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Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained,” starring Jamie Foxx, Leonardo DiCaprio, Christoph Waltz, Kerry Washington, Samuel L. Jackson and numerous other familiar faces, beat out “Les Miserables” and came in second after “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” this past – its opening – weekend. Many people like Mr. Tarantino’s movies very much, for very different reasons.
With “Django,” Mr. Tarantino employs his impressive skills as a writer and director to combine pre-Civil War American history and the horrors of the institution of slavery together with characteristics, motifs, and more from spaghetti westerns and blaxsploitation films.
This process and its result – an extreme fantasy of violent revenge – is what makes “Django” so controversial. Equally knowledgeable African American filmmaker Spike Lee has publicly stated he will not see “Django,” that to do so would be an act of disrespect toward his ancestors. Others, notably those who acted in the film, disagree.
The story is about how Django (Jamie Foxx), a slave in the American South, becomes a free bounty hunter able to act on his quest to find and free his wife, “Broomhilda” (an unpleasant mutation of the German “Brunhilde”; she is played by Kerry Washington). The protagonist’s name “Django” harks back to director Sergio Corbucci’s 1966 Italian “spaghetti” Western called “Django” (an apparent tribute to jazz musician Django Reinhardt). Aspects of the story and its setting make reference to Corbucci’s terribly violent “Il grande silenzio” (1968) and to some degree Richard Fleischer’s “Mandingo” (1975).
[Spoilers] The film begins with a chain gang of slaves driven through snow by white men on horseback. The slaves wear rags; they are freezing and miserable. The scene’s music is typical old-time, upbeat Western movie music. The visual and the aural conflict for the first time right at the beginning of the movie; this is how much of the film will be. A later scene of a flashback to the terrible beating of Broomhilda by her and Django’s owner’s men is also covered by incongruously upbeat Western-style music. The result is extremely dissonant.
Django is freed by his bounty-hunter mentor, King Schultz, played by Christoph Waltz (who was also in Mr. Tarantino’s award-winning “Inglourious Basterds”), and joins him in bounty hunting until the time is ripe for the two to find Django’s wife. The sharp-shooting German bounty hunter with the heart of gold has long talks with Django, educating him and bringing him out of his shell.
Schultz and Django find Broomhilda’s new owner, the incredibly wealthy Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), and come up with a plan to get his attention that requires Django to ignore how viciously Candie treats his slaves. Django’s love for his wife allows him to bear an appallingly well-done scene of degradation and violence, proving the student has finally and predictably surpassed the master in his ability to playact a part toward his goal.
Samuel L. Jackson is excellent as the sycophantic old slave Stephen who finds them out and tells Candie. A large-scale violence extravaganza soon occurs, after which the audience sees the full flowering of Django’s intellectual powers, his fearlessness, his drive, and ultimately another violence-arama. Soon, Django has destroyed everyone who has remotely harmed him or his wife, turning degrading, humiliating violence back on them so he and his wife may be free. He turns and grins at the screen; Broomhilda looks on him with adoration and delight. They ride away together.
Whether it works is going to be different for different viewers. For Mr. Lee, slavery is too immediate a piece of history to make light of in this way. He himself examines race issues and their history in many of his films face-on. He appears to feel Mr. Tarantino’s treatment trivializes African Americans’ deeply painful relationship with slavery – and that of every other American, too. He has a point.
Other viewers are not as sensitized to historical tragedy and will be able to experience the protagonist’s fantasy retribution positively: Django becomes a free man; he excels at everything he turns his hand to; he is a good student; he is courageous, noble, driven and finally, successful in his quest. They can take his triumph for their own and perhaps for all African Americans. Mr. Waltz has said in an interview that perhaps by looking at history differently, its future path can be changed. Mr. Tarantino clearly means his film to be empowering; in an interview he said that maybe, one day, “seeing ‘Django’ might even be a rite of passage for black kids.” Non-black viewers, most of whom (hopefully all of whom) will have strong feelings about slavery, may take pleasure in Django’s all-encompassing revenge as well. Further, most everyone has been an underdog at some time and Django can be seen in that broadest of lights as well.
“Django” is flawed in parts by predictability. One example is the relationship of Django and Schultz, rough but heartwarming, like a father nurturing the younger man’s skills and self-confidence until he can go out into the world on his own. It is a little sickeningly sweet. And the graphic violence that is a trademark of Tarantino films, can – strangely – seem longwinded.
The movie is 165 minutes, awfully long for the simplicity of the story. Even these very good actors cannot make predictable events more novel. In general, though, the movie keeps one’s attention, and it is funny in places.
Viewers who are knowledgeable about genre movies and movie history will probably love it, but for some, the cheerful, Western-style music playing during the whipping of a human being will be too jarring to be entertaining. As bad, the hero at the end has become a man ready to kill anyone. One fears Django may now be just as heartless as some of the people he has killed.