Django Unchained (2012, Quentin Tarantino)
There is an uncomfortable, but inescapable, truth at the heart of Quentin Tarantino’s films: he really does love the n-word. From his debut Reservoir Dogs onwards, the word crops up on a worryingly regular basis. Spike Lee has been a particularly vocal critic on this issue, describing Tarantino as being, “…infatuated with that word.” Tarantino’s response was to say the word was appropriate to the setting of the film (in that case, Jackie Brown) and that it is racist to suggest a white director should not be allowed to have a character utter it. An obvious counter-response is to ask why he so frequently feels the urge to conjure up worlds where its use seems (possibly) justified, or even, in his eyes, essential.
I don’t for a second believe Tarantino to be a racist. But, maybe, as Lee suggests, he has the desire to be seen as a kind of “honorary black man.” Tarantino is a lover of African-American culture, particularly the music and movies of the 1970s, when he grew up; Jackie Brown is a fond homage to Blaxploitation films of the period. And his work is full of brilliantly memorable roles for African Americans, perhaps the most famous being Samuel L. Jackson’s Jules Winnfield in Pulp Fiction.
Still… Quentin, do you think maybe one day you could make a film with strong black characters where the n-word isn’t uttered even once?
Django Unchained is the first Tarantino film where the omission of the n-word would seem odd. The movie begins in 1858, during the height of slavery in America. To omit the word here would be a denial of reality and might even feel like an attempt to ignore the inherent racism of the time. Watch an old western and it can feel like you’re being plunged into some bizarre alternate version of the past where black people weren’t routinely being treated appallingly.
The story concerns a slave, Django (Jamie Foxx), who, via serendipitous circumstances, is freed by a bounty hunter, Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). The two ultimately become partners and set out to free Django’s wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) who is a slave at the “Candyland” plantation, owned by Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).
Django Unchained is, like all Tarantinos, inspired by old movies. In this instance, Sergio Leone Spaghetti Westerns of the ’60s and Blaxploitation westerns of the ’70s. But the film also attempts to address the reality of slavery, a topic that Hollywood has, over the years, been relentlessly reluctant to take on. There was Beloved in 1998, and 12 Years A Slave shortly after Django, but little else to speak of. Interestingly, mainstream TV has been far more willing to take on such material with Roots in 1977, and even a TV movie version of the 12 Years story made in 1984. (Steve McQueen likes to keep quiet about that one.)
Django asks us a moral question: Can you combine genre pastiche with a hard-hitting look at a bleak period in history? (Scorsese’s Shutter Island dealt with a similar issue, combining horror movie references with a central character traumatised by his experiences at the Dachau concentration camp in WWII.) Some would see this as bold, visionary filmmaking; others might consider it in terrible taste. (You can guess which side of the fence Spike Lee sits on.) Thus, Tarantino stages comic scenes that could have been in Blazing Saddles (early KKK members discovering none of them can see properly through their white hoods), but also incredibly painful scenes of slave abuse, such as whippings and being put in a hot box. Incidentally, Tarantino has said he could not show the full horror of slavery because, “the movie would be unwatchable.”
Whatever your view on this tonal tension, one thing about Django Unchained is undeniable – no one else could or would have made this film. For better or worse, it’s a singular work by a singular artist.
Also, moral questions aside, Django Unchained just has so many things going for it. For one thing, it looks stunning. You could argue that Tarantino peaked as a writer with his first few films, but he has been steadily improving as a director, particularly with his camera style. His movies have always had great individual shots, but they didn’t always fit together in a completely satisfying way; now they all feel ‘right’. The contribution of cinematographer Robert Richardson, who has worked with Tarantino from Kill Bill onwards (with the exception of Death Proof), should not be underestimated. Richardson has been a significant factor in Tarantino’s visual progression, in much the same way as Gordon Willis has contributed to the films of Woody Allen.
Tarantino’s work with actors is also much improved and there are none of the awkward line readings that occasionally plague Reservoir Dogs. Foxx, Waltz, Washington and DiCaprio, in particular, are all great. (It’s just a shame Washington isn’t given more to do.) In fact, the only dodgy performance, perhaps unsurprisingly, comes from the man himself in a cameo so shameless it’s strangely endearing. Not only does QT have more lines than ever before, he also tasks himself with adopting an Australian accent. At least, I think that’s what he’s going for…
Django Unchained is showing tonight, 10.00pm Channel 5