Whether you love or hate Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Django Unchained’ has a lot to do with your feelings about him as a filmmaker. Peter Bogdanovic called him “the single most influential director of his generation.” What is most impressive is that he never went to film school but credits a job at a video store as his inspiration for his directorial career. Tarantino has an encyclopedic memory for classic movies. His love for 70s genre movies serves him well in his films. ‘Django Unchained’ is a mash up of Sergio Leone-style “Spaghetti Westerns” and “Black Exploitation” films. For those that are expecting a traditional “shoot ‘em up” John Wayne-style epic Western, you will be sadly disappointed with this film.
Two forgettable films that influenced ‘Django Unchained’ are ‘Django’ (1966) and ‘Mandingo’ (1975). Recently, filmmaker Spike Lee made Twitter comments that he didn’t see the story of his slave ancestors as a Sergio Leone movie. After seeing ‘Django Unchained,’ I understand Spike’s reservations against Tarantino’s film. At times the film is campy and playful and at other times in the three hour film, it is plain offensive. This is not an easy film to review because there are many aspects of his vision that work and others that fall flat on its face. It is nice to see the main protagonist as a strong black man. Jamie Foxx’s stonefaced ‘Django’, who is a slave turned bounty hunter, is rock solid.
Before digging into the plot, what doesn’t work is the constant use of the “N-word” throughout the dialogue. You might be saying that the racial slur is authentic to the pre-Civil War period the story takes place. It’s excessive. It’s not used sparingly at all. It is peppered in almost every sentence and used hundreds of times throughout the course of the film. Another poor mark goes for the gratuitous violence. Let’s face it; Tarantino’s world is full of ultra-violence. That isn’t the issue. Some of the scenes are just downright too long. For instance, a scene where a slave gets mauled to death by vicious dogs wasn’t necessary to make his point regarding the brutality of slavery.
There is also a scene with “Mandingo-fighting” which is two African-American slaves beating the crap out of each other while whites bet on who will win. Black historians have come out and said there is no evidence in American history that this kind of fighting ever took place. Granted, Tarantino is not making a documentary about slavery in America but this scene could have been left out of the plot. The story is about a German bounty hunter, Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) who frees Django (Jamie Foxx) from a chain-gang. Schultz makes a deal with Django to help him track down three men for a bounty. Django is a natural born bounty hunter and in exchange for his services, Schultz helps Django rescue his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) from a ruthless plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).
There are some juicy performances to admire in the film. Once the duo, reaches Candie’s plantation, aptly named “Candie Land,” you can tell DiCaprio savors every moment as the cruel slave owner. It is a fun performance to watch. Waltz gives another standout performance as bounty hunter Schultz. He won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Tarantino’s ‘Inglorious Basterds.’ However, the most haunting performance in the film comes from Samuel L. Jackson as an “Uncle Tom” house slave named Stephen. Unfortunately, Kerry Washington’s performance as Django’s wife is lifeless.
Diehard Tarantino fans will enjoy the film. For me, I know Tarantino is capable of much better films. My three favorites are ‘Reservoir Dogs,’ ‘Pulp Fiction’ and ‘Jackie Brown.’ His use of Film Noir in these films is brilliant and can take up a thesis paper. In actuality, ‘Jackie Brown’ is an often overlooked film that makes a stronger statement about race relations in America.