Saturday, December 29, 2012
KPBS film critic Beth Accomando reviews "Django Unchained."
On Christmas Day Quentin Tarantino left a present under the tree for film lovers, it's called "Django Unchained" (opened December 25 in select theaters).
I know Quentin Tarantino has his detractors and that movies with any kind of violence are currently under fire but that said I hope "Django Unchained" will be appreciated for being a complex film delivered under the guise of simple pop entertainment. It's easy to look at "Django Unchained" and only see the violence, the excess of style, and the crowd pleasing revenge formula. And it's easy in the aftermath of the tragic shooting in Connecticut to criticize it for reveling in geysers of blood in extended shootouts. But Tarantino is a smarter filmmaker than he's often given credit and as he has matured he is making films that actually have something to say as opposed to just flaunting an audacious style. "Django Unchained" proves to be his most mature film yet.
The story, set in pre-Civil War America, is simple. A German dentist turned bounty hunter named Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) needs the help of a slave known as Django (Jamie Foxx) to locate some outlaws he's tracking. He purchases Django and promises him his freedom if Django agrees to identify a trio of brothers. Schultz is a pragmatist and a businessman but with an underlying sense of humanity. He's willing to make what he calls this "slavery malarkey" work for him but he finds it rather distasteful. So as a reluctant slave owner, Schultz decides he has a responsibility toward Django and decides to help Django find his slave wife who was sold off separately from him. What begins as a business arrangement turns into a personal quest for revenge.
"Django Unchained" melds two underappreciated genres: Italian spaghetti westerns and Blaxploitation films of the 70s. The former are often made fun of for their low budget-ness and poor English dubbing while the latter are dismissed as B movies perpetuating stereotypes. But their existence on the fringes of mainstream films is precisely what appeals to me about them. They have much less to work with than A-list, Hollywood studio films, and therefore they have to rely on more creativity, innovation, and style. Plus they filter real social issues through a pop culture lens in intriguing ways.
Part of appreciating what Tarantino has done with "Django Unchained" is understanding what he's paying homage to. Spaghetti westerns were launched in the 1960s by Italian director Sergio Leone when he took American TV actor Clint Eastwood to Spain to make "A Fistful of Dollars," a western rip off of Akira Kurosawa's samurai film "Yojimbo." Leone's films were high budget by Italian standards but low by Hollywood. They took the American western amped up the violence, threw in an operatic flamboyance, and turned the black/white morality to gray. The protagonists were cynical anti-heroes with little respect for authority or social order.
Blaxploitation films have a similar lack of respect for authority or the status quo. They were made for urban black audiences and reflected such realities as drugs, violence, and a desire to stick it to the white establishment. These films emerged from the Black Power movement of the 1960s. Films such as "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song" and "Shaft" kicked off the genre in 1971. Blaxploitation films employed black talent, highlighting black stars as well as funk and soul soundtracks by black artists. As with spaghetti westerns, Blaxploitation films were fueled by an excess of style and violence. They allowed black audiences to see films with primarily black casts and dealing with problems they could relate to. Some credit the films with offering a sense of black empowerment but groups such as the NAACP and National Urban League called for the end to the genre for perpetuating negative stereotypes. More recently director Spike Lee railed against Tarantino for paying homage to Blaxploitation films and for an excessive use of the "n" word. A criticism Lee also brought up over Tarantino's earlier tribute to Blaxploitation, "Jackie Brown." For "Django Unchained," Tarantino taps into a kind of subgenre of Blaxploitation that used a period setting rather than urban one, films like "Legend of Nigger Charley," "Mandingo," and "Drum."
What Tarantino takes from these genres is a sense of style and storytelling that allows him to wrap serious themes in deceptive pop culture trappings. The name Django comes specifically from a1966 Italian film featuring Franco Nero as the titular gunslinger who drags a coffin with him and gets stuck between warring factions. Tarantino draws on the more complex morality of the spaghetti western in which almost everyone was tainted by greed or corruption, and even the supposed "heroes" are seriously flawed. Like the spaghetti westerns, Tarantino's heroes are more anti-heroes and even though driven by a cause they can commit acts unsuited to a traditional hero. Schultz and Django kill men for money. It may be bounty money but there is never a trial to ascertain if the person they are shooting is guilty of anything, and although the wanted posters say "Dead or Alive," the bounty hunters always choose dead. There's no question that we side with Schultz and Django but they are not what you could describe as conventional good guys.
