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Django Unchained feels like a movie we should have gotten a long time ago. Hollywood's reluctance to deal frankly with race and the history of black/white relations in America is disappointing for many reasons, but the main one has to be that we too often miss out on the simple pleasure of watching black cowboys battle slaveowners. There are some films along these lines, but not many, and few this high profile. Quentin Tarantino gave us another kind of guilty catharsis in Inglourious Basterds, and at first glance this is cut from the same cloth; a brutally violent exploitation picture about the oppressed taking revenge on bigots, but given a good amount of dramatic weight and narrative complexity. It's not exactly a redressed remake, though, and while Basterds was more about images of violence, Django draws its power from a brutal and uncompromising picture of the ugliness of American slavery. By presenting this material in action/exploitation dress, Tarantino lets this material reach people who wouldn't be caught dead at a respectful biopic of Harriet Tubman.
Django (Jamie Foxx) is introduced to us as a slave, quickly sold to and effectively freed by Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a bounty hunter masquerading as a kindly dentist. By posing as Schultz's manservant, Django helps the Dr. hunt and kill a number of criminals, before being offered a unique reward- the opportunity to try and free his wife Broomhilde (Kerry Washington), a slave now owned by the sleazy aristocrat Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio.) Schultz and Django make their way onto the plantation disguised as slave traders and experts on the oft-lethal sport of "Mandingo fighting" (a slight exaggeration- slaves were often made to fight but rarely to the death.) But Candie's most loyal and obsequious servant, Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson) figures there's something not right about the two.
Django, for those who aren't fans of obscure European Westerns, is also the name of the protagonist of a series of Westerns which for the most part have absolutely nothing to do with each other- when the original Django, starring Franco Nero, was a hit, a bunch of other movies were packaged as sequels. This film's Django has no more connection with the original than the 15 other people who played the part, but Nero appears in a cameo to pass the torch and make this as official as an unofficial sequel can get. In any case the visual language and style of the film belong to the rawest of the spaghetti westerns, with wild and often incongruous locations (there is apparently a mountain pass just outside of New Orleans), intense lighting with an emphasis on red and yellow, and even an original Morricone song. But the film isn't strict about its genre limitations, and when the mood strikes Tarantino he'll use modern rap, a seventies ballad, or a remix of James Brown. The freedom he allows himself is really one of Tarantino's biggest strengths as a filmmaker; there's never a sense that anything is being done out of rote obligation.
It's impossible to make a film dealing with this subject without kicking up controversy. Spike Lee most visibly argued against the idea of making any kind of action-entertainment movie about a genocide; I can see the argument, but I don't think the brutality of slavery is trivialized by such a context, as long as it it's still plainly visible. Stephen is also a divisive figure; he's derived from the familiar stereotype of the "loyal house negro" (of which Uncle Tom may or may not be the best example, I've forgotten how that one goes) and some feel the stereotype has so little basis in fact that using it plays into the idea of deflecting blame for slavery from white people onto other black people. I think the character is a little more complex than just the stereotype, and may even be some kind of riff on it, but it's hard for me to do this kind of deep interpretation after seeing a film only once.
In any case, Tarantino is as interested in creating memorable characters as in staging memorable shootouts, and while Django himself is largely a broad heroic type, there's a sense of him coming into his own as the action progresses, not only embracing his independence but making some very tough moral choices. However, in terms of pure unbridled ACTING!, it's a three-way race between the effortlessly charming Waltz, an amazingly intense DiCaprio, and Jackson, who suggests in Stephen a man broken and twisted by hate, turned into someone petty and malicious and loyal to a system that abuses him. I honestly don't know who comes out ahead. Jonah Hill has an unusual cameo as part of a proto-Klan group of masked racist vandals, who figure prominently in what may well be the funniest scene in any film this year.
To be sure, Tarantino makes a violent and excessive spectacle out of the struggle for emancipation, but there is something undeniably viscerally right about it. It plays on our basic desire to see the bad guys punished, and acknowledges that yes, even if we don't like to talk about it, even if we protest that those of us in the present should not feel guilty for the actions of our ancestors, American society supported and rewarded a whole bunch of bad guys. It's an honest film, acknowledging that vengeance is a tricky business which leads you through a few moral grey areas, but never leaves any doubt about which side is in the right. It's as ugly as it ought to be, and more fun than it has any right to.
Written and Directed by Quentin Tarantino