“Two things make a White man fear for his life: a Jew with a lawyer and a nigger with a knife.”
— Author Unknown
(NOTE: A modified version of this quote was in the screenplay of David Mamet’s State and Main; the line was cut from the final film)
*Apologies for the tardiness of this review. I viewed Django Unchained at the Century 20 in Daly City on Wednesday, 26 December 2012.
The thirst for revenge is easily one of the most controversial, yet easily relatable, of human emotions. Sure, we’ll put on the pretense of being civilised when a terrible act has no direct effect on us: we preach looking at the big picture, letting cooler heads prevail, taking stock of what remains, and – above all – turning the other cheek. That’s all fine and good when it happens to someone else, but when it happens to you, nothing less than a pound of flesh will do. Deep down we are still the creatures of the wild huddled ‘round the fire with the rest of our tribe. And there are times when complex thought won’t satisfy an emotional hunger.
I remember going back-and-forth with these sort of thoughts when I was a teen, particularly when it came to US history. From the earliest days of my education I remember being told an oversimplified take on American history that summed up the contribution of Black people as follows: they used to be slaves, Lincoln set them free, there were still a few racist people in the world, but then Martin Luther King made some speech, and now racism is gone forever. The End. Even at a young age I could see a few holes in this theory. The trend I began to notice was an emphasis on the more pacifist (and often passive) Black folks who took part in the quest for freedom. That’s why King’s name is known in (almost) every American school, whereas Malcolm X’s can draw some blank stares. Even when it would have been sensible to tell about the Black soldiers who helped win the Civil War, such stories were overlooked in favour of the non-violent Harriet Tubman being hit in the head with a brick.
That’s Black History education in a nutshell: we took our lumps, but now we’s free.
By the time I became a teen – i.e. an unstable ball of heightened emotion – I gravitated towards things that reflected my heightened state. It being the ‘90s, there was no shortage of artistic outlets in which a young Black man could immerse himself: from hardcore rap and rock that could be militantly afrocentric or frighteningly violent “gangsta” music (both of which are ridiculously oversimplified and outdated ideas); to a new wave of Black American film-makers who brought a sometimes-violent, but melanin-heavy view of the world to the screen; to being a young actor who found a great role model in Paul Robeson to just being a bookworm and learning that some of my favourite authors, like Pushkin and Dumas, were Black. And when it came to Black History in the United States, I moved away from the passives types. No, I was all about the Malcolm Xs, the Nat Turners, the Huey Newtons, the Toussaint L’Ouvertures, and such. As an adult, I recognise the necessity for being even-tempered. Having said that, there are few things as satisfying as a good visceral response.
And why shouldn’t art reflect this sort of response? The line between “inspirational” and “incendiary” can be blurry at times, but why shouldn’t art be provocative? I remember during this same decade coming across Melvin Van Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song and – having been harassed by cops far too many times (even at that young age) the glee I felt in watching the eponymous character kill the crooked cops beating another Black man. Van Peebles set out to represent his own frustrations with racism and wound up creating a ground-breaking film; it had an avante-garde style that made artistically enticing and unmistakable passion that made it resonate with its intended fanbase.
Said passion was later diluted with the rise of the “Blaxploitation” film trend that followed, but anything that resonates will be exploited. And there can even be value in exploitation: if nothing else, the 1970s provided and abundance of Black faces in cinema that had been sorely lacking in the decades prior. Now here we are in the “post-racial” 21st Century where a Black man is president, Denzel Washington has two Oscars, and Lincoln can remind us that racism is a distant memory, right?
The other great thing about exploitation: whether or not it’s correct in its portrayal of a subject, it purposefully exaggerates the subject so that it can’t be ignored. While the United States is more than willing to wag its finger at other countries with dodgy histories of human rights (Germany, North Korea, Bosnia, et. al), rarely does it fess up to its own crimes of indigenous genocide, manifest destiny, and slavery (to name but a few). Hell, these days it’s all too common for prominent American politicians to proclaim that the United States was much better when Blacks were slaves. Maybe they need a good reminder as to what that sort of thing lead to? Maybe they need an exploitation film-maker’s point of view?
In the year 1858, the German-borne bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) tracks down a runaway slave known simply as Django (Jamie Foxx). Schultz’ new targets are the Brittle Brothers, one-time slave-drivers on Django’s former plantation. Schultz promises Django that if positively identifies the Brittle Brothers, he will reward him with freedom and help Django find his wife, Broomhilde.
Django agrees and begins a new life as a skilled and shrewd bounty hunter. They discover Broomhilda has been sold to the “Candie Land” plantation, so named after its flamboyant owner, Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). With a little deception – and a lot of bloodshed – Django and Schultz set out to rescue Broomhilda and take revenge on the men who put her in chains.
