Film Review: Django Unchained

Boyz In Da Prairie.

It’s not often you get the opportunity to drop in a quote from Greek philosopher Aristotle, who taught Alexander The Great, but ‘The whole is greater than the sum of its parts’ is quite apt in relation to Quentin Tarantino’s latest homage to his youthful influences, in this chapter it’s Spaghetti Western’s turn in the guise of ‘Django Unchained’.

On a very simple level, it’s another Quentin revenge movie, this time harnessed to the ankle chain of slavery, and you could leave it at that. But like the best house gatherings, it’s what you take and put into the party that rewards you tenfold.

What I was taking along to this social event were memories of being a kid visiting my grandparents, and lovingly flicking through my grandads massive full colour coffee table book about the history of cowboy movies. I mention full colour as the blood in the pictures from Spaghetti Westerns was so super saturated, it was almost from another dimension. Indeed the colour palate of that genre was generally so intense, it directly raised the experience. Many scenes in Django reminded me of stills from that book, I wish I had it now.

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Galloping forward to more recent contributing memories, and there seems to be a developing zeitgeist (certainly from my perspective) on discussing the awareness of historical slavery in the USA, and indeed globally. One of my favourite movie documentaries I saw in 2012 (though it was made in 2008) was ‘Salute’ about the racism involved in the ‘68 Mexico Olympics.

Racism is a subject in current popular tv shows such as Boardwalk Empire and Mad Men, and also in forthcoming movies Speilberg’s ‘Lincoln’, Brian Helgeland’s ‘42’ and ‘Twelve Years A Slave’ by the black English director Steve McQueen. McQueen is fast becoming one of my favourite directors, and I mention he’s black for a specific reason which we’ll come back to later.

This is not to say slavery hasn’t be a subject in cinema before, but I don’t think it’s been to this level of exposure. Racism was also mentioned numerous times during Obama’s two campaigns for Presidency, and only this morning I watched a stunning BBC4 documentary Storyville ‘The House I Live In’ about the ‘War on Drugs’ which showed the actual birth of modern American drug laws were racist in their conception.

Then there were the racist comments I heard from a few people when I was back home in Ireland for Christmas, and of course the recent resurfacing of evidence of racism on the football terraces. To me, these movies can’t come quick or often enough.

This may all seem off topic, but it’s rooted in my outright love for what Tarantino has produced here, and the emotions, reactions I had whilst watching ‘Django Unchained’. And I knew I would have to write it all down.

Set in 1858, and 2 years before the American Civil War, the voice of emerging reason that is Dr. King Schultz from Germany (Christoph Waltz on utterly stunning form) rides in with his horse Fritz to kick start the forthcoming adventure by instigating the release of Django (Jamie Foxx) from slavery.

Django has information/knowledge and clear ability that can help Schultz maintain his current digression from dentistry into bounty hunting and extracting the badness in society. A natural evolution you would agree. In return for his help, Schultz will help Django find and make free his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), her name given and inspired by her German ‘owners’ memory of an old Germanic fable that almost runs parallel to Django’s tale.

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On paper it seems pretty straight forward, but in the mind/vision of Tarantino, it becomes so much more. Every frame lovingly considered, every line of dialogue brutally/hysterically sharp, and every beat from the soundtrack almost making it potentially the flyest anti-racism cowboy movie ever made.

The encounters the duo have meander from brilliantly funny moments with an ever increasing brutality as they get closer to their goal. All the dialogue in this movie were written for the folk playing the various characters. At one point Will Smith was in line for the Django role, thankfully that didn’t happen, Foxx brings an intensity/suaveness that I couldn’t picture anyone else fulfilling.

Equally so Big Daddy (Don Johnson), Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) and of course Candie’s lead house slave Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson) who raises the bar in an almost Keyser Söze (The Usual Suspects ) level of evil. As one level of malevolence passes, another even more inhumane ‘boss’ arrives on the homestead. Yet they are all stunning in their various portrayals.

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Keeping Django focused as he rides through the ever increasing horror of his journey are constant visions of his beautiful wife. But for these, there would be no way to cope with what’s expected of him to achieve this goal. On this dirt trail, through his perseverance, an almost wild south super hero is born, aptly and joyously illustrated in his first choice of outfit he chooses whilst at the tailors.

The movie isn’t based on any historical truth as such, so there is great leniency to be had in the depiction of slavery, if anything slavery was probably even worse than that shown in the movie, and believe me, what is shown is bad. Adding to the deliberate disquiet is the inherent use of the word ‘nigger’ throughout. I’ve seen many Blaxploitation movies over the years, and I’m sure it’s not used as much in all those put together. At least it feels that way when you see it for the first time. This is a deliberate ploy on Quentin’s writing, it adds to the ‘in your face’ visceral horror of how a human can mistreat another human, and I commend him for it. It’s supposed to be uncomfortable.

You may avert your eyes to what’s going on, but you’re still going to hear the degradation. Whether it be overt cruelty, or by servile complicity as in the case of house slave Stephen, it really does make you think and expose how such treatment of our fellow beings is perpetuated.

Sugaring the pill amongst all this horror, the movie looks stunning. From the opening Spaghetti Western styled credits, saturated colours and beautiful landscapes, this movie was created to be seen on the big screen, in a full cinema. Even just for the ending which makes Al Pacino’s ‘Scarface’ memorable scene pale into insignificance. All soundtracked to a simply brilliant mix of contemporary music with more ‘traditional’ tracks, At times I was expecting Dr. Schultz’s dentist wagon to start bouncing as if a lowrider car on hydraulics.

See this movie (in the cinema) with friends, unlike most movies you’ll see, you will want to discuss it after. And to return to my earlier point about Steve McQueen being black. A valid point was raised by a mate after we saw Django, about whether is appropriate for a white guy to be creating a movie on this subject. I’m of the belief it is, as not talking about it is complicit to the problem.

Steve McQueen made a stunning movie ‘Hunger’ about the H-Block Maze Prison hunger strike in 1981, a deeply divisive subject matter. But irrespective of your political leanings, it was about mans ability to dehumanise another individual. McQueens movie on slavery will be out later in the year, and will be nothing like ‘Django Unchained’, but they both thankfully and rightfully are exposing the same disgrace.

Django Unchained is out in the UK from 18th January and released by Sony Pictures Releasing International.