Today: May 28, 2024

Django Unchained

There’s a scene near the start of Mel Brooks’ gut-busting 1974 comedy Western Blazing Saddles

There’s a scene near the start of Mel Brooks’ gut-busting 1974 comedy Western Blazing Saddles when the railroad foreman, Taggart (veteran
character actor Slim Pickens),
informs his henchman, Lyle (Burton
Gilliam
), that there may be quicksand ahead. When Lyle offers to send a team of horses ahead to test the
ground, Taggart smacks him upside the head saying: “Horses? We can’t afford to lose any horses, you
dummy! Send over a couple of
niggers.”

It’s a throwaway moment of angry eloquence that, in one
scene, lays bare over two centuries of American racism, illuminating a brutally
stark, uncomfortable truth; that the Land of the Free was built on
oppression. In the context of the
film, it’s also shockingly funny. With his gory, cartoonishly violent
reimagining of Sergio Corbucci’s Django, Django Unchained, Quentin
Tarantino
, cinema’s greatest magpie, loudly makes the same point for two
and three quarter hours (um, racism & slavery bad!) while homaging
(STEALING!) scenes here and there from his favourite Spaghetti Westerns and
trying to set a Guinness World Record for use of the ‘N-word’ (somewhere in the
region of 134 instances). The
resulting collage however may just be Tarantino’s best film in years (certainly
since Kill Bill: Vol 1) even if does
feel at times like you’re watching Sam
Peckinpah’s Blazing Saddles
.

Set in America’s Deep South two years before the Civil War,
German former dentist turned bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) purchases the slave
Django (Jamie Foxx). Schultz is after a trio of outlaws, the
notorious Brittle brothers, and only Django can identify them. In return for fingering the brothers
Schultz offers Django his freedom and trains him as a bounty hunter, taking him
on as his partner.

Together the two men spend the Winter collecting bounties
before setting out to rescue Django’s wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) from the clutches of moustache-twirling villain
Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio),
owner of the infamous Candyland plantation, where he trains male slaves as
“mandingo” fighters for vicious human cockfights while prostituting the female
slaves. When Django and Schultz
infiltrate Candyland under false pretences, they arouse the suspicions of
Candie’s duplicitous house-slave Stephen (Samuel
L. Jackson
) setting in motion a spiral of violence that ends in a bloody
showdown.

At two and three quarters hours Django Unchained, like most of Tarantino’s films, could do with
being trimmed by about a third.
The first hour is immense fun, rattling along at a fair old clip, being
primarily the adventures of Django and Schultz as they hunt down outlaws and
bond, their relationship evolving from mentor and student (NEVER slave and
master!) to a friendship of equals as Schultz teaches Django the bounty hunter
business, Django commenting: “Kill white people and get paid for
it? What’s not to like?”
Then the film slams headfirst into the Antebellum columns of Candie’s
plantation house, Tarantino treating us to the dinner party from Hell as
Django, Schultz and Candie dine, dicker and discuss phrenology while the sly
but outwardly servile Stephen (his very name a play on Steppin Fetchit) sniffs out Django and Schultz’s true mission
before the film rallies for its rousing last act as Django metes out some
much-needed justice to Candyland.

The action is fast and thunderous, Tarantino eschewing his
usual Mexican stand-offs for sudden, often unexpected, explosions of gunfire,
one furious shootout in Candie’s plantation house rivaling Kill Bill: Vol 1’s climactic nightclub massacre in terms of carnage
as Django paints the walls and floors with Candie’s henchmen’s blood. The performances for the most part are
good with Jamie Foxx on cartoonishly badass form as the titular avenging hero,
Kerry Washington doing her best with the underwritten Broomhilda (more plot
device than character) and Leonardo DiCaprio villainously twirling his
moustache and chewing the scenery like he’s playing Abanazar in panto in Woking. Tarantino displays his usual gift for
casting however by filling every frame full of sly cameos from the likes of Bruce Dern, Lee Horsley, Don Johnson, Jonah
Hill, Don Stroud, Tom Wopat
(The
Dukes of Hazzard
’s Luke Duke) and the original Django,
Franco Nero. Johnson and Hill are particularly fun
as two ineffectual Klansmen in a scene that could’ve been lifted wholesale from
Blazing Saddles as the Ku Klux Klan
find their night charge stymied by the eye-holes in their masks being in the
wrong spot.

The most interesting performances however belong,
unsurprisingly, to Waltz and Jackson.
Amongst a rogue’s gallery of white Southern grotesques, Waltz’s Schultz
is perhaps the most sympathetic character in the film; his cultured, educated
killer and abolitionist is the only one troubled by the brutality and sadism
around him, the only one outraged by the cruelty, the only one moved to try to
help his fellow man. Even the
hero, Django, is unmoved by the plight of his fellow slaves, is focused solely
on achieving his goal of rescuing his wife. In the midst of the carnage, Waltz is the conscience of Django Unchained. Jackson’s Stephen though is the true
villain of the film and it’s to Tarantino and Jackson’s credit that they’ve had
the courage to create such a complex, duplicitous, venal character. Stephen is the slave Malcolm X warned
us about, who’s whiter than the massuh, complicit in the oppression. Candie might be the one calling the
shots but it’s Stephen who’s the boss.

Sure, the film is overlong and messy, factually inaccurate
(the KKK didn’t exist until after the
Civil War, mandingo fighting never existed outside of Kyle Onslott’s despicable ‘50s potboiler novel Mandingo), splashily violent and features Tarantino’s worst ever
cameo appearance as an incongruously Australian cowboy. But it’s fun, playful and actually has
something serious to say for a change.
If you only see one factually inaccurate movie about slavery this year,
make it Django Unchained. The other one has nowhere near enough
vampire killing.

David Watson

David Watson is a screenwriter, journalist and 'manny' who, depending on time of day and alcohol intake could be described as a likeable misanthrope or a carnaptious bampot. He loves about 96% of you but there's at least 4% he'd definitely eat in the event of a plane crash. Email: david.watson@filmjuice.com

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