Monday, January 21, 2013

Django Unchained: A Review


It looks like the election and re-election of the first black President has not affected the 1970s worldview of Quentin Tarantino.  As far as he's concerned, blacks still have it hard, with The Man and 'Uncle Toms' forever plotting against them.  At least now they have a hero, a freed slave named Django (the D is silent).  Django Unchained, Tarantino's homage to spaghetti Western, sticks to what he knows and does best: making versions of the 70s films he so loves.  I have long argued that Tarantino does nothing but versions of 70s films, be it grindhouse cinema or blaxploitation or revenge schlock.  That he can do it well is not in doubt (even from someone as implacably anti-Tarantino as I).  The fact that QT desperately needs an editor is similarly not in doubt.

In the two-hour-forty-five minute running time, we get a sprawling story that really should be broken down into acts (if not whole films unto themselves). We start in 1858 (two years prior to the Civil War we're helpfully informed).  Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), dentist-turned-bounty hunter, is looking for a slave that can help identify a particular group of criminals.  He finds said slave, and his name is Django (Jamie Foxx).  He takes him (which does mean killing the slavers who won't agree to Schultz's rather generous terms of payment), and soon Schultz mentors Django as a bounty hunter himself.  The price for Django's help is his freedom, $75, and a horse (this was before 40 acres and a mule was being offered). 

Well, once the bandits are killed, we now go to the Hildy side of the story.  Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), Django's wife, had been sold off at the same time as Django.  Schultz has been mentoring Django in the art of boutny hunting, and now Django wants his wife back.  They learn that she has been sold to Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), owner of Candyland, one of the most notorious plantations in the South.  Candie is passionate about "mandingo fighting": having slaves fight to the death.  The plan is such: Schultz and Django will go to Candie appearing to want to purchase a mandingo, then throwing in Broomhilda for a good price. 

This might have worked save for the machinations of the wicked Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), the house slave who is a caricature of a caricature of what an Uncle Tom is held to be.  He realizes that Broomhilda and Django know each other and all this is a ruse.  Being the traitorous black that he is, he tells his Master, who forces them to pay through the nose for Hildy.  They do, but in a bloody shootout Candie and Schultz are both killed and Django is captured and sold off to the LeQuint Mining Company. 

However, Django convinces the mining company people he IS a bounty hunter, kills them off, and goes back to Candyland and has one last bloody confrontation.

Django Unchained has earned scorn and condemnation in certain circles for its wide use of a certain word that is unacceptable.  This word is used to demean and demote African-Americans.  This liberal use of that particular word surprises some, especially given that the President of the United States is African-American (since his father was Kenyan, Barack Obama can say he is truly African-American rather than the majority of those who use this term when it would be more accurate to say they are Americans of African descent, but I digress).  I will not use that word nor will I use the common term "N-Word" which strikes me as a rather childish way of getting around it.  However, this demeaning term for 'black' has caused controversy. 

Out of curiosity I kept a count of the number of times 'n----r' was used.  Granted I might have missed a few and don't know if anyone else kept a count, but my tally was 112 times spoken, once written on a sign.  Here is the rub of the high count of 'n----r': it would probably be historically accurate to have the characters use it (if one watches Roots, a more respectful take on slavery, one hears that word used repeatedly), but is it right, TODAY, to have a film with this word appearing that often? 

I can speak only for myself in that I was not pleased to hear it so often (in particular with sequences that I felt could have been cut) but I also think that its use is unacceptable in rap albums.  Therefore I would find it distasteful in film or music but if it is used in context (as in history-based films where this use would be found) then I can understand it.  Displeased, but understanding there is a reason for it.  I think Django Unchained might come off as being gratuitous in its use of 'n----r', but in the end I don't think it was.

The use of that word is not my chief complaint against Django Unchained.  It is its length.  The film appears to be two films colliding with each other, littered with scenes that might have been put on the cutting room floor.  The first film is over Django and Schultz going bounty hunting and Django's subsequent training.  The second is on Django and Schultz rescuing Broomhilda.  Since we have these two stories put together, we have a very long film.  We also have whole sequences that frankly should have been cut.

For example, there is one where Spencer 'Big Daddy' Bennett (Don Johnson, and frankly the name already makes this a silly subplot) goes after Schultz and Django for the killing of his overseers.  It is a spoof of the Ku Klux Klan with these inept guys arguing about the bags they use to cover their faces.  I imagine Tarantino laughing while writing this sequence (and yes, people in the audience were laughing, though I wasn't), but not only does it add nothing to the main story but to me was so forced in its efforts to be funny that it smacked almost of desperation.  Once they kill the criminals, that really should have been the end of that storyline.  Having this 'raid' only serves to lengthen a film that is already very long.

Really there was no reason apart from QT's insistence and love for his own work as to why Django Unchained was as long as it was. 

Let us now turn to the performances.  What I found was that most of them were appropriately exaggerated.  Waltz was doing a kinder, gentler Hans Landa: still urbane but without the murderous inclinations.  I think Schultz is the only character in Django Unchained with anything close to a conscience on the issue of slavery, for all the other characters (even some of the black ones) appear not only to endorse slavery but willing to make slaves suffer more.  Django obviously doesn't support slavery, but he isn't motivated in freeing fellow slaves or starting some kind of revolution.  He is only interested in saving his wife, therefore, whatever motivates him is strictly personal, up to celebrating killing whites.

Minus Waltz, everyone else appears to be hamming it up, but this is in keeping with the style Tarantino is going for.  DiCaprio is relishing playing the camp villain Candie (complete with Candyland, a most unusual plantation name given the penchant for romantic names for these estates).  Jackson clearly knew what he was doing with his turn as Stephen, drawing on the idea of the 'house slave' so blinded by his status that he sees himself as Candie's surrogate.  Intentional or not, Stephen struck me as doing a spoof of what people think the character of Uncle Tom from Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin is: the old, subservient black who betrays his own people in his idealization of his 'master'.  When Candie is killed, it's Stephen who mourns him almost hysterically, and it's Stephen who echoes Candie's ideas as if they were his own.  Jackson creates a selfish and wildly misguided (or evil) character, but it doesn't change that he, like everyone else in Django Unchained, is a caricature.

In regards to the violence in the film, yes, it is graphic, but from what I understand this is what Tarantino acolytes (such as my friend Fidel Gomez, Jr., who may or may not be dead) love.  Well, not always: he wasn't particularly fond of Grindhouse. From the first scene with the slavers, we are treated to lavish sights of blood exploding (and at one point, Tarantino himself exploding, which pleased me but at least I can tell the difference between fake and real violence).  This is how Tarantino indulges his inner film geek by amping up the gore.  I again wasn't pleased with it but figure this is what this particular audience wants and what Tarantino was drawing on: the films that inspired Django Unchained.     

The thing we must all remember about Django Unchained is that we are not suppose to take this seriously.  As far as QT is concerned, slavery is just the stage dressing for the story he wants to tell: a spaghetti Western/revenge film with all the trappings of 1970s B-film style that Tarantino loved as a kid and which he's insistent we all love with the fervor of a recent convert.  The horror of slavery is an excuse to have blood and gore and 'n----r' thrown all over us.  Again my issue isn't so much with the verbal usage (although perhaps less is more) or the violence (although it is far too much for my taste).  It is the length of the film, with subplots that don't serve the overall story, along with the exaggerated and deliberate manner of aping other genres that gets to me.

It is well-made, but hollow...and far too long.  I shudder at an extended edition.                    


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