Django Unchained (John’s #1 of 2012)

The number one pick of my top 20 list of 2012 is Quentin Tarantino’s masterpiece Django Unchained. David wrote an amazing review just after the film’s release and I implore you to scroll down and check it out if you haven’t already. When creating my top list (which was already a bigger endeavor than I had initially planned) I found myself at a crossroads when posting a short review of Django. On the one hand, David had already written an incredible post on the film and one that mirrored many thoughts of friends and movie goers that I have encountered. On the other hand, my thoughts on the film were just too much to narrow down to a single paragraph and having 3 months to digest the film only increased my desire to discuss the film. So to properly finish off my top 20 list (which everyday followers will know has taken about 3 weeks) I offer a 2nd look at Quentin Tarantino’s controversial western.

Quentin Tarantino is my idol. In many ways I consider him to be my mentor in film; my inspiration for writing and the gateway to my favorite films in cinema. I first discovered the news of Tarantino doing an all out western in February of 2011 when co-editor David sent me a text. At the time the rumor was a Tarantino western starring the original Django: Franco Nero, Christoph Waltz and Keith Carradine. Within a week it was announced the film would be the story of a slave named Django who is freed by a German bounty hunter that mentors him and helps him free his wife from an evil plantation owner. About a week after that I had my very own copy of the script. I read bits and pieces over the next year and carried it with me in my backpack everyday. Everytime a cast member was announced I would flip through the script and read the characters introduction. I refused to read anything past the 1st half in fear of spoiling any characters inevitable demise (a lesson I learned from reading the 3rd act of Inglourious Basterds a year before it was filmed). The beauty of a Quentin Tarantino film is that, despite nearly 2 years of holding the movie in my hands, I was still unprepared for the world Tarantino projected onscreen.

To me a “perfect” movie is one that contains great scene after great scene from start to finish. Think Goodfellas – the opening with Frank Vincent in the trunk (“What the fuck?, Tommy what is that, we hit something?). The early days of Henry Hill (“Oh my god, you look like a gangster”). De Niro hijacking the truck (“You may know who I am, but we KNOW who you are”), the Lufthansa heist, taking Karen to the Copacabana, slicing up onions in prison so thin they used to melt in the pan, getting coked out and making sure little Michael is stirring the sauce. It’s just great moment after great moment.

Every Tarantino film achieves this as well. And with each project Tarantino is breaking new ground, pushing his meta-narrative further and further and challenging audiences with every new step. Starting with Kill Bill, Tarantino’s films get richer with character and more meticulous with cinematography, editing and style. He treats his screenplays as if creating the next chapter of the Bible. Every page is perfected before he moves on to the next and it certainly shows. If every writer were as passionate about creating a literary piece like Quentin is, then cinema in general would be worlds better than it is.

The first thing that strikes me about Tarantino’s work is how accessible it is to mass audiences. The first time I read Aldo Raine’s speech in Inglourious Basterds about “killing Nazis” I thought “Oh my god, this is too hardcore. There is no way this is getting in.” How surprised I was when this speech became the centerpiece for the film’s marketing campaign. Also when reading the Basterds screenplay, I began to quickly notice that 2/3rds of the film would be in subtitles. I immediately thought “there’s no way this will play with today’s audiences, no one wants to read subtitles anymore”. So I was overjoyed when discussing the movie with my aunt and uncle (two people I suspect have never seen a foreign film and never had to read a majority of a film’s dialogue before) to discover that they loved the film and even made note of how delightfully comical it was when Waltz’s Hans Landa requests to shift from French to English in the film’s opening scene.

The same goes with reading Django Unchained, within in the first few pages and the rampant use of the N-word I thought “Oh man this is gonna cause a huge uproar”. Luckily audiences are smart enough to know that what Tarantino has in mind is an adventure story first and an energetic movie experience one will never forget. While working at the movie theatre I was very intuitive of what audiences felt as they left the showing. The majority of black audiences I encountered were absolutely thrilled with the final product. It’s a comic book-y tale of a black superhero. The first film about slavery that allowed black audiences to stand up and cheer for its hero instead of wince at the pain their ancestors have suffered, much in the way the Jewish community could rally around Shoshanna and the Basterds as they lay waste to the Third Reich. Even those who could take offense to the racial slurs projected from Don Johnson’s Big Daddy Bennett and Leonardo DiCaprio’s Calvin Candie were only that much happier to see these crude men meet their brutal demise.

