Slavery was one of America’s egregious sins. The topic of slavery — a wound which has yet to heal entirely — is a sensitive one. Subsequently, it came of little surprise when controversy swirled around Quentin Tarantino’s spaghetti western “Django Unchained,” a movie where the protagonist happens to be a slave.
Before the film even began production, the script fell under scrutiny for being offensive. With rape scenes interwoven within the narrative, some even accused Tarantino of misogyny. Yes, there is some of that, but it is used to tell the tail of a terrible time in America’s history.
Let’s be real here, slavery wasn’t roses. And for the record, I read the 160-plus page screenplay and although it was violent and laced with vivid unsettling images throughout, I thought it gratuitous at best – but certainly a good read and a solid story.
Still, I was apprehensive. I enjoy Tarantino movies, but was concerned with how his words would play out on screen – and whether or not the changes made to the screenplay would benefit or hurt the film. Thankfully, the anxiousness I felt quickly dissipated when the classic “Django” tune by Luis Bacalov echoed through the theater and within minutes I was reminded of Tarantino’s brilliance. Just like “Inglorious Basterds,” albeit not quite as polished, “Django Unchained” is another Quentin Tarantino masterpiece.
The movie, set two years before the Civil War, begins with Django (Jamie Foxx), who is being transported via chain gang from a slave auction. He’s found by bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) and after a humorous exchange between Schultz and one of Django’s captors, portrayed by James Remar (who incidentally plays two parts in the film), Schultz strikes a deal with Django. In exchange for his freedom, Django must identify Schultz’s next bounty, the Brittle brothers, whom were overseers at the plantation from where Django and his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), were separated and sold.
After searching several places, they find the brothers at the Bennett plantation. The owner of the property, Big Daddy Bennett, depicted to Boss Hogg perfection by Don Johnson, is no match for the slick-tongued Schultz and his valet Django. Ultimately, conned into allowing Schultz and Django onto his land, a very incensed Big Daddy plans a counterattack, which is a disaster of epic “Blazing Saddles” proportions. You’ll be hard-pressed not to damn near fall out of your chair with laughter during this hilarious scene.
Once they’ve left the bumbling Bennett clan behind, completely aware of Django’s talent at offing bounties, Schultz suggests the newly-freed slave become a bounty hunter and partner up with him instead of parting ways. Liking the notion of being paid for killing white folks, Django agrees and the pair then rides off to fulfill Django’s main goal of retrieving his wife once winter passes and Django has a few bounties under his belt.
Arriving in Mississippi, upon acquiring a slave auction manifest, Schultz and Django discover Broomhilda was sold to mandingo fighting enthusiast Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). A foolproof plan thought out, the duo garner Candie’s attention and is invited back to his plantation to discuss a mandingo match and the procurement of Candie’s finest fighter. Enter house slave Stephen (Samuel Jackson). Always at Candie’s side, the downright evil “Uncle Tom” doesn’t care for Schultz or the uppity Django. Thinking him a threat to his livelihood, Stephen is dead set on exposing the pair.
The storyline, very well devised by Tarantino and executed flawlessly by an exemplary cast, never gets away from itself, which could have easily happened given the myriad characters and subplot. However, there were moments where the film dragged. This I expected since “Django Unchained” is the first film Tarantino has helmed since the loss of editor Sally Menke, who passed two years ago. Hopefully, Fred Raskin will click with Tarantino’s pacing and capture the sharp rhythm each Quentin Tarantino film has heralded from “Pulp Fiction” to “Inglorious Basterds.”
As for acting achievements, the standouts were Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson, with DiCaprio being the most transcendent. His Calvin Candie was diabolical — a characteristic the actor had yet to convey on screen and he was convincingly sinister. Kerry Washington was more than adequate with what little screen time she had and Jamie Foxx, the film’s star, played his character as written — straight and determined. But his co-stars often overshadow him until the last act when Foxx is a total badass.
Ultimately, what ties the film together is the excellent soundtrack, which is a hodgepodge of composed music and hip-hop, selected by Tarantino who is well known for his eclectic taste. Available now, you can hear the “Django Unchained” soundtrack in its entirety HERE.
So, wrapping up … “Django Unchained” is certainly worth seeing. Yes the N-word is uttered over 80 times and the violence is graphic. But it was necessary to communicate how horrific slavery was. By no means would Tarantino make light of the atrocity. Instead of tiptoeing around the subject matter, he faced it head on. Just go in knowing that in this film, there is no stereotypical white savior and that Django rises unchained. Thank goodness for that.
“Django Unchained,” rated a strong R, opens in theaters Christmas Day.
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