I saw Quentin Tarantino’s new one last night. More like experienced it. I purposely blocked out any reviews so I could watch it with as little chatter in the background as possible. Tarantino makes controversial films. He draws equal praise and ire–just depends on who you ask. Hate him or love him, he’s a bold visionary. I am not one for gore or bloodbaths but when it comes to much of Tarantino’s work, I just can’t look away. See: Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill, Reservoir Dogs, and Inglorious Basterds.
So when I learned Tarantino was bringing his pen and eye to a film with a freed slave on a mission of vengeance to rescue his wife from a plantation, I was immediately checking for it. I had no idea what to expect, and was willing to put my squeamishness aside yet again. Then more details unfolded. Jamie Foxx was cast as Django. Check. Supported by Kerry Washington, Leonardo DiCaprio and Christoph Waltz. Triple check. Then I saw that “The D Is Silent” trailer using James Brown’s “The Big Payback”. Check. It wasn’t until the cast appeared on BET’s 106 & Park the week of release that I learned longtime Tarantino collaborator Samuel L. Jackson was in the film–as a villainous house slave. Check (now that I had to see). I also found out that Reginald Hudlin (The Boondocks, Black Panther) a producer whose choices and voice I deeply respect was on board. Chiggy check. It should also be noted that two women producers, Stacey Sher and Pilar Savone join Hudlin on this epic mission. There is also one woman executive producer, Shannon McIntosh. Always a big deal for this blogger when women run the show. CHECK!
Django Unchained is a spaghetti western-inspired love story that takes place during American slavery. It is not about slavery, but slavery is depicted in all its twisted depravity, its horrifying brutality, and its utter insanity–all gnarled like the tree shaped scars on lashed backs throughout the film. Being the period piece that it is, Tarantino gets to let the n-word fly. Being the Tarantino piece that it is, so does the blood. Only this time, the slavers, overseers and profiteers all die at Django’s hand–a hand guided not by brute strength but with intelligence; driven by undying love.
But here’s the cold part about Django Unchained:
No Black director has yet to helm a major motion picture where slaves rebel–and live to tell about it with their soulmate as they ride off into the moonlight. Would this film have gotten the greenlight, the budget, or the marketing support it enjoys with a black director? Hellz no. Even with Tarantino writing and Hudlin producing, I still doubt it. Django Unchained brings into sharp relief just how unenlightened Hollywood continues to be. Now, this is neither Tarantino’s fault nor his problem. His job is to bring his vision to life, which he did to stunning effect here. I’m grateful he did. It opens a new generation of eyes to slavery in a fresh, albeit painful context. And in the absence of a national conversation about the 4-century long slave trade, the Middle Passage (what many call the African holocaust), the genocidal treatment of people of African descent under slavery for profit, and the heroic, at times equally violent efforts of those people to liberate themselves, this film is a damn good conversation piece. Had that conversation been undertaken, slavery in cinema may not be so loaded a subject that we can’t even watch a film in its totality without sweating the obvious. Yes, the n-word is splattered throughout. Yes, it’s hard to hear repeatedly from the mouths of white people. But it was typical of the period.
The flap over this being a “nigger”-filled Tarantino movie that mocks the peculiar institution is getting in the way of substantive critique and discussion. Yes, the film has comedic moments. But real talk, they are necessary–and kept me from crying as human flesh, Black flesh, was whipped, branded, hammered, hog-tied, torn apart by dogs. There is nothing funny about what the enslaved endured–but in my view, they are not the butt of a joke in Django Unchained. In fact, the lynch mob that was ostensibly the ramp-up to the Ku Klux Klan and the bumbling overseers were the ones portrayed as the ignorant criminals they truly were, despite the laws of the day being on their side. Waltz’s character Dr. King Schultz even uncovers Calvin Candie as the ultimate poser using The Three Musketeers. The punchlines aren’t there to coddle white moviegoers. Much of the laughter I heard from them was of the nervous variety. I’m sure they are used to feeling comfortable at the movies since their hero images pervade overwhelmingly. Oh well. Shoe’s on the other foot here. So go ahead, cheer along with the people of color when Django exacts his revenge.
Another cold part about this movie is The Hot Box (just wait). Tarantino literally strips Broomhilda, the character deftly played by Kerry Washington of everything but her dignity and virtue. That’s more than most of American media can say when it comes to portrayals of Black women, from directors both Black and white. She is even acknowledged for being smart because she’s bilingual, a rare quality in slaves, given their mother tongues are cut upon arrival. I appreciated that for all the harrowing images of Broomhilda being tortured and humiliated, we also saw her radiant, in love, laughing, unspoiled–through her husband’s eyes. Schultz even has a chance to bed her, which would have been customary at this point in history–and doesn’t. Tarantino is putting many an image of Black relationships to shame with this film. The cold part about that? It takes having slavery as the context to get two award-winning, bankable Black lead actors starring as husband and wife in a big budget action film. In 2012. But I digress.
Other cold things about this film:
The complete and total bad-ass that is Jamie Foxx in this role. He lights up the screen with the keen brilliance of the trickster from start to finish. And yet, he gives us glimpses of compassion and vulnerability that are rarely available to Black male characters, who must usually be all funny, all womanizing player, all menace–or some nauseating mix of the three.
The unexpected and wondeful music choices, from the updated Django theme song to original music written by Foxx and performed by Rick Ross and an original song from John Legend. Tarantino is a music head with a great ear and this new approach of using original music along with existing material does not disappoint.
The sweeping panoramas, from the mountains of Yellowstone National Park to the arching trees on the plantation set in Mississippi but shot near New Orleans. Really great to watch Tarantino’s eye work with such scale; with the exception of Basterds and Kill Bill I & II, the film I’ve seen of his are usually focused on close, urbane quarters.
Leonard DiCaprio as Calvin Candie. It could not have been easy to drop into this character, even for one as seasoned as Leo. His big monologue (you’ll know it when you get there) is so raw, so full of molten rage, the hairs on your neck will stand up. So much for the Southern Gentleman. And that’s his own real blood on his hands from an unplanned lasceration during the take Tarantino kept in. WOW.
Thank you Mr. Tarantino for having the courage to make this film and take the heat. Thank you, Mr. Hudlin for lending your perspective and producing chops to this film. And thank you, Django–for giving the Hollywood slave his long overdue and much-needed revolutionary makeover.