I also noticed a rising hesitation to the film from white audiences, a common feeling of discomfort and a sense of “white guilt” at the brutality and harshness of slavery in the Antebellum South displayed on-screen. Now this is more accurate to what I think Tarantino hopes to achieve with this film. Rarely are white audiences challenged to view their past here in America, unlike the people of Germany who sit through endless films depicting brutal Nazis and forced to revisit their unfortunate past and heritage. Even when a film takes on the historical aspect of slavery, a lot of the cruelty and contempt felt by these white slave-owning ancestors are placed on the back burner. For example Amistad, while a sentimental portrait of the uprising on the infamous slave ship, seldom depicts its white characters as brutally as, say a film about WWII, would depict its Nazi oppressors. Personally, I do feel that white audiences should be subjected to more films that evaluate our nation’s past and all the fucked up shit that we have done. To not be sheltered and to acknowledge that yes, we did this sick shit, and it wasn’t the first time either (think about the Indians when we first arrived).

Naturally, this is quite a hot topic of discussion and one that will surely spark a bit of a debate amongst our readers. However I’d also like to point out that Django Unchained tackles many different sides and oppositions to slavery that cinema has rarely explored. For example the character of Dr. King Schultz (played by Christoph Waltz) is a foreigner to this country and represents an outsider’s view of America and slavery. Several times Schultz explains his disdain for slavery and his confusion as to why people are so fascinated with dictating what one man can and cannot do. Schultz also describes his feelings of responsibility for Django and his reasoning to help Django remain free long after their relationship has ended. Schultz has a true admiration for Django’s strength and ability to endure the pain that surrounds him. He also admires Django and his wife Broomhilda’s belief in the sanctity of marriage, a belief that shows that these are in fact real people and not the uneducated savages that people like Big Daddy and Calvin Candie attribute them to be.

Then there is the depiction of slave owners themselves. On one side you have Big Daddy Bennett who is the epitome of a racist slave owner, a man who seems appalled at the idea of a free black man when Django arrives on his plantation with Schultz. Then you have Calvin Candie, a character who has inherited his plantation through generations of white slave owners. Now where Big Daddy clearly gets off on slavery, Candie appears to be somewhat done with the whole slavery idea; choosing to focus his attention more on mandingo fighting than buying and selling slave workers and show ponies. Big Daddy is a proprietor of slavery, one of the original creators; Candie is the disinterested descendant whose come in at the end.

Another interesting depiction is the level of social class amongst slaves. When Django is riding along with Candie’s entourage he is a free man, a man who rides atop his horse while the slaves walk alongside. There is a huge disdain for Django from the slaves, and in order to stay in character Django is forced to look down on them as well. Then there is Samuel L. Jackson’s character, Stephen. Stephen is an elderly slave and the overseer of all of Candyland’s belongings, including both the land and the many souls who tend to it. The relationship between Calvin and Stephen is incredibly essential to the dynamic of the story. Stephen has been apart of Candyland since the beginning when Calvin’s father owned the property and has raised Calvin since birth. Stephen and Calvin have a father-son type relationship much like the bond that forms between Schultz and Django, but with one big difference…Stephen and Calvin love each other more than Schultz and Django do. This helps make the character of Stephen the darkest and most despicable villain in the film. Here is a man that stands above approach from the rest of the slaves on his plantation, a slave with power over every other slave and, in some ways, Calvin Candie as well. As Django points out in the film, there isn’t anything lower than a man in his position.

And yet, despite all this subtle analysis of the Antebellum South, what Tarantino delivers is an all-out action packed and hysterically funny American western. Its extremely difficult for me to rank Tarantino’s films because they are each perfect in their own way. When viewing Kill Bill’s two parts together I felt that Tarantino couldn’t get any better. Then when Aldo Raine delivers the final line in Inglourious Basterds “this just might be my masterpiece” I couldn’t have agreed more. Now Tarantino achieves even more with Django Unchained and another masterpiece expands his perfect canon. I simply continue to name Pulp Fiction as my number 1 favorite simply because its the one that introduced me to the man himself and to the world of movies that I would soon become obsessed with. 

Like Goodfellas, this is for me a “perfect” film. Its just great scene after great scene. “State your business or prepare to get winged”, “Can’t we just leave?”, “Treat him like you would Jerry”, “So it would be nice to see!”, “Its a German legend, there’s bound to be a mountain in there somewhere”, “We got us a fight goin’ on that’s a good bit of fun”, “I’m gonna walk in the moonlight with you”, “All the passions you inspire are completely justified”, “There have been a lotta lies told around this table tonight, but that you best believe”, “Tell Miss Laura goodbye”. Perfect is a movie I can relive moment-to-moment in my head at anytime.