Title: Django Unchained
The Weinstein Company
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Screenwriter: Quentin Tarantino
Cast: Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Kerry Washington, Leonardo DiCaprio, Samuel L. Jackson
Screened at: Regal Union Square, NYC, 12/6/12
Opens: December 25, 2012
The history textbooks have it wrong—not too wrong, but still. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” depicting the brutality inflicted on slaves by Simon Legree, did not start the Civil War despite the belief by our sixteenth president that it did. The book helped. The election of Lincoln did not start the Civil War. It helped even more, but it didn’t start the war. Django started it. But don’t take my word for it. Take a look on Christmas Day and beyond at Quentin Tarantino’s movie “Django Unchanged” for the true story. You see, Django was a slave who was freed by a white man, setting up an alliance with him. Each had something to gain from the entente which began with a vague lack of trust but became cemented in true friendship. Their epic battles leading to an explosive body count. And that’s what infuriated the South.
“Django Unchained” could be called a follow-up to Sergio Corbucci’s 1966 spaghetti Western “Django” starring Franco Nero, this time in a minor scene, though movie buffs of a certain age would have a clear memory of Nero’s title role in Corbucci’s film. Nero’s Django was caught between the evil deeds of the Ku Klux Klan on the one hand and Mexican bandits on the other. “Django Unchained” could also be called a revival of the Blaxploitation movie, a genre that became popular in the 1970s featuring mostly black casts, soundtracks with soul and funky music such as wah-wah guitars, with African-Americans taking revenge on “crackers.” Think of “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song” and “Shaft,” though because of pressure by black groups like the NAACP and the Urban League believed that black stereotypes were given too much play, the genre died out.
It’s baaack, though, and back with a vengeance. Unlike the violence that was part and parcel of those earlier experiments, “Django Unchained” is not just violent but mayhem, anarchy—stylized, maybe, but still one with a body count higher than that of its predecessors and the use of the “n” word so many times that it D.W. Griffith, director of the racist, pro-Klan film “Birth of a Nation” (1915), will give Tarantino a smile and a wink in his grave before realizing that the “n” word is used ironically. The really big difference though between Tarantino’s movie and its predecessors is that Tarantino knows how to blow things up, how to kill with maximum blood gushing from holes in the victims’ chests, and with some terrific acting by Jamie Foxx as the deadly serious title character out to save his beloved from her Mississippi plantation and to avenge the whippings that made her back resemble a tic-tac-toe game. And there’s the more subtle, witty, and cool Christoph Waltz as a German-American bounty hunter using his alleged trade as a dentist for a cover.
Waltz, you’ll recall, was the spectacularly effective Hans Lander, a Nazi who would flush out Christians harboring Jews during the Holocaust by questioning them using charm rather than brutality. And “Inglourious Basterds,” for my Deutschmarks the best movie of 2009, was written and directed by Quentin Tarantino, so how could it miss?
Tarantino’s story, one that’s two hours and forty-five minutes long but, unlike Tom Hooper’s similarly long but turgid “Les Misérables” fulfills every last minute with comedy, satire, wit and mayhem. The story is set in 1858, three years before the date that marks the beginning of the War Between the States. Django (Jamie Foxx) is a slave in the Deep South whose master, seeking the most exquisite type of revenge, sold him separately from his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a bounty hunter who makes his living collecting rewards for bringing in the corpses of wanted criminals, confronts the evil Speck brothers after using some fancy English-as-a-second-language terms that made the brothers say “speak English.” Schultz wants to liberate Django partly because he detests the institution of slavery but mainly because he needs Django’s help in identifying the Brittle brothers: only Django has seen them, and Schultz wants the reward for killing them. In turn Schultz will free Django and help him to find his wife, held by the mega-rich plantation owner run by Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), where slaves are trained to fight the sport of Mandingo to the death like Roman gladiators and women are forced into prostitution.
Filmed in California, Wyoming, and the landmark Evergreen Plantation in Wallace, Louisiana, “Django Unchained” finds one of the oddest couples ever devised by the cinema industry shooting their way through the tale, filling wanted bandits full of holes and seeking to wipe out an entire plantation of white guys doing their dastardly deeds on a broad expanse of land. Though Leonardo DiCaprio’s character is a man of style and substance, drinking the finest brandy, smoking the trendy cigars, dressing to the nines, he is not averse to allowing ornery slaves to be hanged upside down or tied to trees and whipped, their screams and moans bearing witness to an America whose most shameful chapter lasted a wretched two hundred forty-five years. While DiCaprio won “best supporting actor” from the National Board of Review (not a critics’ group, and not by a long shot), a case could be made for the performance of Samuel L. Jackson as a house slave in his eighties who could get away with ribbing his master only because he was a “yaasuh boss” to him most of the time and obviously adored the big man. Jackson as Stephen, then, identifies closely with Calvin J. Candle and is no friend of the black man, even giving away the game of the odd duo to their dismay.
Look, then, for exquisitely photographed explosions and shootings, some impressive horsemanship, and the portrayal of “the peculiar institution” that even today might encourage a few sensitive Americans touring foreign parts to identify themselves as Canadians.
Rated R. 165 minutes © 2012 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Story – B+
Acting – A-
Technical – A
Overall – A