I have a special affection for the spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone and the music of Ennio Morricone. In 2004, when the Gene Autry National Center had the exhibit “Once Upon a Time in Italy…The Westerns of Sergio Leone,” that was more exciting to me than the current LACMA exhibit on Stanley Kubrick. With “Django Unchained,” Quentin Tarantino not only revitalizes the spaghetti Western, but recreates the genre of the Western by dragging it to the Deep South.
We’re not talking about the South that is Texas although part of the story does take place in that Southwestern state. We’re talking Mississippi-burning territory. I understand the name Django comes from the Sergio Corbucci 1966 “Django” and not a Leone movie. Franco Nero the eponymous character of the 1966 Western plays a minor role in Tarantino’s “Django” and the soundtrack includes music from the original Django and some composed by Ennio Morricone ( from “Two Mules for Sister Sara”), along with some original tracks.
Besides your affection for spaghetti Westerns, your reaction to “Django Unchained” will depend upon whether you can stand hearing the world “nigga” said outloud and it, along with some choice four-lettered words and used liberally. I cringe when I hear it, but Tarantino is not illustrating politically correct times. There’s no revisionism in that respect.
There are some anachronism, but let’s look at them after we go over the plot.
Two years before the start of the American Civil War, Django (Jamie Foxx) and his wife are sold to separate owners. Django is bought by the Speck Brothers (James Remar and James Russo). A dentist-turned-bounty hunter, Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) attempts to guy Django from the brothers because Django can identify the Brittle brothers who have a pricey bounty on their heads. The brothers have taken new identities and work on Big Daddy’s ranch. Big Daddy (Don Johnson) isn’t too pleased with the killings of white men by a black man, but he attempts to stay cool, planning an ambush KKK-style for that night. Things don’t go as planned but it’s one of the funnier sequences.
Django and Schultz become partners on the promise that Schultz will free Django once they bring in the Brittle brothers. During this time, they become partners and eventually, they become friends enough that Schultz is willing to risk his life helping Django find and reclaim his wife. The wife, Broomhilda Von Shaft (Kerry Washington), is being held at Candyland, a place run by Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) with the aid of his slyly racist black slave Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson). Candie’s Candyland is a pleasure park for Southern slave-owning gentlemen where the male slaves are used for the bloody sport of mandingo fights and the female slaves are prostitutes and courtesans.
One pleasure of this movie is that it doesn’t take itself seriously from the KKK-sequence which is anachronistic. The Ku Klux Klan was founded after the end of the American Civil War in 1865. Then there’s dynamite which was invented in 1876. While there was a film called “Mandingo” in 1975, there’s no historical evidence this was true. Of course, consider that the 2009 “Inglourious Basterds” was neither worried about historical accuracy or accurate spelling (and took its name from a 1978 movie “The Inglorious Bastards”).
Another guilty pleasure is seeing the obvious joy the actors get from playing some truly despicable villains. As Candie, DiCaprio oozes with the deadly charm of a spoilt child who has too much power, but not enough intelligence. The cunning father-child, master-servant relationship between the older and wiser Stephen and his owner Candie builds up an ironic complex dynamic. Don Johnson’s Big Daddy is a wily gent who can conceal his anger beneath Southern civility, but his good ole boy might not be the best person to run a vigilante lynch mob.
This isn’t a white-bashing festival. Django’s friend and ally, Schultz comes off as a respectable gentleman and friend who still has questionable ethics that illustrates the troubled moral values of the genre of the Western (and blaxploitation) as well as the pre-American Civil War society–North, South and West.
“Django Unchained” is a violent Western, written as a revenge Western set in the South and filled with dark humor contrasted by heinous acts of cruelty. Ignore Spike Lee and go see Jamie Foxx claim a place in a Southern Western that is bound to change how we see the South and the Western.