Monday, January 14, 2013

Django: Unchained

Pure Badass
Django: Unchained is easily one of my favourite movies of the year.  Anyone who has been following the buzz surrounding this movie is well aware of how amazing Leonardo DiCaprio and Christoph Waltz are in this movie.  Quentin Tarantino’s trademark meticulous dialogue has already gotten a Golden Globe for the movie.  Jamie Foxx, who plays the main character of Django, has not gotten as much attention for his performance, but I enjoyed it a lot.  His performance bubbles beneath an intensely silent exterior.  He starts off broken and hopeless but grows into an action hero/super hero/Blaxploitation anti-hero, wearing each of those hats convincingly throughout the film. It’s exactly what he needed to be for this movie and I thought he did it perfectly. Samuel L. Jackson is always awesome, but maybe just a little bit more awesome than usual in this.

The movie opens when Dr. Shultz, played by Christoph Waltz, frees Django so that he can help him find 3 criminals and collect the bounty on them.  In return, Dr. Shultz will help Django find his wife, Broomhilda Von Shaft, played by Kerry Washington (an obvious nod to Blaxploitation films).  Funny, well-written and action packed, the movie is as enjoyable in its cathartic violent moments as it is heart-wrenching in some of its more depressing scenes.  It goes from being a fun action/adventure to a period piece about slavery to a fairy tale and like it's main character plays its many roles convincingly.  

Django is on its way to becoming Tarantino’s highest grossing movie in no small part because of the controversy surrounding it.  People were afraid that it might take the horrors of slavery too lightly.  Other people were uncomfortable with the frequent use of the word ‘nigger’.  I don’t know how that is possible.  Does anyone listen to rap music?  Have these people ever read Huckleberry Finn?  Well, then you certainly shouldn’t be bothered with this movie that uses the word in its historical context, generally to characterize the villains in the movie.

Have you ever seen my movies?  Frozone is the only character I have played who doesn't say the 'n-word'.

Why you no like it when I wear a dress, Spike?
And when will people like Spike Lee learn that there is no such thing as bad publicity?  Before the movie’s release, Spike Lee announced that he would not go to see the movie because, “Slavery was not a spaghetti western.  It was a holocaust.” Very true, but I’m always amazed by Spike Lee, a vocal critic of not only Tarantino but even Tyler Perry.  I’m tired of having Spike Lee’s recipe for Black empowerment shoved down my throat anytime anyone deals with issues of race. Don’t get me wrong, I love Spike Lee’s movies, and I think he has done a lot for the movie industry, but I could do without Spike Lee rants.  Especially since his cantankerous sounding off probably has exactly the opposite effect that he would like it to have.  Not all movies need to be, or can be ‘Malcolm X’. Some movies are ‘Madea’s Big Top Adventure’ or 'Madea Saves Christmas' or 'Madea goes to..." whatever, you get the point.  If Black people survived slavery they’ll survive Madea, it’s okay, Spike.

Still, I was certainly worried that with Django, I would be seeing a movie that dealt with slavery in a flippant manner.  The only thing I would have hated more is the feeling of watching a movie where the main white character suddenly realizes, “Well, Golly!  Black people are very much like human beings! Let’s free all the slaves!” In this movie the main white hero, Dr. Shultz, starts at the same point as the audience (most of us):  that slavery was a barbaric and cruel affliction on human beings with black skin.  It avoids the condescending preachiness of some movies that endeavor to tackle a big issue.

Where the movie really turns into something unique is when we see the role reversal that takes place between Django and Dr. Shultz.  Django starts off as an uneducated man, broken by the cruelty he has endured throughout his life and the loss of his wife. Dr. Shultz trains him to be a bounty hunter, teaching him how to read, negotiate and generally how to be an awesome badass.  It’s a super hero origin story with an almost wizard like mentor, teaching the main character how to become a hero.  But once the two characters are immersed into the ugly, cruel world of slavery in Mississippi, it is Dr. Shultz who becomes the neophyte, completely baffled by the horrors around him. We then see Django growing into his role as a hero, ‘getting dirty’, in ways that make even Dr. Shultz, an otherwise remorseless killer, shudder.  I thought the actors did a great job of bringing out the subtleties in their characters and showing their growth and change throughout the movie.

"Feel the Force, Django."
With all that being said, ultimately, the movie is a simple revenge flic, Tarantino’s speciality.  Does it need to be anything more than that?  Do we really want to charge Hollywood with the task of teaching us history or morality?  I don’t think anyone is rushing to give Tarantino a Nobel Peace Prize for this action movie but as a movie that seeks to be escapist entertainment I think it succeeds.  Anything else it might do with regards to ‘opening a dialogue about slavery’ is debatable but it certainly doesn’t hurt. 

Tarantino walks a fine line in making an entertaining movie without making a farce of slavery itself.  Of course it goes without saying that Django: Unchained is not a history lesson, with many fantasies invented or borrowed for the narrative of the film.  Most upsetting is the idea of slaves fighting to the death for the amusement of their capricious masters.  Here’s an article that discusses some of the more contentious claims being made in the movie.

I myself am not what you would call a fanboy of Quentin Tarantino, though I do enjoy some of his movies.  I would highly recommend this particular movie, unless of course you are not in the mood for over the top violence and some truly upsetting scenes of cruelty and brutality. 

5 bullets to the junk out of 5.