Quentin Tarantino’s DJANGO UNCHAINED is disappointing, enjoyable, tedious, wonderful, and naive all at the same time.
No movie is judged on its own merit. Like any artistic work, it is compared to everything that has come before it, and depending on when you encounter it, you pit it against what has come after it as well. Tarantino loves pastiche, homage, reference and remix, so his work seeks these judgments. And his latest falls short from what we’ve come to expect. It is overlong and indulgent, it is too alike his last film in some ways, and it lacks tension in its big mushy middle, but some scenes are magical, especially to fans of garish exploitation films and spaghetti westerns like myself. It will remind his detractors of the interminable bar scene in Death Proof at its worst, and the clipped action will tease us until the very end.
Django, played by Jamie Foxx, is the prisoner of slave traders when Dr. King Schultz–a German dentist turned bounty hunter, played by Christoph Waltz–frees him because he can identify three fugitives Schultz wants to collect. Yes, he is named Dr. King. He plays the Samaritan, most often played by an older black man or person of color in other films, the “magical Caucasian,” if you will, to Foxx’s hero. If you’re unfamiliar with the “magical negro” character, think Scatman Crothers in The Shining. He helps our hero for no good reason, against his own self-interest, and is usually killed for his trouble, often sacrificing himself for the protagonist’s cause. Waltz plays that character, drawing deep from the well he used to create the memorable “Jew Hunter” Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds.
And while it is great fun watching Foxx become a bad-ass bounty hunter under Schultz’s tutelage, Waltz and his long-winded, fifty-cent word monologues lack the tension of Landa’s, because despite his crack marksmanship and disregard for the lives of vicious slavers, he is too good. We know exactly how he will react in a given situation, after we are introduced to how he collects his bounties. Which is to shoot first, then pull out his badge and papers, and say hey I’m working for the Federal government and if you shoot me, you’ll be in trouble. It was funny the first time, but seemed very unlikely, two years before the country was torn apart by secession and civil war, that anyone would give a tinker’s damn. And it gets less believable when Django plays his valet in full Lord Fauntleroy regalia, and later fakes being an Uncle Tom slaver assisting Schultz in purchasing a “Mandingo fighter,” or black bare-knuckle pit fighter, in their overly complicated and most likely unnecessary ruse to free Django’s wife.
I love Blazing Saddles, and I’ve seen and enjoyed Fred Williamson‘s film about a bad-ass black sheriff leading a frontier town, Boss Nigger. Fred Williamson always had such screen presence that you never questioned how he became a sheriff in the west, or a commando in World War 2, as in the original The Inglorious Bastards. Foxx manages the same, but the plot keeps making excuses for him to be there. And the thing is, there was at least one black Federal marshal in the 1800’s, Bass Reeves (thanks to David Cranmer and his Cash Laramie tales for introducing me to this oft-forgot hero). It is not until the very end that Jamie Foxx gets to be a bad-ass, and by then, in a two hour and 45 minute movie, we’ve endured the longest dinner scene I’ve ever encountered, all so Leonardo DiCaprio can chew the scenery as supposedly, the most evil plantation owner ever. And he doesn’t even scratch the surface of the reality of chattel slavery, which is what bothered me. He makes men fight to the death, he has one torn apart by dogs. Brutal scenes, but “slavery” remains a word in this movie, not the horror that it was. This letter evokes more than Django Unchained managed.
Much has been said about the permissive use of the n-word in this film, and Tarantino has said before that “shouting words like this from the rooftops” rob them of their power, so I won’t go into it. It was repeated to a tiresome degree for me. I find it lazy when a villain uses racial slurs to make us hate him. DiCaprio’s Mr. Candie is revolting enough without it. For me, seeing this at a dinner theater staffed by African-American ushers and waiters, it was particularly uncomfortable, especially when it was not once used with any power. Blazing Saddles did more damage to the power of the word “nigger” than Tarantino has. Should he have censored himself? No, but he should have used his n-words more wisely. He uses “fuck” like a poet, but this word he stumbled with.
Now that I’ve torn the movie a new hole, let me say that the references to the original Django and the westerns and “blaxploitation” films of the ’70s are enjoyable, Jamie Foxx should make a black western and play it completely straight, like Fred Williamson did, and I’d go see it in a heartbeat. I’ll watch Django Unchained again on cable and let it simmer. I didn’t like Inglourious Basterds that much on my first viewing, but love it now. I don’t think any number of viewings will make the dinner between Foxx, Waltz, DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson playing an evil, Uncle Tom majordomo will ever be enjoyable. It’s the little things, like taking your guns to the dinner table, that don’t make sense, especially when you have a Taxi Driver-style derringer up your sleeve. And that Kerry Washington as Broomhilda gets very little to do. Django calls his love “troublemaker,” but we never see her raise any hell. In a 3 hour movie, there was plenty of time.
Other movies I’ve seen recently that are more fun than Django are:
The Grey, with Liam Neeson. A grisly meditation on icy death, this may be Joe Carnahan’s best.
Headhunters, based on Jo Nesbo’s thriller. Lots of fun, even if no one gets beheaded.
Savages, by Oliver Stone, adapted from Don Winslow’s excellent novel. Stop watching after the first ending. The second one is a not-so-subtle middle finger from Stone to the studio and focus groups, and changes the book’s finale.
And two to avoid: Sushi Girl, a horrible, boring, torture movie with a great cast, and Les Miserables, which might be fun for fans of the musical, but was awful for someone who’s read the unabridged book and had to listen to Russel Crowe destroy Javert while mimicking a statue. It had moments, but was so static and lifeless in so many places that I didn’t feel a thing. That, and whatever lives in Tim Burton’s hair seems to have bitten Helena Bonham Carter.