruesome contest between slaves egged on by white plantation hands, involving a slave, d’Artagnan (Eto Assando), they arrive at Candie’s plantation, CandiLand. Candie is handsome, rich, smooth-talking, corrupt, and evil. He stages a bloody wrestling-to–the-death matches between slaves in a gorgeously appointed room while guests drink and dine, oohing and ahhhing as they shrink from blood spatters. Broomhilda is there, severely punished for trying to escape. Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson, made up like, as one critic said, Uncle Ben), is Candie’s kowtowing, simpering house slave with his own agenda, who literally hangs over Candie’s chair at the head of the table. He bows and nods as Candie explains to his guests why slaves don’t revolt, using a skull to illustrate. At one point, Shultz is visibly appalled; Stephen asks Django why it doesn’t bother him, being Black himself. Django answers that Shultz is German, “I’m more used to Americans than he is.”
One scene in particular: Shultz gets Candie’s goat by mentioning the slave d’Artagnan, telling him that the man who wrote The Three Musketeers, Alexander Dumas, was Black. Candie loses it spectacularly, in a mad rage. It’s fair to say that Christopher Waltz carries the film. When both Candie and Shultz are literally no longer in the picture (Shultz had a trick up his sleeve) near the end, the film becomes predictable. Django turns himself in to spare his wife. But he has an out: money- lots of it. The ending is, of course, an absolute blood-bath, no one is spared, not even Candie’s toady, incestuous sister, Lara Lee (Laura Cayouette). Django gives Stephen his comeuppance, too. There are horrific explosions and a happy ending. Django impresses Broomhilda with his horse’s dressage, then the couple ride off into a Gone with the Wind-like sunset. Django becomes a legend for Blacks, almost like Toussaint L’Ouverture.
Tarantino is known to tap “has been” actors for his films. In Django, the TV actor Don Johnson plays a sheriff, and film star Franco Nero who was in the original Django a decade or so ago, is seen as one of Candie’s guests at the wrestling match. The film is up for several Academy Awards. See it now!
This review can also be read in an abbreviated version at www.socialistaction.org