By Shane M. Dallmann
I finally caught up with Quentin Tarantino’s DJANGO UNCHAINED just before it received nominations for Best Picture, Screenplay and SUPPORTING actor (Christoph Waltz ???), though not Director.
As we know, this is Tarantino’s transplantation of an iconic Spaghetti Western character into a pre-Civil War slavery drama… as such, it also brings classic “blaxploitation” elements to the forefront (no surprise at all from this filmmaker)–needless to say, this is neither a remake of nor an actual sequel to DJANGO. Our title character (Jamie Foxx) starts the film as a slave until a not-by-chance encounter with German dentist/bounty hunter Dr. Schulz (Waltz) not only controversially upgrades his status but introduces him to the world of killing for profit. “I hate slavery,” says Schulz, “but I have to take advantage of it in this situation… I do feel bad about it.” So might say Tarantino or any other filmmaker who takes on a fiery piece of history in the name of entertainment, but more on that later.
After successfully assisting Schulz on his current bounty mission, Django agrees to team up with him as a free man–and Schulz is more than willing to help Django rescue his wife (Kerry Washington as “Broomhilda von Shaft” !!!) from the oily clutches of “Monsieur” Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his “Candieland” plantation, which also serves as a nerve center for highly lucrative “mandingo” death matches. And in order to infiltrate this world, Django must descend to the utter depths and pass himself off as a black slave trader. “Then give me THAT,” says Schulz. “Give me your BEST black slave trader.”
If you notice that I’m quoting Schulz more than Django himself, it’s no accident. After playing a thoroughly evil German in INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, Waltz now acquits himself as a GOOD German with an equally silver tongue–he’s the one who teaches Django to read and write, and it’s up to Django to take up his mentor’s mantle in a crucial sequence later in the film–Schulz gets most of the best lines, but he and Foxx offer equally intense performances, make no mistake.
Naturally, these characters don’t get to talk about the movies they’ve seen or engage in similar pop-culture conversations, but the script is still vintage Tarantino which boils over during, for instance, a suspenseful dinner conversation at Candie’s estate–and which, of course, supplies shatteringly violent punctuation both where and where you wouldn’t normally expect it. Nor does it play things safe by merely giving us noble, heroic blacks and one token “good” white character: in addition to Django’s own thoroughly despicable masquerade character, we’re given an unforgettable turn by Samuel L. Jackson, whose embarassingly amusing “Uncle Tom” persona masks an intelligence above that of his master… but to what end? Nobody… not even Christoph Waltz, can deliver Tarantino’s dialogue better than Jackson.
This is no more a history lesson than was BASTERDS–it’s another exercise in vicarious wish-fulfillment: just as the Bear Jew got to take a bat to the Nazis–and a machine gun to Hitler himself, Django and those he liberates get to take whips and firearms to sadistic overseers and slave traders throughout the course of the story while the soundtrack covers everything from traditional Eye-Tye Western tropes to carefully chosen contemporary music. And of course, we get a series of most welcome cameos (including Bruce Dern, Russ Tamblyn and Tom Savini). It’s undeniably a rousing entertainment, but I can’t quite put it all the way up there with BASTERDS itself. One of my reasons is, admittedly, an “it’s just me” thing. You know that I’m an animal lover, and I’m especially fond of horses. I know that far worse things happen to people than animals in this film, but these things happen for crucial reasons and these atrocities are carried out by disgusting, inhuman villains. But during the opening sequence, a “good guy” does something to a horse that upset me for far longer than it should have (the very first thing you see in the end titles is the ASPCA assurance). But the film also builds up to a huge cathartic climax that certainly seems to herald the finale–before revealing that it still has a ways to go, and I had to uncomfortably re-adjust accordingly. It’s not like KILL BILL… even when Uma Thurman took on the Crazy 88 (I think that’s what they were called?) we knew that she was nowhere near Bill himself.
But all is forgiven with a finale that delighted me to no end. If you’ve known me for a while, you may know that I have a particular favorite Spaghetti Western actor. It’s not Eastwood. It’s not even Bronson. And I won’t spoil it for you. He doesn’t get an actual cameo, alas (though we DO get the kind participation of Franco Nero), but just as things light up, HIS song hits the soundtrack, and we’re even graced with HIS special “look” in what is now, in restrospect, my favorite movie moment of 2012. Needless to say, DJANGO UNCHAINED comes with my enthusiastic recommendation.
On trivialization, exploitation and the N-word…
Tarantino has now made two films in a row dealing with highly flammable historical subjects. INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS skirted controversy by not dealing directly with Nazi death camps, but DJANGO UNCHAINED unapologetically drops us into the brutal morass of the slave trade. And of course, people are talking–some of them very angrily.
Roberto Benigni caught as much hell as acclaim for LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL, which dared to introduce humor and fantasy to the setting of a death camp, but he never made light of actual suffering. The approach of Mel Brooks to the Nazis was to ridicule them so that their very appearance would hopefully become nothing more than a joke. And Brooks, being Jewish himself, escaped major criticism for such a take on the subject. But wait a minute–Mel Brooks isn’t black, so how dare he use the N-word so often in BLAZING SADDLES? Well, frankly, nobody cared at the time, but AMC now airs a version of the film which erases each and every use of the word (no matter who uses it). The result is one of the most emasculated comedies imaginable… in this rendition, it’s nothing more than a series of sight gags. By the way, AMC isn’t at fault… this version of SADDLES was prepared by MCA for television. AMC simultaneously shows a Paramount edit of THE GODFATHER which isn’t completely uncut, but which still allows the characters (especially James Caan) to use the words they would use in normal conversation. Yes, including THAT word. They used that word in ROOTS, too, and they used it at least as many times as Tarantino used it in DJANGO UNCHAINED.
Yes, they’re different. Yes, one’s more historically accurate than the other. Yes, Tarantino indulges in anachronistic music and similar artifices. But for Tarantino to deliberately pussyfoot around a controversial word that quite simply WAS used frequently by people in that time and place would be to create another AMC print of BLAZING SADDLES. It would cease to work, and it would cease to be true to its subject matter.
We will never stop learning from the Holocaust, the slave trade and other ugly episodes of history. But between serious documentaries, dramas, miniseries, and yes, even comedies and exploitation films, the world of entertainment has brought us as close to “the truth” as it ever can be experienced by one who hasn’t been there himself. The rendition will never, ever BE the reality, and the artist must remain true to his vision. DJANGO UNCHAINED, as with LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL before it, is the film that it needs to be, and what you make of it is entirely up to you.