Every once in a while I am asked the question what spurred my fascination with cinema. While I’ve always had a long love affair with movies dating back to when I was a wee boy in the 1980s enjoying films like The Princess Bride and The Goonies, it was Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction that opened my eyes to the wider spectrum of cinema. I guess you could say, like Dorothy, I wasn’t in Kansas any more.
Tarantino makes the movies that he would like to watch. If you don’t enjoy them, well that’s your problem. He loves cinema so much that he’s been trying to work his way through his favorite genres since his career started back in the early ‘90s with Reservoir Dogs. Toiling away as a video store clerk gave him the freedom to attend his own film school. All he needed was a television and a VCR. And you can tell he’s a savant, or at least an extremely gifted taker of notes, when it comes to allowing his love of cinema to become part of the movie experience. It’s the reason why he includes in-jokes and subtle nods to his favorite films. John Ford’s The Searchers is visually represented in Kill Bill. The plot of Reservoir Dogs was mostly inspired by Ringo Lam’s City on Fire. The title font for Jackie Brown was lifted from theatrical posters for Foxy Brown. Both films starred Pam Grier.
At the onset of Django Unchained we get a classic Columbia Pictures logo. That subtle nod is the first of many that would pop up over the next two hours and 45 minutes. With Django, Tarantino has chosen to pay homage to the Western genre. The time and setting also serves as a revenge tale with a fair share of gallows humor that moves the story along. Just as he did with his last feature, Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino provides an alternate version of historical events. This time, instead of showing the end of the Third Reich, Hitler included, we have slave traders and nefarious white men getting killed by the likes of a freed slave-turned-bounty hunter named Django. The “D” is silent. And under Tarantino’s watchful direction, like the exploitive westerns of the era, specifically Spaghetti Westerns, anything goes.
Set two years before the Civil War (1858), the story twists and turns after the unorthodox purchase of slave Django (Jamie Foxx) by dentist-turned-bounty hunter, Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). Schultz, a man respectful of Django’s situation, gives him freedom but with one caveat: to first help him in locating and identifying the Brittle brothers, three immoral men who have a bounty on their heads. To Schultz’s surprise, Django is a natural when it comes to shooting, and the two become partners in Schultz’s bounty-hunting business. Working through the winter, from Texas to Tennessee, the two head to Mississippi where they hope to locate Django’s wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). Learning of her location the two devises a plan to gain access to the plantation where she is being held. It is there where Django and Schultz hope to bamboozle Monsieur Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) and buy Broomhilda’s freedom. Unfortunately, the bounty hunters are unable to con Candie’s personal house slave, Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), who smells something fishy the moment Django arrives.
In the days leading up to the release of Django Unchained filmmaker Spike Lee reignited a feud that he has had with Quentin Tarantino that dates back to Jackie Brown. When Tarantino dipped his toe in the blacksploitation genre his characters were incessant with their usage of the N-word. The N-word is again used a copious amount of time in this Western, by both whites and blacks. All in all, the total amount is close to 100 utterances. Lee, who is offended that Tarantino would poke fun at the subject of slavery, has said that he will not see the film. That’s his prerogative, but Django Unchained is far more than a film about slavery. The heart of the story is Django’s determination to reunite with his wife Broomhilda.
Yes, this madcap spaghetti Western deals with human trafficking, but Tarantino doesn’t outright make fun of slavery. If anything, the whites are painted with the broadest of strokes. This is especially true of Don Johnson’s character, Big Daddy Bennett, who leads a Klansman posse in an attempt to kill Schultz and his “valet.” Plus, when blacks are beaten and whipped by overseers there is no pleasure gained. The pleasure comes from watching Django diffuse the situation with a gun that would make Travis Bickle smile in a mirror.
When Quentin Tarantino was casting Django one of the big names mentioned for the title role was that of Will Smith. However, with Smith as a leading man and one of the few movie stars that can draw, the meeting the two had was mostly so that Tarantino could meet Big Willie. As the writer-director has shown with his past efforts, he can coax memorable turns out of his actors. Joining Michael Madsen’s ear-splitting “Mr. Blonde”, John Travolta (Pulp Fiction) and Christoph Waltz (Inglourious Basterds) is Jamie Foxx. A few years ago Foxx’s Hollywood status rose as a result of starring in Ray and Collateral. Recently, however, the actor hasn’t been given any major roles of note. As Django, Foxx tears into the role and displays a strong chemistry with his co-star Waltz. Leonardo DiCaprio, playing a supporting role for a change, proves more than capable at playing a loathsome villain. His house slave, Samuel L. Jackson, is buried under facial prosthetics and makeup, but is still recognizable because of the sound of his voice and attitude. The rest of the cast is filled up with notable cameos, including Amber Tamblyn, Bruce Dern, Tom Savini, Robert Carradine and Franco Nero (who played Django originally in the unrelated 1966 film Django).
Watching the western unfold Tarantino infuses the story with elements seen in exploitation films to make Django Unchained a more pulpy experience. The film has some serious things to say about how blacks were treated in the Old South but incorporates comical action set pieces to bring levity to the issue. The violence that occurs takes place after the verbal sparring has subsided and guns are drawn. The confrontations are short but memorable on account of the blood and brutality. But without Quentin Tarantino’s key ear for dialogue, the violence would have been wasted. For a writer-director who has touched upon subjects are varied as the art of tipping (Reservoir Dogs), the importance of foot massages (Pulp Fiction), et al., leave it to Tarantino to craft his funniest script to date, full of gallows humor and incidents that will stick in the craw of pundits who think the subject veers into the territory of indecency.
Django Unchained may not be as profound as Pulp Fiction or Inglourious Basterds, but it may be the director’s most uplifting and most romantic movie to date. Slavery is a dark subject, but at least Tarantino values optimism. Why else would he give Broomhilda’s the German surname of “von Shaft”? Maybe it’s because she is one bad mother.
If you watch Django Unchained and don’t leave the theater smiling, then maybe this isn’t your cup of tea. Just know that Quentin Tarantino intended the film to be an overindulgent experience. It’s his MO, after all. Everyone should know that by now.
Writer-Director: Quentin Tarantino
Notable Cast: Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kerry Washington, Samuel L. Jackson, Don Johnson
Tags: Christoph Waltz, Django Unchained, Don Johnson, Inglourious Basterds, Jackie Brown, Jamie Foxx, Kerry Washington, Kill Bill, leonardo dicaprio, Pulp Fiction, Quentin Tarantino, Samuel L. Jackson, Spike Lee, western