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A Review of "Django Unchained"

Tarantino’s American Love Story

by MICHAEL DONNELLY

I went to see Django Unchained with a screenwriter friend yesterday, forgetting that it was Christmas week and the matinees would be crowded. I’ve always been a little ambivalent about the already legendary director Quentin Tarantino’s movies. I think the under-appreciated Jackie Brown is one of the best movies ever and most of his oeuvre is quite good, if over-the-top at times. Though other than Jackie Brown and Pulp Fiction, I doubt I’ll watch any a second time. Django, however, is the best movie I’ve seen in years and will be part of film school AND American History curricula for years to come, as well. And I plan to see it at least once more on the big screen.

Tarantino’s script is superb; the acting excellent; the score beautiful; the cinematography stunning and the absolute horror of Slavery has never been addressed this well in film – even Roots never came as close. It’s the most important film so far on American Slavery.

Director Spike Lee says he won’t even see it, as it is “disrespectful to my ancestors.” I had to see it, as this makes four movies now that Spike Lee has disparaged publicly that I’ve found to be outstanding. He slammed Ali, mainly because it had a white Director; he went after Flags of Our Fathers because it didn’t have enough black actors in it – when Blacks were confined to kitchens in WWII’s Pacific Theater (he might as well have complained that there weren’t any depictions of women hitting the Iwo beaches) and he sneered at Pulp Fiction. While I find Lee’s Do the Right Thing to be one of the top 20 movies of all time, I can only conclude that Spike is either a woeful, jealous film critic or a racist. The only “disrespect” here is Lee attacking another Director’s work without even seeing it.

I won’t go much into the plot and all, as anyone can find tons written about that on-line.  Suffice to say, the movie pulls no punches when it comes to the malevolence of Slavery (a couple brutal scenes are almost unwatchable); and, when it comes to depicting the acute division between field and house slaves, one can almost hear Malcolm X’s exceptional speech on the topic. Samuel L. Jackson’s head house slave “Stephen” is destined, as Jackson has said, to be “the most hated Negro in film.” (Jamie Foxx, who pulls off the very difficult title character role, has noted that one deleted Jackson scene would cement that notion, and likely would have garnered Jackson an Oscar.)

The almost unrecognizable Jackson, who gets to say his trademark “muthafucka” four times, says that when he watched the film in a theater full of African-Americans, they were shouting, laughing and crying the entire time, though it has to be excruciating for Black people to watch. (When I was growing up in inner city Flint, MI, some of my Black buddies and I would go to the Westerns at the neighborhood theater on Saturdays. Jimmy, Wally and Cleo would always root for the Indians – Native Genocide being the other great affront that America keeps its head firmly in the sand about.)

Lee and others have condemned the film for violence and use of the N-word. Ahem; how could anyone faithfully depict what was really going on back then sans either? Sure, the violence is rampant on a Rambo scale, yet it has a Tom & Jerry, buckets of cherry juice aspect to it. And, the N-word is used so often that it just blends into the scenery, a la Lenny Bruce.

It is fiction, after all. But, if had watched Django and then back-to-back, the overrated, clownish, allegedly true-to-life Lincoln, I would end up howling at every one of Lincoln’s pompous pronouncements.

The performances of the entire ensemble are also magnificent. Leonardo DiCaprio, whom I’ve never liked in any movie, should get a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Calvin Candie, the vile owner of Candieland plantation, who has a side business staging gladiatorial fights between slaves. In fact, it’s the first time I’ve seen DiCaprio where I didn’t see Leonardo DiCaprio; the first time he melts completely into his character. Christopher Waltz is outstanding as Dr. King Shultz, Django’s ally, a German immigrant bounty hunter who is completely perplexed by white and Black society’s shock at simply seeing a Black man on a horse -  and boy can Foxx handle a horse. Kerry Washington is first-rate as slave Broomhilda, Django’s wife and the object of Shultz and Django’s liberation quest. And, as I noted, Jamie Foxx is outstanding in the lead role; one of the all-time pulp fiction heros.  The Grammy-winning Foxx even wrote a song in the usual excellent Tarantino soundtrack.

Lesser characters are skillfully portrayed by a plethora of Hollywood stars: Don Johnson is very good as a plantation owner; Walton Goggins has a fine turn as one of Candieland’s brutal enforcers. Others – Laura Cayouette is excellent as DiCaprio’s creepy, incestuous sister; Bruce Dern, James Russo and Tarantino, himself, have cameos. As does Jonah Hill, in a hilarious proto-KKK scene that could have been lifted from Blazing Saddles. Even the original Django, Franco Nero, has a short scene in a bar. Scores of Black actors/actresses take on what had to be painful, harrowing roles as slaves.

Lincoln will win all the Academy Awards (and Daniel Day Lewis is Oscar-worthy superb in the title role). After all, the Academy is known for not being cutting edge – and Django is as edgy as it gets. The Academy picked the fluff of An American in Paris over great The Best Years of Our Lives; Chariots of Fire over Reds; The Greatest Show on Earth over The Quiet Man; Shakespeare in Love over Saving  Private Ryan; Jackie Brown didn’t even get nominated the year Titanic won and the top Documentary of all time, Fahrenheit 911, which had a box office larger than four of the Academy’s five top movie nominees combined, didn’t even get the Documentary nod after getting Cannes’ Palme D’or and many other awards as top movie!

I recommend all adults, hopefully including Spike Lee, see this film – in the theater. Definitely leave the kids at home.  Just as the Spaghetti Westerns it pays homage to debunked the familiar Hollywood Western myths, this movie yanks America’s head out of that comfortable sand. In its way, it blasts away at the wall of denial around Slavery like (Lone Watie) Chief Dan George’s unforgettable speeches  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZPFP_XazE5U on the injustices suffered by Native Americans in The Outlaw Josey Wales does for that denial.

In the end, the movie is a love story: a retelling of the original Broomhilda myth with Django playing as, Shultz in a takes-one-to-know-one moment notes, a real-life Siegfried who rescues his love; a story of a man’s undying love for his wife.

MICHAEL DONNELLY lives in Salem, OR. He can be reached at pahtoo@aol.com