Quentin Tarantino would make an interesting case study for those interested in what and where Americans learn about history. Tarantino’s new film, “Django Unchained,” which takes place in the pre-Civil War South, is about slavery in the same way that his “Inglourious Basterds” was about the Holocaust, which is to say, it isn’t. This film’s connection to real events is near-nonexistent, instead characteristically celebrating Tarantino’s fondness for history expressed through popular cinema, a medium that has always placed its own needs above fidelity to the truth. In “Django Unchained,” Tarantino presents a slice of alt-Americana, with the Peculiar Institution drafted for entertainment.
“Django Unchained” is a pastiche of Tarantino’s prior stylings, fused with a synthesis of spaghetti westerns and Blaxploitation films. Like “Inglourious Basterds,” it presents a revenge-fantasy for a particular ethnic group, but it lacks the subversive narrative and huge, diverse cast that lent his World War II fantasy a great deal of dazzle and shock-value. “Django Unchained” isn’t so much envelope-pushing as it is simply brutal.
The eponymous Django (Jamie Foxx) is a slave freed by Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a German bounty hunter and de facto abolitionist. Schultz adopts Django as a partner in the bounty hunting business, teaching him the art of man-hunting, quite an honor in a time and place in which the sight of a black man riding a horse was cause for public alarm.
Tarantino takes his time during the film’s first half, as Django and Schultz become acquainted and rid the South of an array of wanted criminals. The filmmaker plays these scenes, violent as they are, as comedy, demonstrating that his capacity to marry the macabre with the humorous hasn’t waned with age.
The story really begins in the second half, when the pair travels to Southern Mississippi to free Django’s wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). The two engage in a complicated, risky plan whose goal isn’t so much to secure Broomhilda’s freedom, but to do so at a bargain. She’s now the property of Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), a sadistic plantation owner whose estate, Candyland, is known throughout the South as one of the last places a slave wants to be. Thus begins a battle of wits that inevitably gives way to a six-gun reckoning, with more blood and gore spilled than likely were in every spaghetti western ever made, combined.
“Django Unchained” has received much attention for its depiction of slavery (for the first time, Tarantino can claim an historically appropriate context for his fondness of writing a certain racial slur). But that some critics claim this film seriously engages issues of slavery and racism is ludicrous. Like World War II, slavery provides Tarantino with a setting conducive to graphic violence and ripe for cinematic tribute. This universe is almost entirely anachronistic and fabricated, from Foxx’s portrayal of Django as modern and antagonistic to the fictional sport of “mandingo fighting” in which slaves are bought and sold exclusively to participate in gladiatorial death matches (a nod to the notorious 1975 film “Mandingo”).
Tarantino’s protagonists have historically tended to be complex, intriguing, and often less-than-heroic. But Foxx’s Django, one of only two black characters Tarantino attempts to fully realize, quickly comes across as a 21st Century transplant. While deliberate, this is distracting, especially when considering the character’s transformation from subservient slave to ambitious slayer of white men and women. Django begins the film as fairly cowed, but becomes all edge as he learns to stick it to the man. That he represents half of the film’s developed black characters (the other being Samuel L. Jackson’s) undercuts supporters’ claims that Tarantino had intent to explore serious subjects. Kerry Washington’s role is somewhat thankless, largely involving screaming as she receives lashings and lighting up with glee as Django wreaks havoc on their oppressors.
Waltz is such a fine actor that his role, essentially the same as his Nazi officer from “Inglourious Basterds” with a moral alignment switch, manages to conspicuously outclass Foxx and DiCaprio in their shared scenes. It’s hard to imagine Tarantino making a movie without Waltz again, as the actor’s jaunty, perceptive energy coalesces perfectly with the filmmaker’s innately playful, clever dialogue.
DiCaprio proves passable as the flamboyantly evil villain, but he is unable to imbue the role with any particular flair that would make Candie appear uniquely threatening or memorable, a shortcoming highlighted by the comparative strength of Waltz’s flawless opposing performance (the original script contained a scene that made Candie more ruthless and intimidating, but wasn’t included due to time constraints).
It’s Jackson’s Stephen, an insidious Uncle Tom and Candie’s top house slave, who spellbinds. He’s by far Tarantino’s best creation in the film, a crotchety old cripple gradually revealed to be crafty puppeteer behind the curtain of Candyland. With just a few scenes, Jackson becomes the film’s MVP, an intriguing, memorable antagonist so effective in his role as a race traitor that his scenes outstrip Tarantino’s simpler ambitions.
“Django Unchained” ranks as one of Tarantino’s more straightforward efforts, with very few jumps in chronology and a plot that becomes increasingly simple as characters and motivations are peeled off by violence. Furthermore, Tarantino, never before coming across as a lazy writer, makes an unforgivably reckless move with a twist three-quarters of the way through that bridges the gap between setup and finale but betrays the delicately crafted nature of one of the key characters.
Tarantino’s anything but a boring filmmaker, and “Django Unchained” is no exception, as his uncanny knack for dialogue and vividly graphic imagery ensure that the film glides through its nearly three-hour runtime. Even as it never reaches the deliriously rebellious and fun highs of “Inglourious Basterds,” the writer/director’s trademark banter and grotesque violence ensure that lulls in excitement are nonexistent. But in the larger sense, the film comes across as little more than neo-Blaxploitation through the lens of a privileged white auteur, a vibe that’s unfortunately inauthentic. As Tarantino proudly offers black audiences the blood of white slavers, he condescends to them, intentionally or not. Taking this film as entertainment, it works, but to interpret it as a serious look at racism doesn’t suggest one holds much respect for those affected by the subject.