History, Tarantino style: "Django Unchained"

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Quentin Tarantino's latest film is a tonic after the incessant racist dog whistles of last year's campaign (and basically Obama's entire presidency). This film answers the dog whistles with a shotgun blast. "Django Unchained" takes a central tragedy of American history and re-imagines it as exploitation-film revenge fantasy. This patently "insensitive" treatment of slavery and racism isn't for everyone: Spike Lee recently complained via Twitter: "... slavery was not a ...spaghetti Western. It was a holocaust." Yet Tarantino's previous film, "Inglourious Basterds," was also a "spaghetti Western" - about the Jewish Holocaust. "Basterds" tells the story of a World War II all-Jewish-American special ops unit in occupied France dedicated to killing - and scalping - as many Nazis as possible.

"Django" is to Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln" what "Basterds" is to "Schindler's List": an action film do-over of historical outrages. Whereas Spielberg uses real people and events to create fictionalized history, Tarantino's use of trashy fiction encourages us to discern powerful moral truths from history. Spike Lee has (rightly) criticized Tarantino in the past for his flippant use of the n-word - Tarantino's repeated use of it in his own dialog in "Pulp Fiction" was particularly troubling. However, here the word is used, fittingly, to depict racism. Together, both "Django" and "Basterds" form a dual indictment of white supremacy in its European and American skins.

Like many Westerns, "Django" is about redemption and retribution. It tells the story of Django (Jamie Foxx), a slave in pre-Civil=War Texas freed by German bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). Together, they pursue Django's quest to reunite with his wife, Broomhilda Von Shaft (Kerry Washington). Django learns to be a hardened killer ("the fastest gun in the South") from Dr. Schultz; in turn Django teaches the German "dentist" to be human.

The eccentric cinematic meta-narrative of "Django" and "Basterds" operates like a stoned Hegelian dialectic between pop culture and history. Dr. Schultz (as the heroic twin of Hans Landa, "The Jew Hunter," in "Basterds") preemptively redeems German culture by casting Django's struggle as the story of Siegfried and Brunhilde, and by not bearing to hear Beethoven as the background music to inhuman brutality (in a scene reminiscent of "A Clockwork Orange.") Leonardo DiCaprio plays the slaver Calvin Candie as an anti-Lt. Aldo Raine ("Basterds" good guy Brad Pitt), Southern accent and all. Candie blasphemes the European Enlightenment in his final outrage, his pseudoscientific justification of white supremacy's perverse order.

Dr. Schultz learns that the law can only rectify injustice up to a point; radical moral action is needed to approach true justice. In this sense, he is like another slavery-hating mid-19th-century German doctor I know of who taught that each of us has the power to change the world.

"Django" holds a funhouse mirror up to the reality of the monstrous institution of slavery - to really get at the true horror and absurdity of slavery and white supremacism, it is necessary to construct the grotesque carnal carnival of atrocities Tarantino has assembled with this film. Django's antebellum South is nonetheless a more "accurate" picture of slavery and racism than that seen in any genteel period epic: almost as tasteless, offensive, and inappropriate as reality itself. The obscenities committed by Django's villains are insults to our sensibilities so severe that they can only be resolved by shootouts that are so ridiculously bloody they become slapstick, like pie fights with gore instead of custard. "Django" visualizes quite literally Lincoln's second inaugural address: "until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn by the sword."

Tarantino clearly loves his medium - his films are always banquets for movie lovers, and he wears his cinephile heart on his sleeve. "Django" refers as easily to 1970s plantation potboiler sleaze ("Mandingo") and blaxploitation Westerns ("Take a Hard Ride") as it does to higher brow fare like Gillo Pontecorvo's "Burn!" and Sam Peckinpah's "The Wild Bunch." It owes as much to the racially charged opening scenes of George Romero's "Dawn of the Dead" (1978) as it does to the stark closing shots of Alexander Dovzhenko's "Arsenal" (1928). It's a cross between "Birth of a Nation" and "Blazing Saddles," or "Gone With the Wind" with a gangsta rap soundtrack.

I wish Tarantino would continue this film cycle forever, with action heroes to save every oppressed community. I can't wait to see Sonny Chiba as an ass-kicking World War II internee, or Sean Penn as a Harvey Milk who shoots back.

