Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, which opened on Christmas Day, unleashes America’s history of slavery and kicks it into action as a mass-appeal cinematic playground. Django (Jamie Foxx) is a slave in the pre-Civil war south, suddenly released through the intervention of Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a traveling bounty hunter who needs his assistance in identifying a trio of wanted men. After that project goes well, they strike a deal: they’ll work as a team through the winter, then in the spring Schultz will help Django track down and free his wife; she’s owned by Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), who relishes the whole business like kids love Christmas, aided by an elderly slave (Samuel L. Jackson) who’s as vehement a defender of the faith as he is. It’s a movie, as they said of Raiders of the Lost Ark, where you cheer the hero and hiss the villains, but presumably without ever fooling yourself that cheering and hissing constitutes an adequate range of responses to the nature of slavery.
I Will Honor Them
Tarantino’s last film, Inglourious Basterds, took a roughly similar approach to World War Two, including depicting a successful assassination attempt on Hitler. Some people perceived that movie as a pernicious form of Holocaust denial, but it seemed to me to capture its basic horror, how the Nazis redefined an entire environment as an ethnic killing machine, better than any gloomy epic recreation. It’s obvious in the new film that the narrative of one triumphant black man isn’t a very representative window on the fundamental reality of slavery, and Tarantino’s kinetic appropriation of its most garish trappings – gloating owners and their thuggish militia, dogs and whips and chains, “Mandingo fights” – doesn’t correspond to conventional notions of honour or respect for this experience. Despite or because of that though, the film conveys the senseless, depraved culture for what it was. This isn’t Gone with the Wind, where slaves might be regarded (if they’re considered at all) as – how to put it – a societal imperfection, but hardly one that negates the prevailing grandeur. Django Unchained leaves nothing to admire – the superficial courtliness of people like Candie is all a symptom of sickness.
At the same time, the film challenges our capacity to hang onto that sense of disgust, by rendering the whole thing so romantically, vividly repellent. Can we be so sure, it might be positing, that we (we the white viewers, that is) wouldn’t have been seduced by all this (and perhaps by extension, that we’re not seduced by parallel injustices now); are we so sure our stance of righteous condemnation is warranted? It’s all the more ambiguous because it’s unclear Tarantino himself isn’t at least somewhat seduced by it. Spike Lee, a long-standing detractor of the director, summed up his view of the film (sight unseen) in the following tweet: “American Slavery Was Not A Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western.It Was A Holocaust.My Ancestors Are Slaves. Stolen From Africa. I Will Honor Them.” Rick Groen pointed out in the Globe and Mail: “Tarantino’s approach is so enamoured of the exploitation cinema he emulates, there is a serious risk that noble intentions get smothered in juvenile comedy and cinematic grandstanding.” Tarantino might well turn that around and defend the potential “smothering” as being key to his approach, on the premise that if we’re stimulated into thinking about the morality of his approach, then we’re also prodded into thinking about the essence of slavery and its ongoing legacy, in a way being fed “History with a capital H” (as he put it in an interview in that same paper) likely won’t achieve.
The problem is that everything I just said might have been anticipated without actually seeing the film, and the actual experience of watching Django Unchained is strangely flat, shockingly so in comparison to Inglourious Basterds. The narrative is largely straightforward compared to most of Tarantino’s earlier films, and contains some of his most cursory writing and storytelling. The earlier stretches are the most straightforwardly enjoyable, coasting along on the tall tale quality of the two bounty hunters, but as the film settles into its primary story, it becomes lumpy and misshapen, and even the regular eruptions of violence seem run-of-the-mill, relying on sub-Peckinpah excesses.
In an interview, Tarantino emphasized the authenticity of his recreation, talking about “shooting those scenes on real plantations...in the real slave quarters they lived in, knowing there’s real blood in that ground, and real flesh in those trees, and even feeling the spirits that used to be there watching us tell their story.” But this reality singularly fails to make its way into the screen. The settings are oddly affectless, and the direction often lacks texture: Tarantino puts across what the scene requires, but doesn’t seem engaged with the background, or what might lie outside the frame (Foxx and Jackson aside, the other black males in the film are just props, reminding me of how the current season of The Walking Dead was recently criticized for seemingly rationing itself to one such character at a time). All of this, again, could theoretically be defended as an aspect of his dialectical approach, into pushing us to think about the ethics of recreating such a setting – and again, the more seductive the recreation, you might say, then the more potent the ethical challenge. But again, you can entertain these theories without actually going to the trouble of seeing the film.
Greatest in History
One of Tarantino’s great strengths has always been his imaginative casting, and his ability to transform your perception of undervalued actors, but even that seems to desert him here. Waltz (the great discovery of Basterds) plays much the same character as he did in the earlier film, and Foxx’s Django barely amounts to a coherent character at all. The supporting cast is stuffed with names and faces you might vaguely remember, but seldom to any great impression, as if the director’s thrill of engagement and discovery had become just a mundane habit.
Jackson’s character comes closest to evoking what the film might have been. But he’s ultimately simply lumped in with the villains, leaving it unclear whether Tarantino fully appreciates the tragedy of his creation, and what it says about the insidious power and reach of institutional racism. He recently said in The Star that he’d “like to be remembered as one of the greatest writer/directors in cinema history,” and this bubbly, almost guileless quality is part of his appeal, both as a man and a filmmaker. But it seems increasingly unlikely he’ll get his wish. Ultimately, Django Unchained is the work of an interesting oddity rather than of a major artist, provocative in the way of someone who’d yell “Fire” in a crowded theater, sit back to watch the chaos, and then chatter happily to the cameras about how he orchestrated a grand experiment on the nature of crowds.