Django Unbrained

Django Unchained

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.

christopher waltz jamie foxx django unchained

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.

Fred Williamson in Boss, an obvious reference
Fred Williamson in Boss, an obvious reference

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.

3/5 stars.

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.

Petey Wheatstraw

If you’ve seen Dolemite, Petey Wheatstraw is Rudy Ray Moore’s third movie, and better in every way. In this one he ends up being the Devil’s Son-in-Law, when he’s massacred with his family by his club owner rivals. Lucifer- aka Lou Cipher, in a play on words long before Angel Heart did it- is a nattily dressed old fellow who says he’ll bring Petey and his family back, and let him avenge himself, if he’ll marry his ugly daughter.

The Devil Wears Tracksuits

The Devil lends him his cane, which gives him all sorts of astonishing powers, from being able to make men say what he wants or shit their pants, or sleep with a harem of women in one evening. This one spends more time on humor than badassery; there’s still plenty of goofy ’70s kung fu, but there’s plenty more slapstick and corny comedy. Whether it’s the Benny Hill-style sped-up orgy scene with the harem set to old ragtime piano, tells the tale of how he sprung from the womb at 10 years old, or when he chases junkies who stripped his car down the street, it has a much more consistent tone, and is a lot more fun.

If you don’t love Rudy Ray Moore after seeing this, you’ll never get him.

Rudy Ray Moore is much funnier when he’s not busy directing the movie himself- his raunchy, hilarious dialogue fills every scene, whether he’s trying to lawyer his way out of kissing Satan’s butt-ugly daughter, who’s thankfully hidden behind a veil like a horrifying face in a Looney Tunes cartoon, or trash-talking with his rivals. The effects are lower than low budget- sometimes Satan’s mighty cane looks like a stick with tin foil wrapped on the end, but that just adds to the charm. When he has to fight the legions of devils in bad make-up, that’s what it’s all about.

I would kill to have his wardrobe today.

This is pure ’70s blaxploitation done right. Plenty of humor, gratuitous nudity, outrageous fashion, and ridiculous kung fu fights, and a story straight out of a folk tale set in the ghetto. Who doesn’t like a story about outsmarting the Devil? Rudy Ray Moore was an original, a comedian and forefather of rap, and this is one of his best movies. Dolemite is good fun too, but this is better. I’m told the sequel to Dolemite, The Human Tornado, is even better- and that will be the next entry in this column.

Dolemite


Rudy Ray Moore passed away recently, and the world is a sadder place for it. I was first introduced to Rudy Ray when I listened to Schooly D put his rap “Signifying Monkey” to music. It’s a filthy but endearing tale of how a bullied little monkey gets his revenge on the lion, by using his gift of gab. He convinces the lion that the elephant has been talking shit about him, and soon enough the monkey can say whatever he wants about the lion, because the dumbass thinks it’s the elephant’s words… then he goes to kick some elephant ass, and you can imagine how that goes.

Moore never reached the broad popularity of pioneers of profanity such as Redd Foxx and Richard Pryor, because he never toned his act down for the likes of “Sanford & Son” or the Tonight Show. His fanbase was smaller, but stronger. He built up a pimp stage persona called Dolemite, and by 1975 he brought it to film during the golden age of blaxploitation, with Dolemite. This would spawn several sequels, but the first one has an immense, low-budget charm to it. Directed by D’Urville Martin, who himself plays Willie Green in this, and was Reverend Rufus in Black Caesar, it feels like guerrilla film-making in the John Waters style and manages to be consistently entertaining.


I watched this with Milky one night, and we conceived a drinking game around it. I’ll tell you the rules as we go along. The movie’s pacing is slow by modern standards and you may find the game helpful in digesting this classic. The story is simple; boss pimp Dolemite was set up by fellow pimp Willie Green and some crooked police; he now resides in jail, but the Feds give him a deal: help them take down his partner and the bad cops, and they’ll set him free. Dolemite wants revenge, so he takes the deal, and not soon after he is outside the jail in his Cadillac, changing out of the cheap suit they gave him, into his pimpin’ silk threads, surrounded by his stable of fine women. To the chagrin of the guards and cons watching.

“You guard! I want you to take these cheap mother fuckers and wipe your ass with them!”

The movie wastes little time in giving us some action, as thugs immediately try to hit him as he leaves prison. But Dolemite is a force to be reckoned with; to go with his witty repartee, he is a bad-ass at kung fu. He whups the ass of a thug with a machine gun and takes out the rest of the crew, and it gives him a taste for the payback he must inflict. The first rule of the drinking game is, you take a shot every time Rudy Ray obviously misses someone with one of his moves, and they fall down anyway. The fights are better than many, but D’Urville Martin wasn’t going to waste time on a second take if Moore’s foot was anywhere near the stunt-man’s face (if they had stunt men- maybe that’s why the fights are the way they are).

“I’m gonna let ’em know that Dolemite is back on the scene! I’m gonna let ’em know that Dolemite is my name, and fuckin’ up motha fuckas is my game!”

Queen Bee, a female street kingpin who commands a squad of kung-fu crazy ho’s, teams up with Dolemite to rid the street of Willie Green and the corrupt cops he counts as cohorts. But first he has to get down to business, and get his stable built back up. Spend some time with his women, and give us plenty of gratuitous titty. The cops who set him up are back on his ass, pulling him over and trying to set him up with dope, but this time he just kicks their ass and dumps the blow on their faces. That scene is particularly entertaining, but they had a lot of trouble keeping the boom mike out of it. That’s rule #2, every time you see a microphone in the frame, take a shot.

“You rat-soup eatin’, no-business, born insecure, jock-jawed, honky motha fuckas!”