Allow me to be frank in my opinion of today’s film: I fucking love this movie! A lot! I can hardly remember the time I felt such unadulterated glee whilst watching a film. Even another recent favourite, Cloud Atlas – which had me leaving the cinema thankful that I lived long enough just to see – didn’t give me the same kid-in-a-candystore feeling I had watching this film. Is it exploitation? Hell yes! It’s Quentin-fucking-Tarantino; he’s unapologetic in his exploitative influences (for Christ’s sakes, the man’s star-making film was called Pulp Fiction).
Now I’m not Tarantino fan-boy, but I do really like him as a film-maker; if for no other reason than the fact that he tends to be underestimated. Yes, he’s an exploitation film-maker, but the difference between him and Larry Cohen is that Tarantino is a much better writer (of both dialogue and story) who injects his stories with so many allusions that even the most eclectic of art-lovers are at pains to find them all. From the use of 2Pac/James Brown mash-up used during the climactic shootout (used non-diagetically so as to not be anachronistic) to Schultz drawing parallels between Django’s quest and Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, the film tells a story far more rich and classic than its B-movie premise would suggest.
And let me address the elephant in the room for this film: yes, the word “nigger” is said. A lot. Even for a Tarantino flick, this has to be some kind of record. But for those who have expressed discomfort with its use, I have to ask: what did you expect from a film that takes place during American slavery? This wasn’t exactly a time of political correctness, people. If ever Tarantino wrote a film where it was expected for the word to be thrown about – if for no other reason than accuracy to the time period – it’s this one. I’m afraid I can’t sympathise with the Spike Lees (a film-making hero of mine, whom I’ve twice met, shaken hands with, and gotten his autograph) and Tavis Smileys who were far too sensitive to the film. Nor have I any sympathy for Black folks who suddenly became racially self-aware after seeing the film with White audience. Personal comfort is subjective and I don’t mean, but if anyone went into this film expecting Jefferson in Paris, they picked the wrong damn film.
And the performances ain’t half bad neither!
Let me say up front: I am not a fan of Leonardo DiCaprio. Like any other ‘90s kid, I remember him from Growing Pains, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?, and that big boat flick. I get why he’s appealing to people: he’s a non-threatening, baby-faced, blonde-haired White boy whom any mother could love. That doesn’t make him a great actor. His range is ridiculously limited and his bag of tricks very spare. You can tell exactly how he’ll play a role from the opening frames because it’s the way he plays every role: when he’s relaxed, he’ll do the head-tilt move; when he’s paying attention, he’ll close his mouth and furrow his brow; when he’s happy, he smirks the same smirk; and when he’s angry, HE SCREAAAAAAMS!!! He’s got a hell of an agent and he’s done some great flicks, but never once have I ever felt him essential to a single one of them.
That’s Leonardo DiCaprio. This is Calvin Candie. I don’t know what Tarantino did to make the guy get out of his usual routine, but not once during this film did I think “man, this role would be better with someone other than DiCaprio” as I usually do. No, I was thinking “Calvin Candie is an evil motherfucker… and I love it!” He treads the wonderful line between scenery-chewing and simply diving head-first into a role. I’m not saying every role he plays should be this over-the-top, but if he were more apt at losing himself in a role as he does here, I’d be the DiCaprio fan the mainstream tries to convince me to be.
Then there’s Samuel L. Jackson as Candie’s house-nigger, Stephen. Like DiCaprio (and Nicholson, Pacino, De Niro, Walken, and many more), Sam Jackson no longer seems to act so much as do “the Sam Jackson character” – the glare, the fluctuating voice, the bald head, etc. Roles like Gator in Jungle Fever seem like another lifetime compared with the predictable Snakes on a Plane star we often see. But with Stephen, he builds one of funniest and saddest portrayals of institutionalised racism ever put on screen. The traditional spelling of Stephen’s very name seems to suggest the sort of Stepin Fechit stereotype Black actors have been running from for decades. But the Stephen of this film is maliciously cunning and sadly paternal. An actor myself, I’ve often bitched about always getting cast as “the asexual Black father figure”. But the way Jackson creates sadness out of Stephen’s loyalty to Calvin Candie is fascinating – if disturbing – to watch.
And yes, Jamie Foxx kicks ass as Django. I honestly couldn’t imagine Will Smith in the role, considering the darkness of the story. And Tarantino seems to be the only American director who knows how to actually use Christoph Waltz, rather than typecasting him as “the German bad guy”. Kerry Washington doesn’t get as much screentime as the boys, but she makes her pain real when she is onscreen. Hell, even Jonah Hill is actually tolerable as the hooded lynch mobber. In fact, the only “off” performance is by Tarantino himself, and he’s only there for about four minutes anyway.
Aside from one slow 10-minute sequence where Schultz trains Django to be a bounty hunter, the film never drags. It’s a rollercoaster ride through the darkest point of American history. All my life I’ve wanted to see a kick-ass Western – nay, “Southern” – with a Black man in the saddle and a six-shooter at his side. Who knew it would take some crazy White boy with a big chin to bring it about?