Director Quentin Tarantino is no stranger to controversy. His films are imaginative and push the envelope on cinematic depictions of violence, sex and other taboos. Over the top blood splatter and tense dialogue are what I’ve come to expect when my dude, Quentin, drops a new film. Django Unchained, Tarantino’s newest, promises to employ all of these trademark techniques in a spaghetti-western-ish, pre-civil war context.
I saw the preview on Youtube months ago, with Jamie Foxx as the title character Django … heroically slaying plantation owners.
I knew that the film was not likely a documentary but an entertaining alternate history piece, however covering a very sensitive time period.
I’d heard what legendary film director (and personal idol) Spike Lee and other detractors were saying about “Django’s” insensitivity.
Like a moth to a flame …
I paid my ticket, saw the film and I think that Django Unchained was good, very good … maybe a bit longer than necessary, but entertaining overall. Tarantino did not disappoint as the guru of buildup/tension filled scenes … and the prince of over-the-top blood splattering violence. He builds characters, he tells a story, he shocks you … he makes you uncomfortable. Jamie Foxx told the Los Angeles Times that “Quentin has an affinity for writing horrible things and then making you laugh”.
That he does.
From the bone crunching “mandingo fighting” scene, to the gut wrenching dog scene, to the very frequent use of the word “nigger”. Tarantino holds the audience in dead silence with uncut scenes of chattel slavery’s ugliness (both the physical brutality & psychological catastrophe, frequently pitting the enslaved even against themselves). Then he engages in the clever and dangerous dance of getting us to laugh at the oafish early kkk members, and the sell-out caricature of Stephen – the plantation’s black head house slave, played by Samuel L. Jackson.
I recall just two moments in the film (near the end) that gave me real pause.
- When those three enslaved men threw Django the dynamite at the end, but then just sat there, not leaving the cart
- When Django seemed to agree with Candie that he was “that 1 on 10,000 slave”. He was the RARE slave who would fight back.
The implied takeaway here is a-historical, of course. As we know, there were lots of heroic stories of resistance and rebellion from that period. The Django character was badass, but his lone crusade (amidst other seemingly passive and complacent slaves) doesn’t seem to portray that fact. Recognizing that Tarantino is much more interested in entertaining us than in teaching us, it’s important to note that this popular film will be seen by millions around the world and will necessarily do more than just entertain. Django gets us talking, contributing to our understanding of the period, the historical narrative. Does it contribute in a way that corrects false assumptions about the time period and the people depicted? Or does it reinforce those wrong headed ideas? This bit about the slaves’ passivity is, I think, Tarantino’s main failure in an otherwise entertaining and heroic film.
I humbly submit that if I was a Hollywood director, with Tarantino’s huge budget … maybe I’d have Django ride back to find all the “Candieland” plantation enslaved there … ready, armed, and pissed. They revolt and throw off their chains en-masse. Shoot em up, Blow it up massive group sequence for the final scene (ala Braveheart or Avengers)??!
… Aaah, the privilege of second guessing and revising the creative choices of others.
At the end of the day ART is made to be perceived and critiqued. Good art is necessarily unconventional, risky and challenging. For 2013, I’m working to refine my outlook and master my craft, so maybe one day I’ll get my turn to ruffle a few feathers, as Tarantino so often does.