I’ve read a lot of stuff about this film, and most of it revolves around the fact that people are uptight about slavery. White people are uptight about the guilt (or about the fact that they’re annoyed that they’re supposed to feel guilt about what they’re ancestors did more than 150 years ago). Black people are uptight about a film that “sensationalizes” the tragedy of slavery. There’s also a certain amount of talk that Tarantino shouldn’t be making a film like this because he’s not black.
I don’t care about all of that. I harbor no personal guilt over slavery, but I do admit that I benefit from it. I grew up middle class and white, not because my ancestors had slaves (my great-grandparents were all from Europe), but because I happen to live in a nation where being white is an advantage. If anyone who’s black thinks this film in any way glamorizes slavery… they need to actually watch it. And Tarantino’s race is irrelevant. If Spike Lee can direct Inside Man, then Tarantino can direct Django Unchained.
Okay. I’ll step down off the soapbox, and actually review the movie. It’s pretty awesome. Jamie Foxx plays Django perfectly. He’s been beaten down, but there’s a spark of life still left in him (at the beginning of the film) that it only takes a bit of help to fan him into a flame of revenge for what’s been done to him and his wife, Broomhilda (played by Kerry Washington). After attempting to escape, they were sold to different owners with a runaway ‘r’ brand on their faces.
Django is freed by Doctor King Schultz, played just as perfectly by Christoph Waltz. If you saw Inglourious Basterds, then you know that Waltz can play the most evil guy you ever saw. If you see this film, you’ll see the same man play the nicest guy you ever saw. (Okay. Caveat. He’s the nicest guy you ever saw who felt the need to shoot a horse to death. But, you know, this is a Tarantino film.) Schultz is a bounty hunter, and he needs information that Django has to make a big score. That sets up the relationship between the two.
In large strokes, this film is the love story between Django and Broomhilda, but for me the most important relationship is the one between Django and Schultz. Schultz takes Django under his wing and teaches him the bounty hunting business. The mentoring scenes are so wonderful, particularly the way Schultz teaches Django the ways of the free man’s world. He’s fatherly and supportive, in no way patronizing the former slave. Those scenes alone would put this into a Best of 2012 list for me.
The third key performance in the film is Leonardo DiCaprio as Calvin Candie, a plantation owner and slave pimp. Also, he’s the Michael Vick of slaves. The scene in which we watch two male slaves fight to the death with their bare hands is horrifying. Tarantino allows us to see the terrible consequences of one human being owning another. There’s no glitzy cuts or fun music. It’s just the sound of flesh pounding on flesh. In a film with many terrible things happening, this is the worst. Thankfully, much of what happens is indicated or glimpsed. You will be horrified, but you won’t have nightmares about it. Probably.
The fourth central character is Stephen, the elderly house slave that Candie relies on almost totally, played by Samuel L. Jackson. Stephen is the character in the movie that is designed to lay some portion (certainly not all) of the blame for slavery on the blacks themselves. He has invested himself in the system so totally that he says many of the most racist things in the movie. For him, being the best of a second class of citizens is more valuable than being free. Even more interestingly, the father/son dynamic between Stephen and Candie mirrors the one between Schultz and Django. Theirs is, of course, a more tempestuous and ill-mannered partnership, but a loving one all the same.
The story did take one or two detours that I thought were a bit skewed, and there was at least one character introduced that I expected would pay off somewhere (an oddly injected Amber Tamblyn) that never did. I suspect her reveal as one of Candie’s men (in a face-covering bandana) must have ended up on the editing room floor. (Okay, I know, things are all digital now. So, it ended up in the editing computers recycle bin. Happy now?)
This film is certainly not for the faint of heart, but if you’re able to stare unflinchingly into a dark period of our history and keep your lunch down as a million blood squibs are exploded, I recommend this film.