in Tarantino land
by David Lamble
It's 1858 in Django Unchained, two years before the first shot will be fired in the Civil War, and an itinerate bounty hunter posing as a traveling dentist (Christoph Waltz) rescues a slave, Django (Jamie Foxx), from a gang of ruthless slave-traders.
"What do you like about the bounty business?"
"You kill white folk, and get paid for it."
"How would you like to partner with me through the winter?"
"Why do you want to help me?"
"As a German, I would like to help a real-life Siegfried rescue his Brunhilde."
The two strike up a unique bond, aiming to make money and free Django's German-speaking wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), from the clutches of Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), the cruel master of Mississippi's Candyland plantation. "So what is the point of having a nigger who speaks German if you can't wheel her out for a German guest?"
Candie is a brutally comic turn from DiCaprio, allowing him perhaps to finally shed the pretty-boy aura of Titanic, and maybe notch that elusive Oscar. Candie is also director Quentin Tarantino's way of both accurately depicting and sending up America's original sin. A perverse sequel to his Nazi-hunting provocation Inglourious Basterds, Django is pure torture for the politically pious, but mother's milk to everyone else.
One of Django's greatest guilty pleasures is one of the best bad-ass black/white buddy pairings ever, as Waltz's bounty hunter/dentist – the sight of the swinging tooth sign over his wagon is one of the picture's great sight-gags – is able to lay it on the line to Foxx's Django. Django uses his newly acquired status as an emancipated slave to really put it to Calvin Candie with his sadistic slave-fighting "mandingo" exhibitions. Here, Waltz's King Schultz cautions Django that his gamesmanship may upset their efforts to free Broomhilde.
"He didn't call her by name, but she's a young lady with marks on her back, who speaks German. Now, while it's not wise to assume, in this instance I think it's pretty safe – the point being, don't get so carried away with your retribution that you lose sight of why we're here."
"You think I lost sight of that?"
"Yes, I do! Stop antagonizing Candie!"
"I'm not antagonizing, I'm intriguing him."
"You're increasing the abuse of these poor slaves."
"I will call the man who had me kill another man in front of his son, and he didn't bat an eye. Remember that? So that's what I'm doing – I'm getting dirty."
As Django gets really dirty preparing for a third-act apocalypse, we sense Tarantino's announced aim to give African Americans who felt cheated by the sentimental ending of Roots (spare the white man his just desserts) their full cinema payback. And while Django works as a hilarious send-up of what many of us had previously considered pretty cheesy subgenres – spaghetti Westerns and grade-Z Asian martial arts dust-ups – it genuinely deals with a lot of issues that more traditionally respectable filmmakers have pointedly dodged forever.
Consider Samuel L. Jackson's character, a thorn in the side of correctness as the chief house servant who in some ways is more committed to the worst excesses of slavery than his master Candie. Jackson, who performed with equal brilliance as Tarantino's terminal force of nature in Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown, here becomes the equivalent of the movie's Count Dracula: Broomhilde will not be safe as long as this creature lives. Jackson, like Waltz, has fully mastered the poetry of Tarantino's big speeches.
It's been widely noted that Django Unchained has more than a hundred invocations of that pesky "n-word," the most since Richard Pryor – Live in Concert. Those who truly relished Tarantino's break-out hit Pulp Fiction recall the moment when he wrote himself the blank check – the freedom to say what he pleased – that he's since cashed in Django. That moment was the film's infamous "Dead Nigger Storage" episode, in which Tarantino's white househusband character invoked the previously taboo epithet, in the process immunizing his talented multi-racial cast if the stunt were to backfire. A generation before, Mel Brooks had performed a similar reverse-minstrel show, daring for that time, wherein the white folks in his Blazing Saddles frontier town were so nasty to the suave black marshal (Cleavon Little) that it seemed as if the "n-word" might lose some of its terrible sting. A lot of us were wrong in predicting an early end to the worst of American Apartheid. The very existence and, yes, necessity of Django Unchained shows how very wrong we were. In my 2012 Top Films list, I deliberately paired Lincoln with Django. In effect, Tarantino imagines a pre-Civil War revolt of emancipated blacks that's the equivalent to the climax of his Inglourious Basterds: blow up the Nazis in the theater.
Director Spike Lee has reportedly denounced Django while simultaneously asserting he'll never see it, a sad tactic for such a smart artist. While turf and artistic ego issues can explain Lee's stance, for the rest of us Tarantino's outrageously brilliant caper – a fitting response to D.W. Griffith's wretched, rancid brilliance in Birth of a Nation – is a loose-cannon Best Picture pick, with bows to Mel Brooks, Richard Wagner, Mark Twain, Sergio Leone, and such deliciously trashy potboilers as Mandingo.