It is difficult to think of a more fitting backdrop to a film about slavery in nineteenth century America than a day when an African-American solemnly took the oath to serve as President of the United States for a second term. More symbolism, if any was needed, was that it coincided with a day marked to celebrate the most iconic black civil rights leader in twentieth century America. Whilst watching Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, a spaghetti Western tale encompassing slavery, vendettas and retribution, one could not help seeing aspects of the film through the prism of Barack Obama and Martin Luther King.
Consider the opening scenes of shackled black men, including the eponymous Django (Jamie Foxx) purchased at a slave auction and walking in single file, shivering in the harsh winter with little more than a blanket for warmth and decency. The thought that one day a black man would President of the country they inhabited would have seemed laughable. It took almost a century and a half to see that day and for many the memories of prejudice and subjugation run deep. Many of them believe that Tarantino had no business as a white director using this issue as the basis for his movie. Filmmaker Spike Lee has said he would not see the film, explaining “All I’m going to say is that it’s disrespectful to my ancestors. That’s just me…I’m not speaking on behalf of anybody else”. He later added “American slavery was not a Sergio Leone spaghetti Western. It was a holocaust. My ancestors are slaves. Stolen from Africa. I will honor them.”
Lee said he was only speaking for himself, but there are many who feel that such a sensitive period in American history should not necessarily be in the hands of a maverick, though respected, film-maker known for his quirky humour and gratuitous violence. Conversely, there are those who would not feel inclined to watch a film about racial politics and slavery period but who are there because it is a Quentin Tarantino film. His status guarantees an audience. The key question is how he handles the issue?
Django Unchained is Tarantino at his very best and his worst, with the balance tipped in favour of the former. First and foremost it entertains. The signature repartee that (along with violence) has come to define the term Tarantino-esque permeates the film. From the moment Christoph Waltz, playing bounty hunter, Dr. King Schultz, buys Django’s freedom and sets off in pursuit of three fugitives that Django can help identify, you feel that this is a screenwriter on top form (Django Unchained has Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay and Best Film but not Best Director). He has also assembled a cast that rise to the occasion and their performances are much more than the sum of their parts. Foxx and Waltz are excellent as bounty hunters and much of their dialogue deserves to be savoured. For example, when Django is pointing out a fleeing fugitive whilst Schultz lines up his rifle:
Schultz: You sure that’s him?
Django: I don’t know
Schultz: You don’t know if you’re positive?
Django: I don’t know what positive means?
Schultz: It means you’re sure
Schultz: Yes what?
Django: Yes I’m sure…(Schultz fires)…I’m positive he dead.
The deeper plot running through the film is Django’s desire to rescue and be reunited with his wife Broomhilda von Shaft (Kerry Washington) who is on a plantation owned by Calvin J. Candie (Leonardo di Caprio). The introduction of Di Caprio as the devilishly charming slave-owner adds a new dimension to the verbal jousting and interplay which is only further enhanced by Samuel L Jackson with a bravura display as the wise, cantankerous Stephen who, in effect, runs the plantation and in recognition of this is given license to be grossly insubordinate, up to a point. The performances of this quartet are at the heart of what makes this such a painfully funny and enjoyable film.
Should slavery be a vehicle for levity and mirth? No, but what Django Unchained does well is the juxtaposition of the comedy and the tragedy. You find yourself laughing along with the badinage and then, suddenly, a glance at the expression on a slave’s face or the pleading of a slave for mercy brings you back to yourself. If it was simply a relentless portrayal of hardship and exploitation, there is a danger that the audience would become inured to it. What Django Unchained does well is repeatedly bringing it into sharp relief. A scene that lampoons the Ku Klux Klan is just one of the many highlights.
Tarantino deserves the credit for this and it makes Django Unchained an almost great film. However, the worst of Tarantino could be summarised by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle when he wrote “he had not that supreme gift of the artist, the knowledge of when to stop. He wished to improve that which was already perfect”.
It is an often-repeated criticism of Tarantino that his films are too violent. The first problem here is that the violence is handled in what can only be described as a slapdash manner. Even for a comical Spaghetti Western, the exaggerated splurting of blood everywhere, every time someone is shot is tiresome and childish. This might be forgivable if it didn’t detract from the scenes of violence that are crucial in illustrating just how abominably black slaves could be treated. Scenes where we see a runaway slave branded with a hot iron or another runaway set upon by dogs are almost lost in among the gratuitous violence.
The second indulgence is the length of the film at 2 hours 45 minutes. The last half an hour could and should have been dispensed with and the resolution tied into the remaining time. It serves only as a way to serve up more infantile violence and terrible cameo appearance from Tarantino himself.
Nevertheless, whilst those faults prevent it fulfilling its potential, it is an immensely entertaining film which hopefully also serves as a reminder, to a wider audience, of the appalling treatment black people suffered as slaves. If this message fails to get across, Tarantino has only himself to blame.