"Django Unchained", the latest revenge fantasy from acclaimed director Quentin Tarantino ("Pulp Fiction", "Kill Bill") doubles as a classic homage to the spaghetti western sub genre while turning the tables on slavery in the antebellum South. Headlined by a true to form all-star cast, the film has shot to box office and critical acclaim while courting controversy nonetheless.
Jaime Foxx ("Ray", "Dreamgirls") stars as Django, a freed slave turned bounty hunter who treks through America with his German bounty hunter cohort on a quest to rescue his wife from the clutches of one the most dangerous and horrible slave owners in the South. Thematically picking up from where "Inglorious Basterds" left off, "Django Unchained" adds another take on the 'victimized becoming the victimizers' as Django and his bounty hunting partner King Schultz played masterfully by Christoph Waltz ("Inglorious Basterds") enact a funny, inspiring and bloody revenge scheme that is classic Tarantino.
Adding to the dynamic duo in the film are Kerry Washington as Django's long lost wife sold into slavery along with a shocking and riveting portrayal by Leonardo DiCaprio as Calvin Candie, one of the most charismatic and savage slave owners around. When interviewed about his portrayal of one of Tarantino's most reviled villains, DiCaprio replied:
"I wanted to go in there and try to embody somebody and an attitude that is so foreign to me and go the distance," he says, comparing Candie to King Louis the XIV. 'He sees all these atrocities happen but he's able to separate himself in an almost inhuman way in order to prolong his lifestyle. I can't identify with his thought process or what his life was like. But once I got there and started playing him, it's not that you understand what he's thinking but you certainly see how that decadence and that need to prolong something like that is almost a religion to him."
While "Django Unchained" headlines with a stellar cast, the film is practically stolen by Samuel L. Jackson's ("Pulp Fiction", "Jackie Brown") turn as Stephen, a reviled house negro who has more layers to this character than suggested at first glance. His portrayal of the most reviled character in African-American cinema is both funny and powerful, as are all the performances in the film. Filmed throughout various locations throughout Louisiana including a historic plantation, "Django Unchained" was bound to court controversy as it tackles the subject of slavery in America, which for far too long has been shied away from by mainstream Hollywood.
Leading the charge of criticism against the film, acclaimed filmmaker Spike Lee ("Do The Right Thing") took great offense to the film's depiction of the slave trade set to a tone of a spaghetti western. In addition to this, Lee's condemnation of the film largely stems from Tarantino's excessive use of the N-word; and argument that reaches back to as far as one of Tarantino's earlier films, "Jackie Brown". Believing the film to be a mockery of slavery and an insult to his ancestors, Lee publicly boycotted the film.
While "Django Unchained" may not have the structural trapeze act that is a hallmark of Tarantino's work, the film is nonetheless a breathtaking tour de force that evokes great performances, great characters and nuanced storytelling that movie fans will love. More than just a director tackling the ugly subject of slavery and racism in America, Tarantino presents an in your face portrait of America's shameful past in a way that is clearly not a mockery or disrespectful in any way. The audience is forced to watch the brutal savagery of slavery in a way that makes you sick, all the while presenting brilliant moments of humor and character study, all leading up to a classic Tarantino finale in which the audience cheers for the hero as he serves a cold dish of revenge to the slaveowners.
Brilliantly shot and executed, with tremendous performances and visual flair, "Django Unchained" is a must see film from a filmmaker who reminds us once again why we are fans of great cinema. For those in the New Orleans area, catch "Django Unchained" at the Theaters at Canal Place.