After swearing up and down that I was going to see Les Miserables, I ended up at Django Unchained first thing New Year's Day. It was just too good to resist. I'm a Tarantino fan, a spaghetti western fan, and a blaxploitation fan. See? To know that all those things were in one movie? Too good to resist.
And I wasn't even close to being disappointed. Believe the hype, Django is indeed off the chain.
The story is set 2 years before the Civil War, so slavery is going full blast. Django is recruited by bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz to find a trio of bad guys. Along the way, Schultz finds out that Django is married and offers to help him find and rescue his wife, the lovely Broomhilda (Kerry Washington).
That's the simple version of the plot. If I really got into what happened this would be a dissertation on race relations, the myth of the black superhero, the validation of the phrase 'knowledge is power', and I'd have to tell you who turned out to be Keyser Soze.
From the first moment when we open on a chain gang shuffling across a dusty Texas landscape while a singer who sounds like Elvis croons a 70s sounding ballad, you're in it. Suspension of disbelief happens immediately. You can almost smell this movie, a testament to the detail-oriented and obsessive Mr. Tarantino. The dialogue is matter of fact. There's no sermonizing, it just is what it is, and that was refreshing. The movie is a visual love letter to the American landscape, with big luscious mountains and plains covered in snow. It was just stunning.
The acting was so perfect that it wasn't like acting, it was so natural and the characters so well delineated. It was satisfying to watch Django grow into his new role as a free man, and to watch as he learns to adapt and judge the behaviors of those around him. Samuel L. Jackson is incredible as Stephen, the head slave at Candieland, the plantation where Django's wife is being kept.
I read one review that called the character 'contemptible and pitiable', but I had to wonder if Stephen wasn't just another version of Django, had he had his master's ear and direct access to power. Both black men survive by their wits, manipulating and plotting how to keep the white men at bay. They both acted to save their own lives in a world that wanted them dead, and sometimes that can make you a bad person.
Spike Lee spoke against the film, and I get where he's coming from. I personally have never seen The Help, for similar reasons. And if hearing frank racial discourse is too much for you, then don't go see this movie. If you want to infer racism due to the use of the word n****r, then you can. But at that time in America...wasn't that word bandied about freely? And is this movie so far removed from the mini-series Roots (before Alex Hailey was discredited, and Dave Chappelle lampooned it)? We're following the story of people who lived at a time where blacks were bought and sold. It happened. What's great is that this is the kind of movie that can help us get over it and move forward.
I personally enjoyed the honesty of the dialogue and how it allows viewers to vicariously discuss things a lot of us think. Such as when Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) asks the question 'Why don't they kill us'? I want more movies that get us further to answering that question. I want more movies that get us closer to realizing that slavery is so convoluted, and that the black role within the system was so varied and multi-faceted that no one word (n****r) and no one person can ever embody it.
Django Unchained is a uniquely American product, and the spirit within it, the honesty and the curiosity, the sharing, the quest for freedom- is what makes it great. This is our real true American story. This is what we're made of, just like True Grit or Shane. Filmmaking and storytelling don't get any better than Django Unchained.