What I admire most about Quentin Tarantino as an artist is the respect and appreciation he shows for his audience by putting out work that doesn't pander or insult their intelligence, but instead raises consciousness by exploring challenging questions and offering provocative ideas in an entertaining way. "Django" has as much to offer to film and lit majors and fans of equal rights as it does to grindhouse gorehounds. Like all great art, Tarantino's antiracist period pieces don't leave one satisfied; they leave one wanting to confront injustice in real time - before it's "too late" and history is allowed to play out its tragedies without intercession.

Movie information:

"Django Unchained"

Directed by Quentin Tarantino

Starring: Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kerry Washington, Samuel L. Jackson

2012, rated R (violence and language), 165 min.

Photo: Movie still of Christoph Waltz and Jamie Foxx.

 

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  • We shouldn't make a case about the language used in Tarantino's peice. The story is based on historical facts but isn't made on the purpose of telling a true story or even being a documentary. Tarantino built the script, based on slavery, to have a great atmosphere in which he can fill with his artistic knowledge. There are so many tricks in the movie or double meaning statement that can't be left apart in a review. The acting of cast makes the movie even better but we need to remember that every single action seen in the film were created and prepared by Tarantino before he even hired them.

    People have the right not to like Tarantino's work for personal worth, but should never criticize his intellect because this man is a genius.

    If a Tarantino movie is to hard for someone to watch, this person haven't seen a lot in its life so shouldn't criticize

    Hope i didn't troubled anyone

    Posted by lackatou, 02/27/2013 10:25pm (1 year ago)

  • We shouldn't make a case about the language used in Tarantino's peice. The story is based on historical facts but isn't made on the purpose of telling a true story or even being a documentary. Tarantino built the script, based on slavery, to have a great atmosphere in which he can fill with his artistic knowledge. There are so many tricks in the movie or double meaning statement that can't be left apart in a review. The acting of cast makes the movie even better but we need to remember that every single action seen in the film were created and prepared by Tarantino before he even hired them.

    People have the right not to like Tarantino's work for personal worth, but should never criticize his intellect because this man is a genius.

    If a Tarantino movie is to hard for someone to watch, this person haven't seen a lot in its life so shouldn't criticize

    Hope i didn't troubled anyone

    Posted by lackatou, 02/27/2013 10:24pm (1 year ago)

  • I see the Tarantino films as mindless drivel, further creating what is a massive problem of historical ignorance. I appreciate Jim's film reviews, but in this case, I just plain do not see anything positive. It is just another, granded different, piece of intellectual crap poisoning our nation's collective mind with further outrageous levels of historic ignorance, now, especially at a time that historic clarity is so badly needed. Tarantino films all come with a side order of mindless, extreme violence, as well.

    Posted by bruce bostick, 01/19/2013 10:45am (2 years ago)

  • Good review. What finally drew me into the theater, despite strong reservations, was the numbers of African Americans buying tickets ahead of me.

    the film can certainly be criticized for racist language and for over-the-top violence. I was surprised they let it open during the Newtown massacre news. But this discerning critic, I think, separates the worthy from the worthless in Tarantino's work. --JimLane

    Posted by jim lane, 01/09/2013 10:34am (2 years ago)

  • I've been somewhat repelled by Tarantino's films, not for bringing out racism and injustice, but precisely for the tones of a mindless action film, simple revenge protrayed in a cartoon-like way.

    Correct me if I'm wrong. While I admittedly didn't see "Inglorious Basterds," the ads themselves gave me an impression of wanting sadistic revenge only, with overly-cocksure characters going on their own "Final Solution," rather than being thought-provoking historically where the "Inglorious Basterds" know what they have to do but don't overglorify and gain 'Nazistic" pleasure from it; and this even includes entertainment-wise.

    I do admit being interested in the film, "Natural Born Killers," written by Tarantino and directed by Oliver Stone. But I sensed a more authentic message showing the egoticism, hypocrisy and slimyness within the media and prison system. It did convey a bit of a cartoonish tone, but it came across more convincing in terms of showing societies' evils and dog-eat-dog behavoir.

    But correct me if I'm wrong.

    Posted by revolution123, 01/08/2013 6:16pm (2 years ago)

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