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The Best of 2012: 'Django Unchained'

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Django Unchained (2012)

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Quentin Tarantino is a name synonymous with the modern exploitation film and (at the beginning of his career) underground cinema verité. Such a reputation has given him a wide fanbase filled with everyone from lovers of urban street fare to video gamers that respect his unusual tastes for violence in film. That being said, you would think Tarantino would have had more success replicating the grit as practiced by director Sam Peckinpah (The Wild Bunch, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, The Getaway), a personal hero of Tarantino. Or he may have developed a reputation for creating glorious, operatic journeys as dreamt by director Sergio Leone (The Man With No Name films, Once Upon a Time in the West), another hero for QT. Taking inspiration from these two is clearly evidenced in Django Unchained, but the films that made the biggest impression on him were not in fact by one director, but a slew of directors from a very specific time period. The 1970s were packed year-to-year with stories that depicted an angry America; almost every character releasing their rage onto other characters. This is what Django Unchained is meant to be: RAGE as seen through the filmmaker who grew up watching filmmakers with an unusual perspective on violence. This is, by far, his best film since Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction.

Taking a few notes from Franco Nero's film of Django from 1966 (actor Nero makes a cameo appearance in one scene as a Mandingo slave owner) and some very likely pointers from Roots, Tarantino's Unchained is a brutal, brawny, and disturbing account of what it was like to slave in the mid-1800's. The screenplay has not been without controversy. The notorious N-word is used hundreds of times in the film to disgusting and limitless effect. The picture also makes many references to ancient myths and stereotypes that went obsolete an epoch ago. At its most base, the story is meant to disturb and upset an audience in order to remind Americans of a time when people were just a tad more disgusting than they are today. Before any discussion of the heroic characters in this story as well as the history it parallels, it seems impossible to not point out the countless villains at the heart of it. At the center of these particular horrors is the character of Calvin Candie played with such terrifying snobbery by Leonardo DiCaprio; it may become one of his greatest performances of his career. The character of Candie was very common figurehead at that time: a man of false nobility sitting comfortably high on a hierarchy that paralleled a pharaoh and his slaves—except this one pretends to be of French bourgeois. This so-called genteel of his time goes head to head against the story's two main protagonists: a freed slave searching for his stolen wife (Jamie Foxx as Django) and a German abolitionist/working dentist that takes matters into his own hands frequently (Christoph Waltz as Dr. King Schultz in an amazing portrayal of a sophisticated man that wants change in the world). They act as bounty hunters searching for ways to free slaves, which usually concludes with the murder of a slave owner. The first act of this story is mostly developed to explain Django's release from slavery and Schultz's encouraged training to transform this poor human being into a weapon that can assist his own people. When they finally meet Candie incognito, this is where the film really soars. The situation becomes a strategic, intellectual assault on everything Southern slave culture came to be since the first slaves were ripped away from Africa by Spaniard explorers in 1501.

The most horrifying counterattack on anti-slavery in this story is actually not delivered by Calvin Candie, but instead, rather surprisingly, by an African-American character named Stephen potrayed by Samuel L. Jackson. Stephen is Candie's most trusted servant and most proud slave. The latter label is a shock to anyone who assumes that pride is only meant for heroic men. As you watch the film, you begin to realize that this Stephen is so adamantly comfortable in the status quo that anything that may threaten it—is essentially a threat to him. He is the most fascinating character in the whole film: an African-American who has lived so long in the imposed hierarchy's culture that he will do anything to reinforce it. He represents the guard that protects the system. From the standpoint of this film's take on rage, all the characters eventually attack each other on the basis of rage. However, it is also interesting to note how love plays into certain scenarios. Dr. Schultz and Django learn to love each other as brothers despite race or creed (Schultz explains a wonderful German-based spiritual story and how that can help Django recover his wife). Django's mission is to free and be reunited with his wife at all costs and this is the most obvious, arguably unoriginal, aspect to this film's story. The most original and intriguing aspect to this story is Stephens fatherly love toward Calvin Candie. Candie may be his slave owner, but Stephen is old enough to be his surrogate father. In all of the bloodshed of this film, Tarantino was clever enough to add the foundations of love to motivate the rage that is built to reinforce and protect these loves. When Django sees his wife flung onto a wheelbarrow and strolled away, his love is motivating his anger. When Schultz finds ways to attack his enemies, he intellectualizes and philosophizes his motives before unleashing his revenge. When Stephen sees something happen to his “son” Calvin, he lashes out in an array of emotions. If there is anything to learn from Django Unchained outside of its 70's stylistic touches and, at times, Jamie Foxx playing it too safe within the tough guy department, it is a story about how a number of people react to changes in the air and how violent it may come to be when the wind settles. Sometimes love and rage go hand and hand too easily. Truly, this story is meant to disgust audiences and then reward them with the understanding of rage against those who do not know how to truly love.

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