Thursday, December 27, 2012

Django Unchained: A Gun Slinger With a Black Face

Django Unchained
Directed By: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo Dicaprio

Django, Django, Django. There is so much to say about this movie it hard to know where to start. For those of you who know me personally, you'll know that I am highly critical of Quentin Tarantino. I find a lot of his work highly overrated, and even his best films don't crest my top 20. I do not, and never have, worshiped at the alter of Tarantino, unlike a lot of young filmmakers and film-goers. I like some of his films, I love a few, most I could take or leave. But this film is right up my ally.

Tarantino has always had a flare for the absurd, and his pulpy, exploitative films really speak to a modern audience. He uses his signature techniques, and lengthy plots to draw the audience in, then hits them with action and violence so over the top, you can't help but enjoy the ride.

Unlike Inglorious Bastards, Django Unchained found a nice balance between the goofy and the serious, a balance that supported the plot. Inglorious Bastards on the other hand, starts out decent, but was ruined by Brad Pitt’s refusal to tone down his already outrageous character. I maintain that Pitt was a horrible choice for the lead and he ruined the film with his ‘look at me’ acting. However, Django showed a slightly more controlled Tarantino who didn't let a single actor overtake what turned out to be a very fluid film.

In true Tarantino fashion, there were some old favorites and plenty of new faces and each of them excelled in their roles. No one added extra bravado to the already absurd characters, unlike Brad Pitt who added that gross southern accent that was incredibly distracting.

It is probably safe to say that this could be Jamie Foxx’s defining role. He is Django. He perfectly embodies the bloodthirsty gunslinger with a sense of humor and righteousness. You can’t help but love Django, for his smart-assery, stoicism, and his unapologetic trigger finger. Django is a complex character that at one moment laments killing a man in front of his son, but then happily shoots slave traders who set him free, and gunned down Candie-Land Plantation’s Southern Belle.

Now, there has been some criticism from people like Spike Lee who will say that Django Unchained didn't portray southern slavery correctly, and was, perhaps, a little heavy with the word nigger and the stereotyping of black people. While those arguments are valid, I know for a fact that Tarantino did not set out to make a film about slavery. 

Django Unchained is not a movie about slavery, and anyone who thinks so lacks understanding of cinematic liberty and style. Which is why I am forced to roll my eyes at Spike Lee's butt-hurt attitude. The idea of slavery was simply the device, the catalyst to a story that turned out to be a classic fairy tale in which the hero rides through hell fire to save the damsel in distress. Trying to dissect this film in a historical sense is moronic. Tarantino doesn't think that way, he never has, and you will drive yourself crazy if you look to him to be an intellectually responsible historian. Film is art, and art is never wrong. 

I personally found the portrayal of slavery incredibly interesting, and humanizing. In many films about slavery, often you see slaves shows as one group, with one mentality, with the same feelings, and the same hardships. They are often shown to be obedient, humble, and unwilling or unable to fight. Or they are held up as unsung heroes who might have flourished in a different time. Which has always come off as a bit unrealistic to me. The idea that everyone felt the same has never sat well with me. 

There is always this black and white depiction of slavery and sometimes, its nice to see another perspective, whether historically correct or not. Films are unburdened by a strict adherence to history, and because of that, they are free to explore an infinite number of ideas and stories. This is why we love movies.

I like that each slave in Django Unchained had his or her own personality and struggle. There were the unknown house and field slaves, that were whipped, ripped apart by dogs and beaten to death for the amusement of their masters. But then there were concubine slaves who were beautiful, wore the best clothes and sat in the company of white men. There were mixed-race children who stood to defend their master and father. And then there was Samuel L. Jackson’s character, Stephen, that was treated almost like an old senile member of the Candie family, who found solidarity with his masters, instead of his fellow slaves

Samuel L. Jackson was absolutely incredible, as he usually is. Playing the old house servant and patriarch of the house slaves, he is vicious, callous and incredibly loyal to his master. His character is almost as much of a villain as plantation owner Calvin Candie, played by Leonardo DiCaprio. But you can’t help but love him as he lectures Candie about allowing Django to sleep in the big house saying, “Letting a nigger sleep in the big house? Your daddy would roll over in his grave.” Stephen is a deplorable character, but incredibly dynamic and fascinating.

Leonardo DiCaprio has come out in the past few days to say that he hated his character Calvin Candie when he first read him in the script, but I thought he played him perfectly. Candie is horrible plantation owner with a thirst for human suffering. But he straddles the line of being almost charming, and likeable at times. When he was first introduced, I was unsure how I felt about Candie. That was until Candie’s defining scene at the dinner table, a scene that made me relish the conclusion of the film.

The film also stars Kerry Washington who plays Broomhilda (Hildie), Django’s wife and Christoph Waltz as the dentist Dr. Shultz. While Hildie’s character didn’t get much screen time and really only served as the call to action, Christoph Waltz was great and was responsible for holding the film together.

Not only was Dr. Shultz likeable, he was witty, smart, and had little patience for the "business of slavery." He was a strong character, well written, and well played by a very respectable and seasoned actor.

The cast is truly the strength of this film. Each had their role to play, and no one stepped outside of their positions to take over the film. Despite the star-studded cast, no one attempted to outshine their cast mates. No one threw in last minute ideas that distracted from their character. Each played their part, and played it well.

The photography was beautiful and worth mentioning. Though I am a sucker for films about the South & West. The sweeping landscapes and variety of locations made the film visually rich. And the decadent interiors contrasted with the blood stained walls and piles of dead bodies, was perfectly executed. This was also Tarantino’s first film with out his long time editor Sally Menke by his side, but Fred Raskin came in and did a good job despite being a little green.

The music is also worth mentioning because it gives the film that extra kick of modern kitsch. It's not only typical twangy country music you'd expect in a Western, but also hip-hop and classical music. The film showcases musicans as diverse as Rick Ross and Riziero Ortolani and neither feel out of place. The music stands out and forces the audience to take notice. The music is a character all its own, and it is used for specific, purposful reasons.

This is a film that is an unapologetic celebration of kitsch, violence and vengeance. This is not a film for those with delicate sensibilities or a weak sense of humor. The film is an all out blood bath and you’ll laugh through the whole thing. But from Tarantino, I would expect nothing less.

A : Solid A for this movie. Jamie Foxx nails it, and Tarantino has outdone himself, and has made me a believer! When you see it, see it in theaters, with someone who loves movies, and you’ll have a great time.


As many of you know, I love violent, action packed films and love to write about them. Movies have been a huge part of my life since I first saw Beauty and the Beast for the first time in theaters. But, I am also a firm believer that the only place we should ever see violence in our lives, is in the movies. That is where violence belongs, not in our real life communities.

However, I reject the idea that movies, video games and other art forms are the reason we have so much violence in our society. There are those of us who are committed to peace, and community service, who also enjoy a movie like Django Unchained. There are those of us who love gore and horror films, but that doesn't mean we engage in such activities in real life. We enjoy films that depict certain violent activities but cringe in disgust when real life violence graces the news.

While there are some who become desensitized from an over indulgence in exclusively violent media, we can't point the finger at the media with out pointing 3 back at ourselves. It is not the media that creates the problem, it's so much deeper than that. It is our refusal to accept and deal with certain realities.

Film, and art, are often painful reflections of our cultural problems. Many people believe that the movies effect society, which is true, but not as much as society effects the movies...

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