Quentin Tarantino’s potent themes of betrayal and revenge return in the trail blazing screen epic Django Unchained – the Pulp Fiction of modern spaghetti westerns.
Django Unchained is driven by a tight plot with strong believable characters united in either a fight for freedom or to maintain oppression against a backdrop of slavery. Tarantino focuses on establishing the main characters but the film lacks tension as the main characters agree common objectives and therefore have no real conflicts. German bounty hunter Dr Schultz (Christoph Waltz) rocks up to buy slave Django (Jamie Foxx). Schultz asks Django to help identify three men for bounty and Django asks for help to find his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) who speaks German. This fact alone bonds the two men during a campfire story as the two face situations which carry all the hallmarks of clever Tarantino twists. The rest is history as Django becomes Schultz’s partner and the fastest gunslinger in the south.
Tarantino focuses on the perilous situation the characters must face to achieve their objective. Schultz explains the legal status of casting people as the property of slavers to Django and how this law will be used to prevent him from leaving the deep south alive with his wife Broomhilda.
The film changes when Django and his counterpart visit the barbaric slave plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) posing as experts on Mandingo fights (slaves fighting to the death for their masters). From this point on, Tarantino’s script creates high level tension as the stakes rise as the characters play out conflicts over status and objectives. Schultz negotiates with Candie while he and Amerigo Vessepi (Franco Nero – the original Django character) engage in the brutal practice of Mandingo fights in Django’s presence. The character of Django is modelled on Sergio Corbucci’s Django. But Tarantino’s Django is a thoroughly modern character who is comfortable in himself and with his ally. Both are at odds with the barbaric slaver society hiding behind politeness. One scene has a horde of burning torch slavers hide behind thin veils of badly designed Klu Klux Klan outfits.
The peril is close enough to smell as the two ride into the deep south – Mississippi, a place still reported for scenes of racial hatred (not just in the film Mississippi Burning) to get Broomhilda. The hatred for Django grows and the unnecessary cruelty of the southern slavers heightens the tensions leading to the big house. Schultz and Django differ on how to deal with slaver Candie who Django challenges as an equal at every turn to the consternation of Candie’s slaver staff.
Tarantino is one of the few screenwriters whose scenes add character complexity in direct correlation to the number of people he manages in a scene. Here black head slave Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson) insults Django. Jackson changes the scene with the flicker of his eyes as he suspects Django. Stephen humiliates Broomhilda at dinner to provoke a reaction from Django who must hide his feelings while Schultz finds a way to buy Broomhilda.
Tarantino screenplay effortlessly distils the complicated sexual and power structures of southern slave households. The top servants mimic the cruel values of their masters. Some serve sex while head servant seeks to maintain his position. Tarantino’s own cameo is not without humour. He helps Django who in turn blows him up.
The final acts sees Django release the tension when he shoots the blood out of his enemies Tarantino-style. Django returns the false politeness hiding the brutality of the slavers when he asks one of the servants to say goodbye to her mistress as he literally blows her out of shot. But the best is saved for the collaborator Stephen who is kneecapped and blown up with the big house as Django watches the scene in a blaze of glory.
The final scene has Django find the time to let Jamie Foxx’s own horse show off Trigger-like dressage skills. This serves not only to impress wife Broomhilda but prove that Django’s new hero status makes him fearless. Both ride out to freedom away from the barbarity of the burning south.
In response to criticism of the film and Quentin Tarantino. The author of this review points out that historical films are fiction. Films creatively represent the screenwriter who selectively fuses history to create a fiction which appeals to an audience. This macro relationship becomes a microcosm in the dark cinema. A film provokes a subjective reaction from an individual viewer not society or history. The writer of this piece has some knowledge of slavery after working on a project. The historian was asked to research an area where information existed but had been withheld. The information revealed the barbarity, exploitation and engendering of racist ideas by slavers. These historical facts had been buried. History itself is therefore neither accurate nor human. Historians and journalists cannot suddenly expect auteur Quentin Tarantino to pay the price for years of neglect on this subject.
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