Considering the opinions ebbing out about Django Unchained, decrying the excessive profanity and violence, one has to wonder what sort of film these film-goers thought that they were going to go see. After getting to the theater, purchasing their ticket, and choosing their seat, did they not realize that they were seeing a Quentin Tarantino film about an ex-slave bounty hunter in the Antebellum South? The subject matter is of a harsh and cruel past, one that is eulogized or frequently washed ever, and Tarantino had never been a shrinking violet when it comes to language, taboo topics, and violence. Similar situations would be watching a Hitchcock film and complaining that the suspense has rattled their poor nerves or going to a Mamet play and complaining about the excessive use of the F-word, the S-word, well that list would run all day.
What seems to escape a remarkable amount of the film-going public is that this is a great film and not simply because of the A-List names involved or the Weinstein Company’s PR machine. It is a Tarantino rewrite of history, in the style of Inglourious Basterds, and tackles taboo subjects with a refreshing mix of humor and upfront attitude, which has become Tarantino’s signature from Reservoir Dogs onwards. As a director, Tarantino is a true film aficionado and, as such, is able to break so many rules so exquisitely. Taking tools out of his warehouse of cinematic knowledge, Tarantino has constructed a film that is able to enfranchise a neglected narrative through a mixture of American and European folklore, Spaghetti Westerns of the 1960s, Blaxploitation films of the 1970s, and much more.
The film opens on a string of chained slaves, bloodied and freezing, being marched through the night. Our hero, Django (Jamie Foxx), is amongst these ravaged yet sturdy men. Reportedly, the character of Django sprouted from a folk tale about an African-American man who, in Tarantino’s words from an interview with the Village Voice, “met the devil, f***ed the devil, and the devil sent him back to Earth, with a curse to walk the Earth for eternity, f***ing white women”, which led Tarantino to explore, again using Tarantino’s own words, an “uber-masculine black male figure of folklore”, and developed into the slave who frees himself through the hunting of white men. A horse-drawn carriage approaches with a giant plastered tooth springing on its roof and a smiling Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) behind the reins. As with any Austrian actor in an American picture, all is not as it appears. The character of a German bounty hunter acts not only as a reference to Klaus Kinski’s roles in multiple spaghetti Westerns, including Corbucci’s The Great Silence, but also as a useful plot point down the road. Dr. Schultz offers to buy and ultimately assists Django out of his shackles through wit, charm, and violence.
On the assumption that you, the reader, have seen this film’s trailer, I will continue on, but if not, you should scroll down to the last two paragraphs. Dr. Schultz is not a dentist, but a bounty hunter and needs Django’s help to track down a few outlaws with high prices on their heads. Dr. Schultz gives Django full rein, including his own horse and gun and the choice of his own attire. From there, Django and Dr. Schultz go to a plantation owned by the deviously evil and Colonel Sanders-mustachioed “Big Daddy” (Don Johnson) and identify his overseers as Dr. Schultz’s bounties. Django takes this chance to turn the whip back on the men who abused him and his wife, before killing them all. Not so shockingly, Big Daddy becomes upset and rounds up the local Klansmen to take their revenge. Historically, the Klan holds an interesting and highly controversial place in Hollywood films from being the unsung heroes of D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation to being vaguely alluded to in Gone with the Wind to a brief cameo in Forrest Gump to their comical turn in the Coen brothers’ Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?. In Django Unchained, the Klansmen are farcical stooges who argue over not being able to see out of the eyeholes in their hoods and their general viewpoint is rendered null and void. Tarantino uses one of the writer’s most useful weapons, which is satire, to turn a hateful figure into a buffoon and laughingstock. This process can be seen in the portrayal of Adolf Hitler in such films as Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be, and Tarantino’s own Inglourious Basterds.
Django and Dr. Schultz go on to bring in more bounties amongst the vast, empty landscapes similar to the settings of many definitive Spaghetti Westerns. After enough time, Dr. Schultz finds out that Django has a wife named Broomhilda von Shaft (Kerry Washington), who was owned and raised by Germans, and that she is at the infamous Candyland, owned by the ruthless Francophile Calvin Candie. The distinctly German name of Broomhilda reminds Dr. Schultz of a princess out of German folklore who has been captured and leads Dr. Schultz to empathize even more strongly with Django’s longing to save his Broomhilda from Candyland. Django and Dr. Schultz embark on a plan to track Broomhilda down, buy her, and reunite the separated couple.
