I don't usually get into movie reviews here, but I wanted to take some time with the new Quentin Tarantino film Django Unchained; partly because racial issues and the American Civil War are two areas that I discuss quite frequently, but primarily because it took me several days to fully grapple with my reaction to the movie.
Let's start with the obligatory qualifier: I'm a huge Tarantino fan. Kill Bill and Inglourious Basterds are two of my favorite films, and True Romance is one of my favorite screenplays. But more that any particular favorites list, I just really dig the fact that he has so much fun making movies, and it absolutely shows on screen. Even though he's been making movies for more than two decades, he's managed to retain the exuberance of a first timer -- only with lots of really big toys to play with. This can lead to self-indulgence, and Tarantino is absolutely self-indulgent, but in a good way because he rarely fumbles the creative latitude he's earned and therefore he rarely disappoints. Say what you will about him (derivative, too-wordy, etc...) but he's no slouch and he knows how to craft a movie.
Over the last several months, we've been treated to a lot of great films: Lincoln, Argo, Flight, The Hobbit and so forth. But I can say without hesitation that of all the movies I've seen recently, Django Unchained confounded me initially, and that's saying a lot considering how I've also seen and enjoyed Cloud Atlas and Life of Pi -- a pair of brain-benders to say the least.
Django Unchained is set during the two years immediately prior to the Civil War. Jamie Foxx plays Django, a slave who's offered his freedom by a German-American dentist turned bounty hunter, Dr. King Schultz, played by the extraordinary Christoph Waltz (Waltz deservingly won the Academy Award for his role as Col. Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds). Dr. Schultz is interested in Django because the slave has information about a particularly lucrative bounty, and so Dr. Schultz buys Django in spite of his hatred of slavery, and in exchange agrees to help Django track down and rescue his wife who we come to discover is owned by Leonardo DiCaprio's exceedingly creepy southern dilettante, Calvin Candie. It turns out that Django possesses a natural talent for bounty hunting, and the duo become close friends. Once they encounter Candie, things get ugly. Really, really ugly.
I won't spoil any more of the movie's plot. Yes, it's billed as Tarantino's take on a Sergio Leone spaghetti western. And yes, Tarantino mashes up a spaghetti western (actually a "spaghetti southern" since much of the film takes place in Tennessee and Mississippi) with the utter brutality of the American institution of slavery.
That's what tripped me up.
On one hand, I thought it was a really solid Tarantino movie. It was beautifully shot and the performances made me really, really love the characters who we're supposed to love and viscerally despise the characters who we're supposed to despise. DiCaprio is easily becoming one of my favorite actors and with each of his films it becomes increasingly evident why directors from Eastwood to Spielberg to Scorsese want to cast him in everything. And Waltz was so completely likeable, I'd love to see a prequel featuring Dr. King Schultz's transition from dentist to bounty hunter. By the way, even though I'm not a prude when it comes to movie violence, I could barely get through two of the more harrowing scenes of slave abuse (without giving too much away, the dog scene and the "mandingo fight" scene). Beyond those seriously uncomfortable bits, the rest of the violence was typical Tarantino: lots of quasi-cartoony geysers of blood. No surprises there. Oh, and I loved the soundtrack, particularly the classic Jim Croce track "I Got A Name."
On the other hand, Tarantino seems to have mashed-up a revenge-driven spaghetti western with slavery.
After leaving the movie, I felt off balance, unable to peg the content of the last 165 minutes of my life. I really wanted to love the movie but what kept nagging at me was the treatment of slavery in the context of badass Tarantino romp. Should I really be laughing at the gaggle of proto-KKK rednecks complaining about the eye-holes in their hoods (it was a really a funny scene)? Should I be rooting for a character, Dr. Schultz, who, even though he hates slavery, still bought a human being and owned him for a short period of time? Ultimately, should Tarantino expect us to have so much fun while watching a movie about the most grotesque chapter in American history, and in doing so does he dishonor the memories of those bound by slavery?
Put another way, it's difficult to imagine cheering and laughing along with a buddy cop movie about the Holocaust, or at an improvised mockumentary about the Native American genocide. We're talking about the unforgivable enslavement and torture -- both physical and psychological torture -- of an entire race of people for the sake of both propping up the southern economy and the socioeconomic status of its entitled gentry. Simply put: slavery was shockingly despicable nearly beyond description and, as such, should it be the centerpiece of a movie with such a cheeky tone? That's the conundrum.
However, it's becoming clear to me that Tarantino made something far deeper than a spaghetti western -- or at least deeper than the spaghetti westerns I've seen. I've come to realize that his chosen homage/genre was simply a launching point into a much more substantive story about an unlikely friendship, joined in a quest for an unlikely love story. But more than anything else, Tarantino has duped a lot of movie-goers into seeing a film about the monstrous, cancerous true nature of American slavery, and I'd wager that a considerable number of people who saw Django Unchained probably didn't see Spielberg's Amistad or The Color Purple or any other historical drama about slavery, many of which were sanitized for mass appeal.
In that respect, I find myself squarely in Tarantino's camp as he faces criticism from various circles. I understand why he frequently used the word "nigger" in the dialogue. It was historically accurate, after all, and part of the aforementioned brutality of slavery. I also understand the slavery side of his mash-up formula. Look, I've read hundreds of volumes about the Civil War -- research which naturally includes texts about the true cause of the war, slavery, as well as texts about the century-plus aftermath of the war, and I can tell you with all honesty that I've never been this affected by any other description of slavery, printed, filmed or otherwise.
Even if Tarantino exaggerated the horror of slavery and even if it were only half as awful as he portrayed it, shame on United States and shame on the framers for not eradicating it from the very start when they had the chance. Maintaining the institution only pandered to a mentally ill demographic of lazy, cheap, sadistic white aristocrats. Tarantino absolutely nailed it: DiCaprio and the other southern landowners, say nothing of their drooling, toothless hillbilly henchmen, were mentally deranged serial killers hiding under the threat of secession. And they were allowed to get away with it because no one dared undermine the southern economy.
The abomination of slavery in the United States and especially the psychopathy of slave owners is what will lastingly stick with me about the movie, and I'm strangely grateful for it. I'm grateful to have been reminded of the shocking truth that half of this nation as recently as 150 years ago treated African Americans as livestock to be abused and exploited however they pleased, and why, until 1861, the other half did nothing to stop it. In the end, perhaps Tarantino sought to make us all want to be Django and Dr. Schultz -- to inflict justice and retribution upon the purveyors of that loathsome, nightmarish endeavor.
The memory of slavery can never -- and should never -- be erased, but for three hours in a movie theater, we felt like we weren't helpless observers of its history. For three hours, we could vicariously attain vengeance against the maniacs who stained our country with their greed and their incomprehensible malice towards millions of innocent human beings.