The quickest way to describe Django Unchained is to say merely that it was written and directed by Quentin Tarantino, all of whose films are both violent and outrageous, the most recent one being his irreverent take on Nazis in Inglorious Basterds. I
If you don’t know who Quentin Tarantino is, then you might not want to see Django Unchained. There will be too many geysers of blood spurting out all over, and as the movie shifts from goofy parody to deadly serious with quite a few stops at B-movie heroics, it might be too mentally subversive. But if you know Tarantino’s work, then you’ve already become inured to his wild gyrations of style and meaning, knowing that the individual parts of his films, often on seemingly different planets, all seem to make sense, albeit sometimes nonsense, when everything comes together at The End. There’s no contradiction then to describe the film as outrageous, relentless, repulsive, factually inaccurate but emotionally right-on, sarcastic, silly, excessively gory, surprisingly compassionate and impossible to forget.
Specifically Django Unchained is a spaghetti western that takes place in the South two years before the Civil War. It’s a love story about a freed black man struggling to rescue his wife from a villainous Mississippi slave owner. It’s a brotherhood tale between that black man and a German immigrant who is both idealistic and murderous. It’s a vicious look at how white men—and black men—hate black men with a rage that knows no bounds. Whether it’s poking fun at the ridiculousness of Ku Klux Klan raiders trying to see out of their badly sewn masks or the horrifying scenes of masters mistreating their slaves, Django Unchained takes a look at American slavery that no other film has done. There’s no Gone with the Wind nostalgia in this film, no happy banter between slave and their “massas.” There’s nothing in this film that you’ve seen before.
Django Unchained shows the widespread inhuman cruelty that slavery really was. It holds no punches nor tries to salve your feelings and coyly turn away from what might repulse you. It’s history in the raw that none of us wants to see but must. Women are tortured, raped and humiliated. Men are fed to dogs and chained by their ankles and castrated. What black people in this country endured under slavery should make you sick. It especially makes you sick to think that thousands of people, men and women, used the name of God and the Bible to defend slavery.
Some people complain that Django Unchained is too violent. That’s like saying you shouldn’t show people getting blown up by bombs in a war movie. Or show black eyes in a movie about domestic battery. Slavery was a violent evil that knew no justification at the time, and has carried its foul legacy down to today – let’s face it, would any other U.S. president be subjected to the indignities and name calling that Mr. Barack Obama has endured if he/she weren’t black? One of the more horrendous things to remember about Django Unchained is that it depicts what life was like for slaves and their masters about 150 years ago. In other words, we are only six generations removed from what was depicted in this movie.
Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz, Oscar winner for 2009’s Inglourious Basterds) is a former dentist who travels in a caravan with a bouncing tooth on top. But now he works, eagerly and expertly, as a fashionably dressed, charming, well-spoken, sharp-shooting bounty hunter. If someone’s wanted “dead or alive,” Schultz prefers them dead – it’s much easier to transport a dead body than a live one. In order to earn the big reward for the nasty Brittle brothers, Schultz frees Django (Jamie Foxx, Oscar winner for 2004’s Ray) from a chain gang and partners with him to identify and kill the three siblings. In the beginning of their working relationship, Schultz is the ironic sophisticated philosopher of the world, compared to Jingo’s ignorant naïf.
Into the beautiful Tennessee plantation of Big Daddy (a happily prettified Don Johnson), Django rides in beside Schultz. He’s an unfamiliar, provocative sight—a nigger on a horse. (Don’t be shocked by the n-word, it’s used constantly.) Django finds the Brittle brothers hiding out under another name and shoots them dead. No remorse.
Big Daddy rounds up all his pals and they chase after the bounty hunters. They are frustrated in their pursuit of plantation justice by their ill-fitting hoods. The argument about should they wear the hoods or not, and can they really be who they are without the hoods, is so hilarious (and repulsive) you’ll think you’ve stepped into an uncensored Saturday Night Live skit. I haven’t laughed so hard at a film in ages. Other funny moments are many, such as cameos for those in the know, such as the appearance of Frank Nero, star of the original Django film from 1966.
At first Django balks at killing men he doesn’t feel personal revenge for. But under Schultz’s persuasive tutelage, he expands his targets to include any men who have hurt others in the execution of their crimes. Like a military sniper, he learns to shoot from such a far distance he can’t even see his victims’ faces.
After Django has proved what an apt bounty hunger student he is, Dr. Schultz asks him, “How do you like the bounty-hunting business? Django answers without a hint of remorse, “Kill white people and get paid for it? What’s not to like?”
Django reveals why he is so eager to make lots of money with Dr. Schultz. He wants to find his beloved wife who was sold separately from him and buy her freedom. Schultz is shocked to learn that Django’s wife (Kerry Washington, who also played his wife in Ray) is named Broomhilda and speaks German, learned from her German-American masters. Schultz knows Broomhilda from his country’s mythology – she was a mistreated princess who was rescued by the hero Siegfried. As a loyal German, Schultz insists he must assist Django, who is a real-life Siegfried.
They learn that Broomhilda is a house slave at Candieland, an enormous cotton plantation in Mississippi owned by the ruthless and sadistic Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), who is just as repulsive inside as he is pretty to look at. In Candie, Schultz has met his match, equally as perceptive as he is and just as hard a bargainer. Schultz and Django, used to play-acting in their schemes to get close to their quarries, now play the parts of slave owners who are looking to buy the best black fighters Candie has to offer. The men are called “Mandingo” warriors, black men who fight to the death like gladiators, for the pleasure of rich white gamblers. (In truth, this probably didn’t happen. Slaves were too profitable to pit them against one another, but the horror of the scenes is no less convincing for not being historically accurate. It’s the hatred that’s revealed, not the specific means. )
For me, the least effective scenes were the ones in which the house servant Stephen (played by a barely recognizable Samuel L. Jackson) acted the obsequious conspirator against Django and Schultz. It was not only the despicable nature of the character, but because the scenes went on way too long. It is Stephen who figures out that the two strangers want to buy Broomhilda, not a male fighter slave, and he sets in motion the betrayal that pits the forces of slavery against the drive for freedom.
Candie lives in redolent luxury on the plantation that has been in his family for four generations. His hostess (and lover?) is his beautiful belle sister who acts like she hasn’t the vaguest idea how her brother mistreats their slaves. He cares not a whit for his slaves, in fact, as a believer in phrenology, he thinks Negroes are subhuman. There are rare exceptions, he claims, such as Django, who he finds a “rambunctious sort.” Schultz and Candie mentally joust with one another, giving both actors a chance to strut their stuff. Meanwhile Django’s hatred of Candie and all he stands for rises as he continues to emulate the few-words demeanor of Clint Eastwood’s “the man with no name.”
Finally Candie’s unbearable cruelty unchains Django and vengeance takes over in a gory bloodbath that leaves no guilty party mourned. Yes, it’s pretty sickening. But it wouldn’t be a Tarantino film without a gory bloodbath, would it? At least the one in Django Unchained has had 165 minutes to lead up to its righteousness.