With a ruse consisting of Dr. Schultz’s interest in purchasing a Mandingo fighter, based on the 1975 film Mandingo, and Django as his advisor in all things Mandingo fighting, the duo plan to meet the Candie, be invited to Candyland with the pretense of viewing his fighters, and free Broomhilda whether through escape or payment. Dr. Schultz arranges a meeting at Candie’s club and, upon arrival, a slave in a French maid’s outfit leads he and Django up to the parlor. Candie, it turns out, is quite a Francophile, obsessed with the culture but does not know the language. In the character of Candie, Tarantino reveals the flaws inherent in the Antebellum South’s attempts to imitate an antiquated European-style aristocracy while retaining a barbaric control over African-Americans. The first shot in which Candie is revealed, the camera leers into a zoom on his gentile yet disconcerting nod. In Candie’s parlor room, Django and Dr. Schultz witness Mandingo fighting, in which two slave fighters are forced to watch two men fight bare-fisted to the death, and Candie’s sickeningly positive reaction to this literal blood sport. After enough shop talk about Mandingo fighting, Candie invites Dr. Schultz and Django to Candyland.
While still in Candie’s parlor, Tarantino takes the time to pay homage to the original Django, from Corbucci’s 1966 film, Django. This film’s Django meets Amerigo Vessepi (Franco Nero), an Italian slave-owner whose Mandingo fighter has just been killed by Candie’s fighter. In a wonderful use of a cameo, Vessepi played by Nero (the original Django) asks Django’s name, Django explains his name and that the D is silent, and Vessepi says “I know.”
In the spirit of not spoiling the ending, it will suffice to write that the film follows a predictable route with some unexpected twists and turns. Highlights include a particularly gruesome demise for one of Candie’s Mandingo fighters, D’Artagnan (Ato Essondah), the introduction of Candie’s aging house servant and one of the most ruthless Uncle Toms in cinematic history, Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), Candie’s unsubstantial widow sister being blown away literally, and an all-out Tarantino style shoot ‘em up bloodbath ending. Rest assured, Django and Broomhilda ride on out into the night and live long enough to become the ancestors of John Shaft, as in the iconic character from the 1971 Blaxploitation film Shaft.
In spite of its cinematic merits and most likely due to its award nominations, controversy surrounding the film has flooded news outlets and social media, from Tarantino’s interview with British journalist Krishnan Guru-Murthy going viral on Youtube to Spike Lee’s very public refusal to see Django Unchained in an interview for Vibe. In regards to Spike Lee’s and others’ objections over the racial subject matter and excessive use of the N-word, it is this instinct that Tarantino takes and uses to the film’s advantage. Every American and English-understanding person should be offended every time the N-word and its variants are used, especially in the context of this film. The use of the N-word, particularly in the 1858 American South, is a metaphysical form of abuse, degrading people through language. In the context of Django Unchained, the use of the N-word is a form of brutality that Tarantino uses to full effect in the same manner as he uses the more physical forms of cruelty and the word itself is not allowed to escape its abominable past. Through Tarantino’s writing and direction, the N-word becomes something that Django must face as an obstacle and reconfigure as a weapon in his quest to save Broomhilda, his ladylove.
As for the hubbub surrounding Tarantino’s reaction to Guru-Murthy’s question about the ties between film violence and actual violence, the film director has been asked variations of that same question by countless journalists over the past twenty years and reasonably refused to give merit to the question by rehashing his decades-long stance. Linking this and similarly violent films to the actions of those few is like linking our waking and sleeping lives. There is a difference between what happens in our intellectual reality and what happens in our physical reality. Someone may enjoy Saw-like horror films, but still get queasy or faint at the sight of actual blood. Another person may be fascinated by the serial murderers in Psycho and Silence of the Lambs, but will refuse to emulate the characters’ real life inspiration, Ed Gein, in their day-to-day life. Grown adults are not defined solely by the films that they watch and should not be tut-tutted like school children for not following outdated guidelines of propriety and “good taste”.
If we are meant to dismiss over-the-top R-rated gore, should we also discard similarly violent films and television programs? Erase Boardwalk Empire, Breaking Bad, and Homeland from our DVRs? What about the “Tis But a Scratch” scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail where a knight is slowly dismembered and gushing with blood or the “Theodoric of York” sketches on Saturday Night Live where Steve Martin blunders and bludgeons through medieval dentistry and medicinal practices? Where would the proposed censoring of violence end? This debate will continue as long as people continue to voice opinions on films that they should not have seen in the first place if they were going to get so huffy. There’s a difference between film criticism and moral outrage and it’s up to each individual to decide their priorities.