Monday, May 27, 2019

DJANGO UNCHAINED (2012): The Slavery Story Revised

Like every other Tarantino movie, Django Unchained is both predictable and unpredictable.  The movie is long (165 minutes), violent and overly clever.  At the same time, anticipating all of the plot twists is impossible.  According to the IMDB database, the most common plot keywords include (1) racial vengeance; (2) racial violence; (3) historically inaccurate; (4) sadism; and (5) slavery.  It stars some of the usual actors in Tarantino films including Samuel L. Jackson, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Christoph Walz.  It also features newcomers such as Jamie Foxx, Don Johnson and Kerry Washington.  Bruce Dern even has the chance to make a cameo appearance.

It’s too difficult to describe the plot in depth without going on for pages.  Chiefly, it concerns a black slave separated from his wife doing anything possible to get her back.  Django (Jamie Foxx) escapes from slavery due to the mischief caused by a former dentist, Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Walz), now turned bounty hunter.  Eventually, the two have to face down the formidable slaveowner, Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), who has Django’s wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington).  An advisor to Candie is a villainous former slave named Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson) who is the first to figure out what Django and the dentist are planning.  It ends in lots of shootouts and Django escaping the plantation with his wife.  For whatever reason the dentist cares, he dies to help the two escape to freedom.

Anyone who has seen any Tarantino movie knows that he tries too hard ever to make a perfect film.  While only a few viewers hated the film, there are many mixed reviews of the film.  I don’t believe it’s the violence that turned certain viewers off. 

As far as violence, Sam Peckinpah’s Wild Bunch, a western filmed in 1969, might have it beat.  It’s mild compared to Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ (obviously not a western), filmed in 2004.  Again, the movie is unpredictable.  But unlike so many of Tarantino’s other films, the plot takes place chronologically.  And there were movies with stranger plot twists back in the 1960s and 1970s including Dr. Strangelove, The Manchurian Candidate, Clockwork Orange, Once Upon a Time in the West, and The Deer Hunter.

More likely, what made certain reviewers uncomfortable was the irreverent and none too polite portrayal of race relations in the years leading up to the American Civil War.  It’s a topic that some feel is too sensitive for this sort of humorous treatment.  And I suppose much of the film is in bad taste.  But as someone once said, humor and bad taste are inseparable.

One reviewer stated the transformation of Django from an unsophisticated slave to a superhero is the film’s weakest link.  How did he suddenly become such a good student to end up doing what he did at the film’s end?  Whether you feel this criticism is legitimate largely depends on whether you consider the film serious satire.  Many do not and would not even worry about such character development.  They cannot take Tarantino seriously.

I think there is a place for a film like Django Unchained.  If the film is a farce, is it any more of a farce than what led up to the institution of slavery to begin with?  The depiction of slavery in Gone With the Wind is one of the benevolent plantation owners who were truly there to bring gentility to the south by allowing the blacks to pick cotton for them.  Even in films where characters are sympathetic to the plight of blacks in America, the heroes are white.  Not so in Django Unchained.  Too violent?  It’s difficult to separate slavery and violence.  To begin with, there were over 600,000 Americans who died during the American Civil War.

Yet as in all Tarantino films, we’re not sure what his motivations are in this movie.  I think Django Unchained is actually one of his better films in that it’s less quirky and contains less grandstanding.  Still, these traits do appear.  And this is why many think, and will continue to think, he’s more of an entertainer than a storyteller.  We’re not sure if the humor in his films has a purpose, or whether it’s there to be self-serving. 

May 27, 2019

© Robert S. Miller 2019

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