“DJANGO UNCHAINED” SUCCEEDS marvelously as a deliriously comedic wallow in a buddy movie cum Blaxploitation revenge fantasy all wrapped in a post-modern Western dress. As with all Tarantino movies, he plays up all those auteur signifiers we’re accustomed to: Franco Nero, the original Django, offering a subtle wink and a nod when he learns of Django’s name, a posse of old Western actors (Bruce Dern and Russ Tamblyn) are back in the saddle- the movie playing homage to them – even a jowly Tarantino himself making a Hitchcok-ian cameo.
Mr. Tarantino deserves praise for having created his own richly filmic genre. There are certain factors you can expect of a Tarantino movie: the pulpy look, the ornate dialogue, the gore, the intricate story-telling, the always surprising use of music and that blend of in-joke intellectualism with populist vulgarity. It’s a style that works well with “Django…” as it allows him to offer his – very serious take – on the nature of American race relations without seeming to be at all serious.
The story is set two years before the civil war when a chained Django (Jamie Foxx) is ‘freed’ by Dr. King Schulz (Christopher Waltz), a bounty hunter posing as an itinerant dentist. Dr. Schulz needs Django to help him identify some men on his wanted list, which he does in exchange for his freedom. These two unlikely men – a Black American slave and a White German dentist/bounty hunter- bond… a bond that leads them to Calvin Candie (Leo deCaprio) in search of Django’s wife Brumhild (Kerry Washington – who also played alongside Jamie in “Ray”) who, would you believe it, speaks German. Huge shoot-outs and vast buckets of blood ensue along the way before husband and wife can be happily reunited.
At its heart lies Django’s revenge – the Black man’s revenge against White oppression. This movie-goer’s fantasy (Tarantino paints the BAD guys with very broad colours, so that his audience can share Django’s blood soaked catharsis of revenge) is an actualization of the dynamic of abuse, distrust and blind fear that seems to exist as the core element of the American narrative (and for this, look no further than the Republican “birthers”). Tarantino highlights the look of shock and horror on the faces of the townspeople upon seeing a Black man riding into town with a gun strapped to his waist. This must have been as scary as, say, a Black man becoming President. And this is no mere ‘reading’. For Tarantino’s style transcends period. In other words, though we’re ostensibly looking at a mid nineteenth century Western, we’re really quite clearly in a sort of Tarantino ‘now’.
The real hit of the movie is Samuel L. Jackson as Stephen, the Uncle Tom house slave. Jackson is not an actor I look to for nuanced performances. But here he captures the mix of aggressive superiority, intellectual snobbery and cringing, fawning obsequiousness that invests what could have been a stock character with a degree of menace that’s far deeper than Leo’s somewhat pantomime villain.
You can see how “Django Unchained” has won such critical plaudits as well as such enthusiastic audience response. It has all the elements: an exciting story; a serious topic; big name actors; blood. And yet for all this, I felt that whereas “Inglorious Basterds” really plunged you into the menace of the Nazi mentality, “Django Unchained” felt at its core, quite trivial. It’s as though Tarantino was satisfied by shocking his – white – audience with his repetition of the ‘N’ word and by holding up a mirror to the –barely- submerged racism that still exists. It could have been a great film; but as it is, it’s (merely) good fun.