‘Django Unchained’ will be released in British cinemas on Friday the 18th of January but it has already stirred up a lot of controversy in America. The film follows recently freed slave, Django (Jamie Foxx) team up with the eloquent dentist cum bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christopher Waltz) as they track down and free Django’s wife. Waltz turns in another dazzling performance, audience and director alike are wooed by his eccentric sense of humour which slightly overshadows Foxx, who, for the most part goes for more of a laconic tough guy caricature. The balance works well and helps Tarantino deal with the issue of slavery in smart ways as Schultz teaches Django how to read and shoot to further his emancipation. However it is DiCaprio who steals the show as the southern debonair, Monsieur Candie, who couples charming wit with sadomasochistic racism in a captivating performance. DiCaprio has been stifled in recent years as he constantly returned to psychologically disturbed roles in an attempt to pick up an Oscar that to this day eludes him, but he seems rejuvenated playing out of type as the Southern gothic villain with high energy and a dandy flair.
Quentin Tarantino has made a name for himself by taking forgotten, worn out relics and breathing new life into them. He salvaged the careers of John Travolta, Pam Grier, Robert Forster, David Caradine and put them back in front of the camera with a renewed hunger to lay down the performance of their careers (in the case of Travolta, he came up against fierce opposition with the Weinstein Company, almost jeopardizing the completion of Pulp Fiction). He took expired genres like the 70s Hong Kong revenge film, grind house and the ‘dirty dozen’ and charged them with his witty dialogue and vivid violence. The only misstep in ‘Django’ is the fact that the western genre has already been updated for modern audiences and once again exhausted by shows such as Deadwood, games like Red Dead Redemption, and films like Cowboys vs Aliens. So the awkward scrolling inter titles and long shoot-outs are a part of a ready-made style as opposed to one unique to Tarantino.
Each Tarantino project stirs up its fair share of controversy and ‘Django’ is no different. The theme of slavery is tackled head on, as we are plunged into the world of cotton plantations and Mandingo (big slaves) fighting, we witness visceral atrocities and hear the word ‘Nigger’ at the end of every sentence. Tarantino loves controversy and is constantly pushing his films to provoke big reactions from his audience through his use of violence. There are different violences; the violence inflicted on the slaves is truly shocking whereas the violence Django inflicts on the ‘white man’ is exhausting and farcical to a point where it is cathartic. When we are first introduced to Candie, we witness the first Mandingo fight and the first stirring murder as two slaves are forced to kill each other. We do not actually see the act committed but instead we are placed behind Candie as he looks upon the spectacle, listening to the choking and cracking sounds.
A notable reaction came from 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.” In an interview with Channel 4, Tarantino claimed he loved Lee’s response and loves the fact that people are talking and debating about slavery. He defended himself by saying he wanted ‘to give black American males a western hero’. Tarantino can voice these issues because there is no one else to fill that role. Despite being a self-proclaimed spokesperson for African Americans, Spike Lee has kind of degenerated into an isolated eccentric over the years cutting himself off from his empowering 90s work . The only other African American directors producing at a high level, Tyler Perry and the Wayans brothers are regressive, relying on old, racist tropes (I.e the mammy) to produce brainless dramedies. The most interesting point in ‘Django’ is when Samuel L. Jackson’s character is revealed as the true villain, the black servant who fully embraces his inferior position and harnesses power over other slaves acts as the true obstacle to Django, who embodies the limitless possibilities that come with emancipation. ‘Django Unchained’ delivers everything Tarantino fans wait for; the excellent soundtrack, the depth of the characters, the elevated dialogue and a thought provoking treatment on slavery.
Words: Sean Gallen