Just as Tarantino rewrote history in "Inglorious Basterds" to allow Jews to settle their score with Hitler, in "Django Unchained" he once again delivers a satisfying revenge fantasy. This time he allows a black bounty hunter in pre-Civil War America to stand up to slave owners and publicly make fools or corpses of them. The film makes an interesting contrast to Steven Spielberg's sober historical drama "Lincoln." Both films deal with slavery and the Old South but Spielberg takes a very self-important and politically correct approach that delivers a film designed to stir moral outrage followed by a congratulatory sense of white men doing the right thing to correct their wrong. Films like "Lincoln" and "Amistad," and TV shows like "Roots" provide history lessons that show us the horrors and inhumanity of slavery, and how it should be abolished and condemned. But they all end reassuring us that whites finally did the right thing. Even when the focus is on black characters we feel very much in the context of a white America.
Tarantino, on the other hand, throws all niceties out the window and goes for something far more messy, crude, and visceral. Filmmakers like Spielberg go primarily for sentiment but Tarantino goes for the gut and raw emotions and then if you are willing to delve a little deeper he also is trying to make you consider things from a different perspective. By giving us a black man challenging bigotry with both a smart ass remark and a ready gun Tarantino gives us the stuff of Blaxploitation films in which black actors finally got to be the stars and got to dispense their own brand of street justice -- without the help of whites. Although Jamie Foxx's Django receives help from a white man, he eventually relies on no one but himself -- his wits and his muscle -- to get full revenge and justice. Black characters taking their own fates into their hands and not relying on whites is one of the things that made Blaxploitation films click with black audiences.
What "Django Unchained" does is place us on the side of a protagonist who's a slave and engages us in his personal tale of revenge. Yes there's also a love story but it's the desire to give the bad guys their just desserts that really rivets us and gets us cheering. What Tarantino does better than most films about slavery is show us how oppressive slavery was on a daily basis and far reaching way. He makes vividly clear that what's horrific is not just the physical abuse of slaves but the fact that the law permitted that abuse. Tarantino gives us a portrait in which you see how legalized slavery affected so many aspects of daily life. You feel a suffocating sense of oppression as you see what it means to be treated as mere property. The scenes with slave owner Calvin Candie (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) show with effective brutality what if means when one man can claim ownership of another human being. Candie can choose to kill a slave by forcing him to fight to the death with another slave, order him torn him apart by dogs for escaping, or simply bash a skull in to prove a point, and what makes this violence all the more appalling is that the law protects him from any repercussions.
Tarantino is very clear in his depiction of violence as to how the audience should react. Violence against black slaves is shown with brutal grit and realism. It's disturbing to the point of making you want to look away. But the scenes of Django's revenge or violence against whites is depicted with an over the top operatic flair that encourages the audience to cheer and urge the protagonist on. This exaggeration extends to Tarantino's scene depicting a KKK raid in which the KKK members are shown as morons (the Coen Brothers took a similar tone depicting the KKK in "O Brother, Where Art Thou?"). As Mel Brooks said about his comic portrait of Nazis: "if you ridicule them, you bring them down with laughter, they can't win. You show how crazy they are." And that's precisely what Tarantino does.
Jamie Foxx is not quite Jim Brown or Fred Williamson -- two iconic Blaxploitation stars of the 70s -- but he's good. He knows how to be still and silent to good effect just like Eastwood in the spaghetti westerns. I do wish Tarantino had made room for cameos by Brown and Williamson as he did for Franco Nero (the original Django). Although I was sad to note that no one at the press screening and only my friends at the Christmas night showing displayed any appreciation for Nero's affectionate cameo. Christoph Waltz (who was so good at evil in "Inglorious Basterds") delivers a sublime performance as Schultz, a truly complex and fascinating character. You can't call him a moral man but he is definitely one with a firm sense of his own values and little regard for what others think. He's a practical even ruthless businessman yet he can be moved by emotions and motivated by compassion. He is endlessly fascinating and Waltz is so in sync with Tarantino's style of dialogue that the two seem born to collaborate. DiCaprio proves more adept at villainy than leading man roles and chews up the scenery with vile "panache." And Samuel L. Jackson, a regular in Tarantino's acting company, takes a surprising role as a black slave with little compassion for Django. Also keep your eyes open for a slew of cameos by the likes of Zoe Bell, Tom Savini, Michael Parks, Don Johnson, and more.
I also want to commend the film for great cinematography, editing, and soundtrack (killer repurposing of old Morricone, James Brown, and other music as well as some effective new music).
All in all, "Django Unchained" (rated R for strong graphic violence throughout, a vicious fight, language and some nudity) is the perfect holiday gift for the independent film lover. Tarantino delivers a glorious genre film fueled by crude formula and base emotions of revenge, and at the same time he fashions a smart social commentary.
Companion viewing: "Django" (1966), "The Legend of Nigger Charley," "100 Rifles," "The Skin Game," "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly," "O Brother, Where Art Thou?"