Django Unchained: Slavery–Tarantino Style

A companion piece and logical follow-up to “Inglourious Basterds,” Tarantino’s new film, “Django Unchained,” is a long, excessive, indulgent but also quite entertaining and well-acted saga. Tarantino’s first foray into the Western genre, “Django Unchained” again bears the stylistic influence of the Spaghetti Westerns, best represented in the work of Sergio Leone and Sergio Corbucci.

The last film to be screened to the press prior to our voting for the best of the year, “”Django Unchained” will be released by the Weinstien Company on Christmas Day. Commercial prospects look excellent for an original and entertaining film, made by a cult director whose name alone generates interest among young viewers.

At this point in his career, Tarantino has given up on historical authenticity, or grounding his tales in realistically recognizable political contexts. Instead, he creates all sorts of pulp fictions that take place in familiar social setting, without bothering too much about issues of factuality and verisimilitude.

More interested in telling an ultra- violent, well-executed revenge story than doing the problem of slavery justice, Tarantino the writer uses history selectively and distortingly, much as painters use large oil canvases and various paints to their own specific purposes.

In addition to taking a similar movieish strategy, “Django Unchained” offers another link to “Inglourious Basterds” in the shape of the talented thespian Christophe Waltz, who won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Ïnglourious. As in the previous collaboration, Tarantino again cast him as a German, but a good one for a change, a bounty hunter (former dentist) who serves as the tale's moral voice. The real villain of the piece is played by Leonardo DiCaprio, who gives the most striking performance. (See below).

Set in the South two years before the Civil War centers on the titular hero, well played by Foxx, a slave whose brutal history with his former owners brings him face-to-face with German-born bounty hunter, Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). Determined to the point of obsession, Schultz is on the trail of the murderous Brittle brothers, holding that only one person, Django, can lead him to his bounty. Schultz acquires Django, promising to free him upon the capture of the Brittles, dead or alive.

The name “Django” is familiar to fans of Spaghetti Westerns: Franco Nero first portrayed the character in 1966 in “”Django.” Paying tribute to the genre as well as to the handsome actor, Tarantino has cast Nero in a cameo part. Over the years, there have been over 30 nonrelated “Django” rip-off sequels, and Tarantino aspires for his film to belong to that universe and mythology

Nominally, rest of the plot recalls many revenge Westerns, though Tarantino imprints his signature on second-rate material by his sharp characterization and shifty tone, which is humorous, jokey, and even campy (intentionally so).

Thus, when success leads Schultz to free Django, we are not surprised to see that the two men decide not to go their separate ways. Schultz seeks out the South’s most wanted criminals with Django by his side. While Schultz has his own agenda, Django, honing vital hunting skills, remains focused on one goal, finding and rescuing Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), the wife he had lost in a slave trade long ago.

Django and Schultz’s search ultimately leads them to Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), the racist proprietor of “Candyland,” an infamous plantation. Exploring the compound under false pretenses, Django and Schultz arouse the suspicion of Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), Candie’s trusted house slave.

As a result, their moves are marked, and a treacherous organization closes in on them. If Django and Schultz are to escape with Broomhilda, they must face a series of moral and practical dilemmas: independence versus solidarity, individualism versus camaraderie, sacrifice versus survival.

Tarantino has always been too close to his material, too intimately involved with his characters to exercise a more disciplined and rigorous approach. By now, it's clear that Tarantino's hardcore fans go to his pictures expecting his eccentric touch and idiosyncratic signature, and in this respect, “Django Unchanined” delivers the goods.

Evaluating the film from a more detached perspective, I find the narrative to be too lopsided, containing too many asides, too many verbose monologues, and witty but distracting dialogues, which explain why “Django Unchained” cloaks is at close to three hours.

Due to the film’s shifty tone, anachronistic language, fabricated subplots and manipulative stylistic devices, it’s hard to take “Django Unchained” seriously as a dramatic feature or a revisionist take on the painful issue of slavery, which has mostly been whitewashed or softened by white filmmakers. Though known for his affinity with black culture and music, Tarantino has made a fictional, movieish work that’s more significant in the allusions that it makes to other films and directors than to history or politics.

As expected from a Tarantino picture, the language is foul, racy and racist. The dialogue containes at least 100 instances of the n-word, which is spoken by both racist whites and black characters (including the one played by Samuel Jackson). Tarantino claims that, placed in historical context, the overuse of the n-word is justified, but I still expect it to generate debate among historians and intellectuals.

The excessive running-time not only limits the number of theatrical presentations per day, but also derails the picture from its main thematic concerns to the point where at least half a dozen scenes call too much attention to themselves as individual parts that do not service well the picture as a whole.

The best performance in the film is given by DiCaprio, as the Southern scion Calvin Candie, a smooth-talking, hypocritical, elegant gentleman who would do Hitchcock’s villains proud. Though he appears rather late in the proceedings, and plays a supporting role, DiCaprio, in his first outright villainous role, shines in every scene he is in.

The movie was largely shot in Melody Ranch, in Santa Clarita, California. Once owned by the cowboy star Gene Autry, the western town was used in classic movies and TV series, including “Stagecoach,” “High Noon,” and “Gunsmoke.”

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