“Django Unchained” - Quentin Tarantino (2012)

Django Unchained (2012) is perhaps iconoclastic American filmmaker Quentin Tarantino’s most popular film, and it has received both considerable critical praise [1,2,3,4,5,6,7] and numerous awards [8].  As was Tarantino’s custom, he played here with an existing film genre, but amplified and exaggerated the cinematics to achieve an almost cartoon effect.  In the particular case of Django Unchained, though, there were some novel aspects that were unique, even for Tarantino.

For one thing, the existing film genre that Tarantino exploited in Django Unchained was the “Spaghetti Western”, which was already a parodic exaggeration of an existing film genre, the Western, which involved stories set in the old American West and often featured cowboys.  The Spaghetti Western genre, which played with and exaggerated the Western, got its name because its earliest exponent was the Italian filmmaker Sergio Leone, whose trilogy of films – A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1965), and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966) (collectively known, variously, as the “Dollars Trilogy” and the “Man With No Name Trilogy”) – were the classic Spaghetti Westerns.  So with Django Unchained, Tarantino was making a parody of a parody.  In my opinion, however, Tarantino, despite his cinematic pyrotechnics here, does not come close to outdoing Leone in this film.
A second novel feature of Django Unchained is that the principal protagonist cowboy, Django, is a black person (an African American), an unlikely personage to star in an American Western.  Thus the people that Django encounters in the film, set in 1958 in the American South (in Texas, Tennessee, and Mississippi), all seem to regard the idea of a black cowboy as an impossibility.  But in fact there apparently were some black cowboys in the U.S., even before the American Civil War (1861-1865) [9,10,11,12].  So Django’s cowboy appearance to these people should not really have been that much of an oddity.

The story of Django Unchained begins in Texas with a couple of white slave traders marching some chained black slaves through a forest.  Improbably, they encounter an itinerant dentist, Dr. King Schultz (played by Christoph Waltz), whose real profession is now that of a bounty hunter.  Schultz is looking for a slave who might help him identify some wanted outlaws that he wants to capture “dead or alive” in exchange for a posted bounty.  It turns out that one of the slaves, Django (Jamie Foxx), can identify these outlaws, and Schultz seeks to buy him.  Although Dr. Schultz comes across as a civilized, erudite German, we will soon see he is a ruthless killer.  He soon shoots and kills the slave traders and takes Django away with him.

Now Schultz and Django go to the Tennessee plantation where the sought-after outlaws are overseers.  Django is now outfitted by Schultz to look like a freed black who has become a cowboy.   Together, Schultz and Django kill the three outlaws as well as most of the white people who work at the plantation.  With Django as Dr. Schultz’s apprentice bounty hunter, the two of them go on to rack up some more bounties.  Finally in appreciation for Django’s assistance, Schultz agrees to help find and free Django’s wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), who is also a black slave (since it is later revealed that Broomhilda can speak German, we might assume that her real name is actually “Brunhilde”).  

They eventually discover that Broomhilda is now a domestic slave at a large Mississippi plantation, Candyland, owned by the seemingly charming Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).  But despite Candie’s genteel exterior, we soon learn that he is cruel and sadistic.  One of Candie’s favorite pastimes is staging “Mandingo” fights, a gambling sport (for the spectators) in which two male black slaves are coerced to fight each other to the death, like a cockfight.  The film devotes some time to this gruesome activity, presumably to emphasize just how depraved is Calvin Candie.

So Schultz and Django go to Candyland with the feigned interest of purchasing a top Mandingo fighter from Candie.  But their real intention is to come up with a way of freeing, by means of a separate purchasing transaction, Broomhilda, with whom they pretend not to be acquainted.  Their deception is disrupted, though, when Candie’s suspicious head house slave, Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), discerns that Broomhilda and Django know each other and informs Candie of the fact.  This leads to a breakdown in the hitherto cordial negotiation between Schultz and Candie, and the two prideful and trigger-happy negotiants start shooting at each other and soon turn the entire plantation into a bloodbath.  Django, too, joins in the killing spree.  Schultz and Candie wind up dead, but Django, after killing many people, finally surrenders when he sees Stephen threatening to kill Broomhilda.  
Django is now a prisoner/slave again and about to be shipped to a slave-owning mining company, but he has more killing ahead of him.  He manages to escape from and kill the people who are taking him to the mining company.  Then he returns to Candyland and rescues Broomhilda from slave custody before blowing up the plantation mansion with dynamite, presumably killing most of the people there.  In the end, Django and Broomhilda ride off together with documents certifying their free statuses (i.e. not slaves).

