I am not a movie guy, but this weekend I saw a movie so spectacular, so breathtaking that I feel compelled to attempt a review. The movie is Django Unchained, and I went to see it, I admit, because I just wrote a book that also features a black gunman. I was afraid that coincidence might be labeled plagiarism. Luckily for me, the movie and my book share few similarities—not time, not place, not plot, not tone. Had I not had another motive, I might well have missed this fine movie.
Django Unchained is the story of a slave freed by a German bounty hunter and their quest to free the ex-slave’s wife, now owned by an evil plantation owner. Tarantino calls it a “Southern,” because it takes place mainly in the South, but it has all the trappings of the classic Spaghetti Westerns. And I do mean all the trappings, from huge blood red title scripts to guitar-heavy soundtrack to melodramatic back-lit poses of the hero puffing a cigarillo to a cameo by Franco Nero, to incongruous scenery. Yes, in this movie, parts of Tennessee and Mississippi look just like California, just as in the originals the American West looked just like Italy. Even the name is homage—there were over 30 Italian westerns with Django as the hero, although only the first starred Sr. Nero.
Tarantino’s movie works at three levels. At one level, it is entertainment, pure and simple. It works from the classic story of a knight rescuing a princess, in this case Siegfried und Brunhilde. Indeed, in case you miss the fact that it is a classic story, one of the characters patiently explains the legend of Siegfried und Brunhilde to Django while sitting around a campfire. And what entertainment it is! Well paced, well told, and well-acted, it is entertainment in its purest form.
The characters are complex and interesting, and the acting is spectacular. Jamie Foxx is excellent, and his work nuanced and elegant. However, Django is an authentic western hero, phlegmatic and unemotional, and there’s only so much room to work. Foxx is bound by his character. Christoph Waltz, the gleefully psychopathic Nazi from Inglourious Basterds, plays King Schulz, an assassin with a conscience, and almost steals the show. He doesn’t only because there’s a lot of scene stealing going on here. Don Johnson plays plantation owner Big Daddy, whose plan to lead a Klan-like group to attack Django and Schulz is thwarted in part by masks that have eyeholes cut in the wrong places. Samuel L. Jackson plays the Uncle Tom character, switching effortlessly from buffoon to sycophant to Machiavellian monster. (Samuel L. Jackson can do more than just shout and act angry. Who knew!)
But the greatest act of theft goes to Leonardo di Caprio, who plays Calvin Candie, possibly the creepiest character I’ve ever seen. Since di Caprio tends to eschew mugging for a camera like many of the more renowned leading men, it’s easy to forget what a good actor he can be. He is at his very best in this.
But Tarantino has never been satisfied to entertain. In Django, he returns to a theme from Inglourious Basterds. That is, evil is evil. Over time, the good in good and the evil in evil tend to blur in our memories, and historians and writers feel compelled to show us the frailties of heroes and the redeeming characteristics of villains. Churchill let Coventry be bombed. Hitler loved his dogs. And there is a school of Southern revisionist history that has tried to water down the evil that was the antebellum south. That school holds that (a) the war wasn’t really about slavery, (b) the leaders of the Confederacy were fine and noble men compelled to their cause by a sense of duty and (c) some even have argued slavery wasn’t that bad, especially for those slaves owned by a “kind master,” an oxymoron if there ever was one.
The truth is slavery was horrible, almost more horrible than we can imagine, and the leaders of the south were a bunch of treasonous scoundrels who fought for the right to keep men in chains and rape their women because it was economically advantageous and funded their lavish lifestyle. Period.
There is no redemption for Nazis. Or slave owners. (And that includes my slave-owning great, great grandfather, William O. Gibbs.)
The brutality of slavery in this movie is so horrible, so over the top, that Tarantino slips it in between scenes of violence that are almost cartoon-like. In a sense, he uses death and mayhem to inoculate us, because in truth I don’t think any of us could have stood seeing the truth without that inoculation. And as it was, I had to look away from the screen more than once.
In taking on a theme in which huge segments of the population are still in denial and in doing it in such an over-the-top way, Tarantino has taken a huge risk. This may be a “Southern,” but it’s hard to imagine that white audiences in the south are going to flock to this movie. The Washington Times has already screamed reverse racism. It may also offend some blacks, as well. Career blacks Tavis Smiley and Spike Lee have already slammed it. Lee called it “disrespectful” although he has not and has no plans to see it. (It’s not clear where Lee is coming from—the prissiness that accompanies advancing age, rejection of a black movie made by a white guy [yes, that is reverse racism] or simply envy because Tarantino is a better filmmaker. Whatever it is, Spike should shut up. It’s embarrassing and small-minded to slam a movie you haven’t even seen.)
There are reasons to dislike this movie. Tarantino is not particularly fussed about history, and some of his language is unlikely (like the excessive amount of cursing). And to our modern ear, the frequent use of the word “nigger” is grating. (Having said that, read Huckleberry Finn.) And the blood-spurting gets old fast.
But still, the greatest achievement of this movie may be at third level, as an homage to the B movie genres of Spaghetti Westerns and blaxploitation movies. Tarantino loves B movies, and has celebrated many of those genres before—pulp detectives, martial arts, war. It is simply a miracle how he manages to keep all of the cringe-worth flaws of these tropes while elevating his work to something beyond what they ever dreamt of being.
In short, this is not a good movie, this is a great movie. It is brilliant, entertaining, and above all: Courageous.