Review by Pete Mason
American history has an indelible mark of slavery that underscores the nation from founding until the late 20th century. Black men from Africa were made subservient to the superior white men of America, especially in the southern states, leading to the strife and struggle that followed after the emancipation of slaves and the passage of the Civil War Amendments. If America were to be given a do-over, perhaps slavery would be outlawed from the start, or maybe that wouldn’t happen given that the Southern states would never have ratified the Constitution with that provision included. The key word is ‘If’, and another ‘If’: What if a slave got revenge on the white people who bought and sold his people, including his wife? “Django Unchained” explores this ‘If’ in a spectacularly bloody western with slave revenge at the core of the film’s plot.
Django is played by Jamie Foxx, best known for his Oscar winning role in “Ray” and less well known for “Booty Call.” When freed from captivity by Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) in the opening scene (just as suspenseful and nearly as bloody as the opening scene to “Inglorious Basterds”), the two set out as bounty hunter (Dr. Schultz) and deputy in training (Django). Through the first half of the film, Schultz teaches Django how to shoot, seek out bounties and otherwise start on a trail of revenge, finding slavers who are wanted for other crimes, and killing them appropriately. For half the film, the stage is set for Django, the freed slave who kills white folks, to seek his ultimate prize – the wife who was sold separately from him to an unknown plantation.
(Note: This movie uses the word nigger many times. Spike Lee is none too thrilled with director Quentin Tarantino (per usual), and the overuse of the word throughout the film might be off-putting to some. This movie is set in the years before the Civil War, so the word’s use could be considered as historically accurate as Mark Twain calling one of his Huckleberry Finn characters Nigger Jim. Appropriate or not?)
Using settings found in Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns as the backdrop to the travels across Texas to Mississippi, Tarantino looks at slavery as the worst of criminal enterprises, showing off the excesses of plantations and plantation owners like Big Daddy (Don Johnson). He even makes light of the Ku Klux Klan, giving over an entire scene to a few dozen masked men and mocking the notion these men would hide their faces under hoods with small eye holes, before exacting revenge on them all in appropriate fashion. Hints of the revenge seen in “Inglorious Basterds” can be seen throughout, and not just because Waltz played a critical role in both – the parallel of Jews hunting Nazis and a freed black man hunting down white men is historical fiction, but also brings us back to the ‘If’ of historical revisionism and thus, the entertainment found within.
Eventually, Schultz and Django are led to the plantation of Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio, in a slimy yet charming role) where Django’s wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) has been made into a comfort girl. Under false pretenses, Schultz and Django seek to buy another slave for Mandingo fighting (whether or not this happened in history is up for debate) and at the same time seek to buy Django’s wife’s freedom. Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson) is the oldest slave who has his master’s ear, swearing through the orders of needing to respect his master’s wishes when they conflict with the disdain he has for the freed black man of Django. The raw face of slavery, the treatment of the men and women and the harsh circumstances under which runaway slaves were treated gives a portrayal of southern slaveholders that is not only meant to incite, but to set the stage for the ultimate revenge for Django.
“Django Unchained” is not for the faint of heart, especially those who are squeamish when seeing blood, for this film has lots of it. Brilliant acting performances by all, as well as the scenes at the Candie Plantation (Candie Land), make the film one of Tarantino’s best, on par with “Basterds” and “Pulp Fiction.” The film will make you laugh, slink down in your chair and draw you in deep to the semi-fictionalized reality of slavery and what ‘If’ this scenario had played out for real in American history.
“Django Unchained” is being screened at the Spectrum 8 Theatres and other theaters throughout the Capital Region. The film runs for 2 hours and 45 minutes and is rated R for graphic violence, nudity and some truly disturbing scenes of brutality. A recommended pairing to this film would be “Lincoln,” for obvious reasons.