I have started writing a western themed blog after being inspired by the wonderful novel, The Sisters Brothers, by Canadian-born author Patrick DeWitt. I was going to finish it tonight but it turns out my week is busier than expected. I try to post 4 blogs a month. Because today is the last day of April and I have only posted 3, I will take more time with the story and today write a short piece about Quentin Tarantino’s latest film, Django Unchained.
I have not read the Django reviews as I make it a point not to read movie reviews and make up my own mind. However, some of the critical headlines were unavoidable and increased my desire to watch the film and see for myself, especially as I am a hardcore Tarantino fan.
So, to start, I know that there were mutterings about how “historically inaccurate” the film is. I cannot understand where this comes from. The film is not an historical period piece like Spielberg’s ‘Lincoln’ (which I have not seen). Through the first part of the film, all the viewer knows is that it takes place in the antebellum South in 1858, three years prior to the American Civil War. The second part is introduced as taking place “Somewhere in Mississippi”, written in large letters on the screen in spaghetti western font. Tarantino is simply spinning one of his crazy, mesmerizing stories without pretending to infuse any of it with real history.
That being said, Tarantino goes to great lengths in his direction of the film to capture the “flavor” of the times and has been criticized for drenching the dialogue with the pejorative “nigger” word. Now, as far as I am aware, especially after having read Alex Haley’s opus, Roots, years ago, the dialogue was drenched with the word “nigger” in these times. This is how slave owners referred to their slaves and how slaves often referred to each other. Ironically, in this sense the film is historically accurate.
Someone told me that Spike Lee told the press that he would never watch Django because he was sure it was insulting and degrading “to my people”. Is this because Tarantino captures the brutality of slavery by not only the relentless use of the word “nigger” but also by depicting the punishments meted out to slaves by their owners? These included horse whippings that left horrible scarring to the flesh, iron collars with spikes to increase suffering, branding, chaining, etc., which are put into gut-wrenching focus in the film. Again, though, to my knowledge (and again from having read Roots) the suffering depicted was relatively accurate and not simply gratuitous violence. Spike Lee should at least watch the film before condemning it.
Another criticism of the film I am aware of is that Django is only ‘unchained’, trained as a bounty hunter and given the opportunity to buy his freedom due to the compassionate intervention of a white man, the character Dr. King Schultz (played by the awesome Christopher Waltz – you loved him in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds). In other words, the black man is incapable of realizing his own salvation – a white man is needed to do it for him. This is nonsense. Historically, the vast majority of slaves who tried to escape (“runners”) were captured and then underwent unspeakable punishments. The only plausible way Django could become “unchained” was through the intervention of a white man with a moral compass. If one thinks of the extermination of European Jews in World War II, how many of the few who escaped to freedom did so as the result of compassionate non-Jews? I am guessing the vast majority. When a people are systematically enslaved, tortured and murdered by the state, there is little they alone can meaningfully do about it.
My feeling is that these criticisms are more to do with the fact that this film was written and directed by a white man. I suspect that had Spike Lee written and directed the film, it would have received many more accolades than it already has. Also, I think that Tarantino’s creation of the character Calvin Candie (an absolutely astonishing performance turned in by Leonardo DiCaprio) demonstrates Tarantino’s sensitivity to the controversial subject matter he is dealing with. Candie is the overlord of a Deep South Taj Mahal, “Candyland”; a neoclassical estate erected deep within a steamingly beautiful Mississippi cotton plantation. Just like “Candyland”, Candie is seductively attractive when he is introduced but Tarantino meticulously peels away the layers to expose the banality of evil without all of the rage that perhaps Spike Lee would have laced the character with.
In any event, I maintain that this film, at the end of the day, is a damn good yarn told by one of the greatest storytellers of our generation (the hilarious scene with the KKK hoods is worth the price of admission). The film runs for 2 hours and 45 minutes and you are not bored by one second of it. It is also stamped with all of Tarantino’s trademarks: his Europhilia (Dr. Schultz is a German who is fascinated in the rescuing of Django’s German-speaking wife, Broomhilda, and Candie is a self-described Francophile but doesn’t speak a word of French and doesn’t know that the writer of the Three Musketeers is French and black), his fascination with revenge and the western genre, the unrelenting blood-letting (Tarantino movies are not for the faint of heart) and, above all, his deep-rooted love of African-American culture. I am willing to bet that if Tarantino could switch places with Samuel L Jackson (who plays Candie’s sordid senior house slave) in film history, he would do so in a heartbeat.
My only criticism of the film is the last 20 minutes which are totally implausible but I will not explain why in case anyone reading this has not yet seen the film…
Go see it and let me know what you think!