As you can tell, Dolemite don’t take no shit, and his insults cut to the bone. Rudy Ray Moore is the biggest charm of the film. He plays it completely straight, and with the raw, amateur style, it gives the movie a Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song quality. The only time he takes a nod to his comic career is when he recites “the Signifying Monkey” after he takes his nightclub back from Willie Green. The plot is confused as hell but still watchable and fun- when Dolemite finally takes his revenge, he tears the guy’s guts out with kung fu grip. And of course the dirty cops get their comeuppance– Queen Bee sends her killer callgirls after the corrupt Mayor, and a black Fed named Blakeley (Jerry Jones, M*A*S*H*) comes out of deep cover to kick some ass. Any time you cringe at nearly seeing the flabby Mayor’s pasty ass, take a shot.
The movie advertises an All-Girl Army of Kung Fu Killers, but we only get one real good fight with them at the end. That’s about the only disappointment. I can’t wait to see the sequels The Human Tornado and Petey Wheatstraw, which I’m told are even better. RIP, Rudy Ray Moore, and thank you for leaving us this legacy. This honky will forego eating rat soup in your honor.

Putney Swope – Don’t Rock the Boat… Sink It!

Putney Swope is probably best known for the reference in Boogie Nights; Don Cheadle’s character, Buck Swope, is named after the film. It’s somewhere between a 60’s head film and a 70’s rebel film. It succeeds in some ways and fails in others, but if you like the weird films of the 60’s, it’s a must. Filmed by Robert Downey Sr., it’s the story of a Madison Avenue ad agency that puts its one black executive in charge, and the hijinks that ensue. I’m a big fan of Melvin Van Peebles’s movies such as Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song and Watermelon Man, so was eager to see another film of this sort.

Putney Swope and his bodyguard

Putney Swope is the one black member of the board of an advertising agency; when the Chairman dies during a board meeting, they vote by secret ballot for the new Chairman, and since they all want a “token” vote for Putney… he gets elected by a landslide. He immediately takes over, renames the company Truth & Soul, Inc., refuses to advertise cigarettes or war toys, and brings in his afro and dashiki entourage.

It’s less of a satire on race relations than a pointed jab at Advertising, and most of the best jokes are either the bizarre commercials Swope and crew come up with, how people and companies both eat it up, or the insane products the companies foist on the public. Swope isn’t really a revolutionary, and this is certainly not a “Madison Avenue meets Blazing Saddles” kind of movie. It’s more like The Magic Christian and other Terry Southern-inspired films of the 60’s that attack the status quo. They poke at the revolutionary fervor of the 60’s as well, with Antonio Fargas as a black Muslim and others.

Viva le revolucion, baby.

When someone from the Audie Murphy toy company is raving about their Junior Flamethrower that runs on ordinary lighter fluid, and Swope suggests selling a crappy window cleaner as a soft drink in the ghetto, you know their targets. The commercials themselves vary from amusing to insane, though in my opinion none of them do better than the skit comedy anthology The Groove Tube for laughs, but the satire is biting and poignant. For example there’s this ad for Fan-Away, which shows a gal dancing in a trash-strewn alley with a bum passed out in it, and she says “You can’t eat an air conditioner.” This type of commercial actually made the air later, where street sensibility and an abstract concern about starving homeless people would be used to hawk products and a lifestyle, so the film was ahead of its time with this one.
Another was for Lucky Airlines, which just has 3 sexy girls in slow-mo bouncing their boobies in an airplane, and wrestling with a guy in his underwear, which would have been shocking in 1969 but with a few edits could be an ad today.

Tig Bitty Airline commercial

The commercials are in color and most of the movie is in black and white, so they pop out at you. My favorite isn’t on youtube, sadly. A voice-over describes “Ethereal Cereal” and its health benefits as the camera slowly pans in on a black family at breakfast. The man of the family looks oblivious, as he boredly eats his cereal, when the voiceover asks him, “Jim, did you know it also has .002 ESP units of pectin?”

“No shit?”

The film isn’t above having products like Dinkleberry’s Chicken Pot Pies, either. It’s actually quite a bit of fun, as Swope transforms into “The Man” he set out to crumble, begins donning a Fidel Castro outfit as his cohorts call him a cop out. The film starts to fall apart at this point, aiming for absurdity. Swope’s rival turns out to be a dwarf, but nothing really funny happens with him. Mel Brooks has a tiny cameo as a customer in sunglasses who says “Forget it, baby!” when Swope takes over, and I wonder if this influenced Blazing Saddles in any way.

Mr. Big

The film does have its comedic moments like when the War Toy manager realizes he’ll be out of a job:

A homosexual… or worse!

It also riffs on artists, such as when a photographer is trying to get a job with Swope, starting at an outrageous price and then bargaining himself down because he needs the work.

The sad lot of the freelancer.
The movie isn’t perfect, and part of it comes from Robert Downey’s decision to dub his own voice over Arnold Johnson’s for Putney Swope. He has a plain, gravelly delivery that isn’t obviously a dub, but it seems just off enough. He also does a lot of shots with Swope’s mouth obscured to make the lip syncing easier. With the right actor this might have been a less forgotten classic. It definitely has its moments, and is commendable for its daring. It just lacks that spark that would catapult it into hilarity, and a more lively, charismatic star using his own voice would have done it.

Who was going to do it, though? Sidney Poitier? There weren’t a lot of lead roles for blacks back in ’69 and something like this could sink a career. Or make one. 5 years later Cleavon Little would be unforgettable as Bart in Blazing Saddles, but it would be his only lead role. So it’s hard to fault it. It’s still one of a kind, a great poke at TV commercials, and still funny today.