Quentin Tarantino has over the years become one of the handful of directors whose works are sure to become points of media contention, whether it be for their complete disregard of historicism or as a result of what some find to be problematic appropriations of racial or gendered identities. These controversies aside, I place Tarantino in a special category of filmmaker, one where I go somewhat out of my way to assure that I see his films in theaters, and while I have only been able to see his two most recent works in theaters, I am always keeping an eye out for retrospectives of his work to emerge. Like the work of Paul Thomas Anderson, I feel that Tarantino's films exude an undeniable amount of cinematic outpouring that demands they be viewed on the biggest screen possible, although viewers are often awarded a more lively experience with the latter director, in so much as he provides such high levels of action and comedy that it is impossible not to become enthralled with its magnificence. Of course much can be said about the manner with which Tarantino glorifies violence and revenge to push his narratives along, however, Django Unchained is a particularly well written piece by the always absurdist director, one that does indeed display some of the more intense moments of the direness of slavery, while also infusing it with the wily and revolutionary elements so inherent to the tradition of spaghetti westerns. This heavy tie to the spaghetti western genre is apparent through out various cinematic references, although I found some of his nods to classic silent film directors rather impressive most notably to the grandeur of D.W. Griffith, as well as to Eric Von Stroheim's tragically lost classic Greed, what with a giant ass tooth flailing around in some of the opening scenes. I am thoroughly impressed by everything offered in this film, although I will admit that it proved to be exactly the film I expected going in and really runs within the same vein as Inglorious Basterds. Basically, Django Unchained will probably prove to be the last thing I see in theaters this year and I am happy for that to be the case.
Django Unchained it what may prove to be Tarantino's most straightforward title since Kill Bill, focuses on the events surrounding slave Django (Jamie Foxx) receiving his freedoms from the hands of German dentist turned bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) who employs Django to help him find a set of slave overseers with criminal records. After realizing that he will be provided with his freedom for helping Schultz, Django informs Schultz that he desires nothing more than to save his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) from slavery after they were separated for being caught as runaway slaves. Schultz immediately seeing the connections to Wagner's Ring Cycle cannot help but offer his hand in aid, mostly because he is fully aware that Django's status as black, regardless of freedom will not allow him anywhere near the slave trade insiders. Suggesting that he train with him as a bounty hunter, Schultz creates an elaborate plan to pass as "mandingo fighters" in which Django will pretend to be an expert in the subject, accepting that he is only performing a theatrical role of sorts. This plan leads them to the world of Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), whose post-modernly named Candieland is a centrifuge for a variety of slaves, including Broomhilda whose markings as a runaway mean that her relatively privileged status as a house servant are quick to become that of a comfort girl. Calvin is of course incredibly protective of his world and wealth and picks up on the possibility that Schultz and Django may be playing up a ruse. However, it is the head house servant Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), and his over zealous desire to be liked by his white owners, that picks up on Django and Broomhilda's loving glances. Blowing the lid on the ruse, Calvin demands that Schultz pay the amount of twelve thousand dollars for Broomhilda. Schultz quickly agrees and while attempting to leave Calvin demands that Schultz shake his hand, as a form of southern tradition, which leads to Shultz shooting Calvin. This ultimately follows with a huge shoot out and an extra final act of retribution in the films closing that is hyper-violent and destructive, but to be fair it is right in line with what fans of Tarantino have come to expect.
So the major question circulating around Django Unchained is as to what degree of racism occurs within its construct. This critique is not new to Tarantino, as theorist bell hooks has often been critical of the director's lack in providing for revolutionary spaces within his films for characters with intersectional oppressions to transform and transcend their suffering. This is true, in so much, as characters often either accept that they have become part of a larger system and simply find their own means to navigate said system, without deconstructing it or seeking its removal. One could make readings like this apply to Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown and Death Proof with little difficulty. However, the criticism circling around Django Unchained, specifically, seems to be the Tarantino's use of racial epithets and slavery in an exploitative manner, to revel in revenge, much like that of Inglorious Basterds. There is a degree of validity to this claim, however, I think unlike Inglorious Basterds, Django Unchained really drives home the questions and reflections on how illogical slavery was, in that it provided one group of people with unbridled power over another based on various degrees of misinformation, most notably the illogical nature of phrenology, which Calvin seem preoccupied with throughout the film. Let us not forget that this film is mostly about a slavery getting his freedom and obtaining the freedom of his wife, one that begins with him attempting to navigate through the oppressive world according to the oppressor's rules, which occurs in some of the earlier mentioned works. As Audre Lorde would suggest, "one cannot dismantle the master's house with the master's tools," however, in the alternate absurd world of Quentin Tarantino this is completely possible as Django obliterates a slave master's house with weapons. To be fair in all this I am a white male watching this film so my reading is informed by certain elements of privilege and a back catalogue of film viewing that includes some truly racist cinema. I look forward to reading other criticism of the film as it becomes more watched and reflected upon, however, I am not looking forward to more blind anger directed towards the film by people who have flat out refused to even consider its existence.
Key Scene: The Cleo Lounge scene is incredibly intense and exceptionally sobering and reflective of a new level of seriousness on the part of Tarantino, a reminder that he may make a film with exploitative elements, yet be fully aware of the historical seriousness of his subject matter.
As I argued earlier, Tarantino films were born to be viewed in theaters, do yourself a favor and catch a matinee this week.