Cinema has not dealt well with slavery. In 1915 innovator D.W Griffith attempted to justify segregation in Birth of a Nation. Since then robust genres have formed chronicling human atrocities including the Vietnam War and the Holocaust, yet there is little of note on the trade of human flesh. Save from a small handful of films (Roots, Amistad, Goodbye Uncle Tom), we must admit that cinema is at a loss. It has failed to account for a historic subject that is loaded with revulsion and shame.
If shame is the reason for this inadequacy, then it takes an utterly shameless ego to change things. That ego is Quentin Tarantino. Igniting the issue of slavery with great vivacity, Tarantino has eschewed questions of taste and gone for the jugular; his take on slavery is a brutal homage to Sergio Corbucci’s 1966 Spaghetti Western Django. Spike Lee may have taken offence to Tarantino’s genre treatment, but Django Unchained is cinema at its most cathartic.
The film unfolds the story of Django (Jamie Foxx) a slave who is emancipated by Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a flamboyant German bounty hunter masquerading as a dentist. Schultz liberates Django promising to free him, providing he helps locate three wanted men called the Brittle Brothers. Django grabs the opportunity with relish, as the Brothers sold his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) to notorious slaver Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). Broomhilda’s German name stirs Schultz’s noble soul and he, in turn, endeavors to aid Django in her liberation.
The challenge of tackling the material in Django Unchained pushes the cast to perform moments of brilliance. Foxx and Waltz’s rapport is fine tuned, with Foxx’s illiteracy playing counterpoint to Waltz’s wordy panache. Leonardo DiCaprio delivers a career best as Candie, the demented, incestuous slaver. Samuel L. Jackson, appearing as Candie’s self-hating right-hand-man Stephen, performs an extraordinary and troubling turn. Tarantino’s use of the n-word controversially abounds, but it is symptomatic of the characters and their time.
Tarantino’s much discussed use of violence is on show in Django Unchained, but it feels like something of a side note next to the violent verbal outbursts of his characters. Where Inglourious Basterds impressed largely due to Christoph Waltz’s scenes, Django Unchained is a tour-de-force across the board; as such is it by far the greater film. It also features moments of utter hilarity, particularly when a lynch mob discovers the tribulations of riding horses with bags on their heads (which prompts an ingenious cameo from the ever-bumbling Jonah Hill).
Cameos in Django Unchained are a prominent feature. Tarantino maintains a dialogue with film history, casting Franco Nero (the original Django from Corbucci’s film) as the only other white character of grace in the film. The moment where he and Foxx meet is inessential to the film’s narrative, but vital in Tarantino’s cinematic lineage. The one cameo that disappoints is Tarantino’s own turn as an Australian. It makes us wonder why Tarantino could not hold back, given the many great Australian actors currently working in Hollywood.
Minor gripes about length also aside, Django Unchained is Tarantino’s best film since Pulp Fiction. While Kill Bill was pure pulp and Inglourious Basterds was ultimately silly, Django Unchained feels like it has a place in the world. Tarantino has revived the excitement of the western genre (which has become somewhat serious of late), while giving slavery a prominent platform in popular culture with which to generate debate. When Django enacts vengeance on his white oppressors, Tarantino’s unapologetic style of filmmaking has never felt so justified.
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