The marks of slavery are so deep and affecting that it’s curious how many films in the time frame give it only a brief mention; anxious perhaps that to do so would conflict with our progressive views we consider second nature in our society. The ugliness of the plantation and brutality of the masters whip are often examined through the lens of historical documentary, seeking to educate those who were born a couple hundred years later the importance of respecting the dignity of man. But Quentin Tarantino’s new tale of the immoral South takes this in a more dynamic direction, and puts the whip in the hands of the slave in order to deliver some much needed revenge on those cruel white (And black) men.
The vessel for this historical retribution is Django (Jamie Foxx) who is freed by a German Bounty Hunter, Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) in order to help him locate a trio of outlaws. A friendship develops between the two as Django trains in the way of the gun, his eyes set on the rescue of his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) from the sickly clutches of plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio)
This theme of vengeance is not so much an obsession of Tarantino’s as it seems his primary inspiration. With Inglorious Basterds it was against the Nazi high command, and with Kill Bill part one and two it was against a clan of assassins who tried to murder the Bride and stole her daughter. If we follow this pattern, a Southern revenge on slave owners by a freed slave was the next logical step in the director’s pantheon of pop-grindhouse homage’s. It’s an old hat that is admittedly wearing a mite thin, but what Django lacks in plot-originality, it makes up with style, humor, and a deliciously politically incorrect sense of the Southern justice.
As the man at the center of the tale, Jamie Foxx projects the persona of Django as a simmering skull full to brimming with rage smoothed over into a public face of cool unconcern. In his moments of levity he reveals a deep drive to rescue his wife, which conflicts with the era’s lack of autonomy that prevents him from rushing in with guns blazing, at least at first. The camaraderie he shares with Schultz is light and effortless, with his time training as a bounty hunter next to him a particular highlight of the film. Despite this, the character lacks the dangerous intensity of Uma Thurman, and though by the end he has metamorphisized into a kind of gunslinging Don Juan, he comes across as the least interesting character of the tale.
Christoph Waltz’s effortless turn as the loquacious Dentist-turned-bounty-hunter Schultz is equal parts charming and formidable. Though he doesn’t shy away from the violence of his trade, reminding Django that “I kill people and then turn their corpses in for money,” he is subtly repulsed by the treatment of the slaves on Calvin’s plantation. His friendship with Django is affecting, and while he has numerous scene of verbal gymnastics that are a treat to listen too, his most memorable moment comes perhaps when he is forced to shake the hand of this disgustingly cruel individual who represents everything he detests.
This snake in dandy’s clothes is Calvin J. Candie, played with gleeful slime by Leonardo DiCaprio as the epitome of Southern hypocrisy. Calvin may sound like the typical scene chewing villain that you can’t help but watch, but in practice he is a despicable monster who believes wholeheartedly in the inferiority of the black race and derives sick amusement from watching two Mandingo fighters beat each other to death. His slick manner and clothes disguise rotten teeth, a side of himself he shows during a tense confrontation with Django and Schultz that breaks his façade and exposes the murderous racist underneath.
Despite all his poisonous personality however, it is his black former house slave Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson) that is the most notable and dangerous. As a slave whose loyalty to his master is without question and contempt for his own race a shocking bit of realism, Jackson is harrowing in the role that allows no mercy in his gaze, and sports a demeaning accent that’s played straight despite It’s racial caricature. When he exclaims in disbelief “Is that a nigger on a horse?” it is a statement rooted deep in an attitude of appeasement and racial self-hatred.
As a Quentin Tarantino film Django Unchained is honor bound to include a character actor in a small but memorable roles, and it obliges with an achingly funny scene involving Don Johnson as a plantation owner whose attempt to lead a mob of Klansmen is thwarted by the awkwardly cut eyeholes in his mask. These scenes of humor are in sharp contrast with some of the disturbing realities of the slave trade, which are depicted in physical and emotional detail and make the film more grounded and somber in accordance with its tone. And of course, squibs spew blood everywhere like the actors were exploding fruits, a sight that never fails to amaze given it’s old fashioned impracticality.
Is Django Unchained a wish-fulfillment fantasy made by a white guy who is more interested in the violence and homage’s then moral quandaries? Yes. But it’s also something unique and welcome in the world of cinema where action scenes are too shaky to be compelling and don’t seem willing to break out of the box for fear of alienating audiences. Heck, they made a movie called Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and no one said it missed the point by not being about the 13th amendment. There’s a time and a place for everything, and now that it’s been 150 years since a white man brandished a whip at a black man on a hellish plantation, isn’t it time Django Freeman illustrated to him why they’re still stuck in the past?