Despite its cast of prominent African-Americans, Django Unchained was months ago blacklisted. Not because of its liberal use of a contemptuous term for dark-skinned people. That alone wouldn’t dissuade me. So Why? Well, because every lash mark on Django’s back was a preview of the plot’s heartbreak, and I figured he couldn’t be unchained without dragging me through the loose wet sands of despair, anger and resentment.
I was wrong.
With Django Unchained, writer/director Quentin Tarantino asks us to trust his good intent and receive his creative vision, which requires viewers to imagine that time period in America involving slavery, realistically and fantastically.
To help me do just that is a host of excellent actors, including Jamie Foxx, who I can now admit was well-cast as Django. Prior to this, he was always LaWanda (a ludicrous female character from his In Living Color days), and no matter what role he was playing, she always came to mind. It seems I just wasn’t willing to take Foxx seriously, despite his Academy Award-winning portrayal of Ray Charles in the biopic, Ray.
As the brave and reticent Django, Foxx deftly shifted out of my stereotype, earnestly portraying Django in chains, and later, as he adjusts to freedom, intermittently bringing humour to the spaghetti western — a western filmed in the Italian style popularized by Sergio Leone, and in which humour is expected.
The genre also allows Tarantino the flexibility to play with contrast and satirization in exploring, with his camera and wit, our collective insanity — or rather, slavery and its implications on the human condition.
With that in mind, Tarantino has Foxx transform from slave in chains to sharp-shooting bounty hunter, to Mandingo fighting expert; however, these transformations do not change the fact that Django measures up, not as a man, but as chattel in the slaveholding South. What’s more, you are reminded of this each time you see the R, for runaway, which scars his cheek. Yet this R means he values freedom and power as much as his unrepentant antagonist, Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson) the house slave intent on keeping Django from his suffering wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). The difference is that Stephen artfully claims and schemes to retain his own brand of power within the dysfunctional system, while Django prefers and schemes to experience the unconditional version, outside it.
Another excellent example of self-interest involves the slick slaveowner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), who uses false science to justify the mistreatment of others, and to explain why Stephen (the proverbial Uncle Tom) and others (women included) remain loyal to slaveholders generation after generation. It’s a physiological problem peculiar to African peoples he’d have you believe, however false.
Historically such pseudoscience justified the inane idea that people of African descent are inferior to all others and suitable only as slaves. Consequently, slavery and its endless ills elicit strong emotional reactions, so it’s understandable when in a Vibe magazine interview, famed African-American director, Spike Lee said he finds the movie “disrespectful” to his ancestors, adding later, via Twitter, that he doesn’t like slavery being treated by Tarantino as a spaghetti western.
That said, his refusal to see the film is surprising, mainly because infusing a serious issue with irony and cunning to publicly criticize an ancient but ongoing institution is not novel, and rather than being disrespectful to the enslaved, Django Unchained exposes their story to an audience which may otherwise ignore it, but now may examine the issues in all seriousness when the laughter stops.
Furthermore, slavery is not owned by any one group of Americans. It is an injustice to be investigated by all, as history allows, no matter their DNA makeup. The benefit of exposure being increased awareness in our relationships and conduct.
Had Tarantino in the movie suggested slavery was just, another opportunity for discussion would arise; but he is unambiguous about the injustices of slavery and murder. For example, Christoph Waltz as the principled Dr. King Schultz acknowledges upfront that slavery is a deplorable and opportunistic activity. He then explains that though he is a gun toting dentist, like the slavers of the time, he, too, is an opportunist. And with such shocking honesty, he effectively indicts both slavery and man’s weakness in recognizing a wrong, yet perpetrating it nonetheless for his own reward — behaviour neither unique to slavery nor America.
As Dr. Schultz, plays guide in this movie to the pining Django, like a wonky moral compass, he also struggles with morality, and most notably while listening to Beethoven’s Fur Elise, which for all its soothing qualities, manages to gnaw like wild dogs on his last nerve as he recalls Monsieur Candie’s instructions to his Candyland men concerning a runaway slave and a prized Mandingo fighter who’s lost his fight. At the root of his anxiety is the unspoken question: Am I any better than Candie?
It’s a horrifying scene, which suggests violence begets violence; but does Tarantino intend this as a moral of the story? I’m not sure. Violence is also depicted as preposterous, and greed its ground zero.
Is the violence stylized? Yes. Film pundits often criticize Tarantino for his surreal depictions of violence, and in this case, it seems as if he goes crazy with the strawberry syrup; but real or surreal, in one particularly gory scene, my hands flew up to my eyes to avoid seeing blood spewing everywhere. Explosions were easier to handle.
Spike’s right: slavery is not a spaghetti western; but slavery, too, was bloody.
In fairness, however, Django Unchained is not more bloody than would be expected, even with a farcical Western slant. If anything, the humour and camaraderie experienced on the way to, and in Mississippi, temper the violence and requires the viewer draw her own conclusions.
Ultimately, you just have to decide to buy the frame Tarantino is selling, and look through it. What you see at the hands of this award-winning director and writer isn’t meant to chronicle slavery in America, although it captures much of its injustices; It’s meant to lampoon an institution which harms and enriches, and which persists. If you have unanswered questions after the credits roll, then investigate further.