Altogether, we could say there are four successive narrative segments of very unequal length that make up this lengthy 2-hour-and-45-minute film – (1) Django encounters Schultz, (2) Django and Schultz together as bounty hunters, (3) Django and Schultz with Candie, (4) Django’s escape.  So how do they collectively stack up when compared with Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns, such as For a Few Dollars More?  Well, when it comes to realism, both Tarantino and Leone make significant compromises, although Tarantino seems to go further in this respect.  For both of them, the protagonists fire their guns with never-miss lethality, while their respective opponents always miss their targets.  But Tarantino’s gunshot absurdities seem to be even more comic-book flavored than Leone’s.  And also, I was surprised to see the slave Django able to read.  But the real problems with Django Unchained lie elsewhere.

For one thing, the characters of Django and Broomhilda are essentially dramatic ciphers.  Broomhilda is little seen, and Django is so laconic that we never get a feeling for him or what he is about.  He just shoots and kills people who stand in his way.  The only potentially interesting character is the convivial and crafty Dr. King Schultz, but his extended encounter and confrontation with Calvin Candie doesn’t come to any narrative resolution.  They both just get abruptly wiped out.  And anyway, Schultz is not a character with whom the viewer is likely to want to empathize.  And, as I said above, the clearly-identified protagonist across the four narrative segments of the film, Django, is too opaque to sustain a full narrative.

Instead of a compelling narrative, Tarantino has presented to the viewer an extended and emphatically gritty bloodbath, comprising an endless succession of killings, mostly on the part of the film’s protagonists and many involving the deaths of likely innocent people.  We need more narrative motivation for this slaughter.  Does Tarantino believe that all U.S. Southern whites are responsible for the horrible institution of slavery and therefore deserve to die?  Even if he were to hold such an absurd belief, no such justificatory point is made in the film.  No, Django Unchained just seems to be a carnival of violence supposedly in support of a black narrative figurehead, but probably primarily just designed to appeal to people who like to watch endless violence.  I will concede that there are some interesting scenes involving Christoph Waltz as Dr. King Schultz, but  I would say that Leone’s films offer altogether more captivating cinematic narratives.

  1. Murtaza Ali Khan, “Django Unchained (2012): American filmmaker Quentin Tarantino's lampoon on human trafficking”, A Potpourri of Vestiges, (January 2013). 
  2. Roger Ebert, “Faster, Quentin! Thrill! Thrill!”, Roger Ebert’s Journal, RogerEbert.com, (7 January 2013).  
  3. Omer M. Mozaffar, “Django America”, Roger Ebert’s Far-Flung Correspondents, RogerEbert. com, (29 December 2012).    
  4. A. O. Scott, “The Black, the White and the Angry”, The New York Times, (24 December 2012).    
  5. Anthony Lane, “Love Hurts ‘Les Misérables’, ‘Django Unchained,’ and ‘Amour’”, The New Yorker, (30 December 2012).    
  6. Peter Travers, “Django Unchained”, Rolling Stone, (13 December 2012).     
  7. Erin Aubry Kaplan, “‘Django’ an unsettling experience for many blacks", Los Angeles Times, (28 December 2012).
  8. “List of accolades received by ‘Django Unchained’”, Wikipedia, (2020). 
  9. “Black cowboys”, Wikipedia, (3 March 2021).    
  10. Katie Nodjimbadem, “The Lesser-Known History of African-American Cowboys”, Smithsonian Magazine, (13 February 2017).  
  11. Jennifer Oast, "Black Cowboys In The American West: On The Range, On The Stage, Behind The Badge", Civil War Book Review, (Article 16, Spring 2017).    
  12. David Goldstein-Shirley, “Black Cowboys in the American West: An Historiographical Review”, Ethnic Studies Review, Volume 20, (1997), pp. 79-89.    

1 comment:

Wufasa said...

Good review! This ultra-violence in this film put me off, Tarantino. Keen to see you review Inglorious Basterds!