Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained has the feel of a “Western film” complete with gunslingers, bounty-hunters, horses, the music and a Damsel in Distress. However, even with all these themes, Tarantino reminds the audience that what we are watching, is very much a story about the horrors of slavery that occurred in the south during the mid-19th century.
At the top of the film, we find Dr. Schultz, a former German dentist turned bounty hunter (superbly played by Oscar winner Christoph Waltz), meets a shackled Django (Jamie Fox). Shultz offers Django freedom, and asks him to accompany him as a bounty hunter, to take down “white criminals” who are wanted Dead or Alive. In exchange, he agrees to help Django find his enslaved wife, Broomhilda who had been separated from him in the slave trade.
Cue the montage sequences that show the two finding criminals and killing them in complete Tarantino style, with an abundance of blood and gore. Finally the two find Calvin Candie, a villainous slave owner played by Leonardo DiCaprio.
In what is a character departure for DiCaprio, he turns in one of his finest roles to date, interestingly enough in a supporting role not a lead. He is convincing as the pretentious and very vicious “Monsieur Candy” and perhaps the ever elusive Oscar may finally be his for the taking in the Supporting Actor category. Candie owns a plantation called Candyland, but the place is the exact antithesis of that. It is here that we truly see the horrors and brutality of slavery. The slaves in Candyland are nothing more than mere objects to Candie and he treats them as such. Many of his female slaves are prostitutes and his male slaves are “Mandingo Fighters,” where he places wagers as they fight each other to the death. It is here that the film takes a jarring turn. After so much levity and at times comedic dialogue, we are suddenly brought into the cruel world of slavery. In one pivotal scene we see what happens to a slave that attempts to run away from Candyland but is caught before he is able to do so. It reunites DiCaprio with Blood Diamond co-star Ato Essandoh, who plays the heartbroken role of D’artagnan and what ensues is simply bone-chilling.
On the Candyland plantation we meet Candie’s elderly house slave, Stephen, an almost unrecognizable Samuel L Jackson, who disturbingly plays the role of a “reprehensible,” totally loyal, self-loathing Uncle Tom, who at times appears to hate “niggers” more than Candie himself. At one point, rubbing his eyes in disbelief he remarks, “Is that nigger on a horse?!” Jackson shines in this role though, and puts in one of his most brilliant performances to date. We also finally meet Django’s wife, Broomhilda, played by Kerry Washington, who although isn’t given much dialogue, puts in a fine performance.
As with all the all Tarantino films we have the climactic scene, with over the top bloody shootouts, explosions and deaths a plenty. I did feel at times the film dragged, and there were definitely moments towards the end that Tarantino could closed that film out but chose otherwise.
Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed the movie though and I liked how although the film was a “period piece,” Tarantino made it feel contemporary and relevant. Using soul and rap music throughout the film definitely aided in that. It was interesting to note too, the parallels that one could draw between slavery in America and the Jews in Nazi Germany. As you watch the scenes unfold in Candyland, it can almost be compared to a concentration camp like Auschwitz or Dachau. One can only think the similarities are intentional, given that Inglourious Basterds was Tarantino’s most recent film, the fact that Christoph Waltz was in both, and the fact that Tarantino has indeed mentioned the films have a “companion piece quality”.
What is also most likely to stir a lot of debate is the constant use of the “N” word by both blacks and whites. It’s used in all manner of situations. Despite how one feels about the word what it effectively did was completely dehumanize black slaves during that time. One could almost substitute for the word “dog” and it would pretty much be the same thing. For example, at one point, Stephen, remarks about Django’s character in horror that “niggers” aren’t “allowed to stay in Big House!”
Where this film succeeds over other more heavy handed films about slavery is through its satire and levity. It makes the characters, especially the racist whites, appear to be regular people. Regardless of one’s views, one can identify with these characters. While you laugh at these characters you still realize that as “human” and “ordinary” as they seem, they were responsible for all these deplorable acts and because of how relatable they seem it makes their actions seem even more horrifying.
Django Unchained runs almost 3 hours and although it goes on far too long in parts, and should have ended a good 20 minutes before it did, I felt it was an excellent film. Jamie Fox does a good job in a cast full of superb actors. Even smaller roles like Rodney, played by Sammi Rotibi (Tears of the Sun) are standout in this truly ensemble production. A provocative film in true Tarantino style, this film is definitely a must see.