Note: This review contains spoilers and may be best for those who have seen the film.
“Are you not entertained?” This oft-repeated line from the classic film Gladiator captures the tension between the sadistic and the sensational, which is where Tarantino’s Django dwells. The adventurous and deeply romantic scenes of Django are layered onto the brutality of American slavery. This effect is the inclusion of wild west tavern scenes remixed to include dialog on the concept of flesh as product in business transactions. One aspect is entertaining. One part is enlightening. Together? The end result is not clear. The idea alone of Tarantino’s approach provoked a response from filmmaker Spike Lee who tweeted, “American Slavery Was Not A Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western. It Was A Holocaust. My Ancestors Are Slaves. Stolen From Africa. I Will Honor Them.” At the time of this review, Lee had yet to see the film. It remains to be seen how general audiences will respond to the content.
The potentially jarring blend continue throughout the film, particularly in scenes with Leonardo DiCaprio’s character. He aggressively attacks each scene with charismatic cruelty and graciously invites guests to dine with him while death takes place at his feet. No objection here to the language or the graphic images included. It does nothing for any audience to sanitize slavery to a PG rating. It is the scenes intended for humor and the seemingly warm collusion by the subjugated that is suspect at times, most evidently, in Samuel L. Jackson’s character. It seems to suggest somehow that the “business of flesh” is one that everyone takes part in.
Untarnished from any of these conflicting concepts is the singular love story of Django and Hildi. Both actors deliver a deep and believable love for each other that is moving in its restraint. In one tense scene, Django sees his love for the first time after separation and cannot move. She is suffering, yet he is restricted from comforting her at all due to the larger plan of a free life together. It is a tight shot to Django’s eyes that twitch and tear that conveys his compassion for his beloved. Interestingly, it is usually the sensual that is exploited in films. This is not the case for Tarantino. Nudity is actually reserved for the most brutal of scenes. The first physical reunion for the loving husband and wife is not shown on screen at all. This holds true through the end of the film when the scene of ultimate freedom is shot not in a bedroom but outdoors, beyond the plantation gates, in the equivalent of a ride off into the sunset.
In the end, what to do the dichotomy created by Tarantino’s choices? Well, most likely, laugh while feeling sickened and shed tears while cheering at the end when the sweeping retribution is complete. It is not billed as a documentary with accurate depictions of historical events nor an informed discussion piece designed to address structural and internalized racism, which is commendable, because it is neither of those things.
It is what it is: entertaining.
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