Django Unchained
“Django Unchained” is thoroughly Quentin Tarantino, The Master of Incongruity. Even the theme music is ironic. As usual, it’s also scatological and violent and occasionally graphic. But this film is also a polemic about slavery in the Deep South prior to the Civil War.
Speaking of the Civil War, there’s an historical inaccuracy right at the beginning, when the scroll says “1858, somewhere in Texas, two years before the Civil War.” Actually, the Civil War began in 1861, and maybe that’s a minor quibble, but that seems like unnecessarily sloppy work. Don’t they have an editor?
Yes, it’s the era of slavery, and we begin with a chain gang: the classic black men in leg irons, shuffling down the dirt road, glowered at by angry old white men on horseback with rifles, just itching for someone to try escaping so they can give free reign to their innate cruelty and practiced sadism and inbred racism. Django (an unkempt Jamie Foxx) is one of the prisoners on the chain gang.
Enter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz, who’s a threat to steal any scene he’s in), a traveling dentist, driving a horse-drawn wagon with a big tooth on top of it, swaying on a spring. He’s overdressed and overcoiffed and overeducated, and speaks as if addressing an academic colleague, even when talking to illiterate ruffians, an inherent lampoon which is itself classic Tarantino. But Schultz’s harmless-quack act is actually a clever decoy, because in reality he is a cold-blooded killer, a bounty hunter, in fact, but also, apparently contradictorily, a strong Abolitionist, besides. He hates slavery, though he’s quite willing to consider convicted criminals as morally inferior, and in need of immediate elimination without negotiation. He wants Django to help him identify some particularly promising “Wanted: Dead or Alive” candidates, who are rumored to have changed their names and re-settled on the plantation where Django lived before he was sold. Django, being presented, suddenly and unexpectedly, with his freedom, his happy to strike a deal with this smooth-talking German immigrant to learn the bounty trade, producing his classic line: “Kill white folks? What’s not to like?”
So after a brief period of instruction and internship and marksmanship (“he’s a natural”) they travel to this plantation owned by Calvin Candie (Leonardo de Caprio), cynically called Candie Land. DeCaprio’s performance as a well-heeled but thoroughly racist Southern patriarch is arresting in itself, as is Samuel Jackson’s performance as Stephen, Candie’s chief house slave (you’ll have to supply the common pejorative term internally). Schultz and Django pretend they’re there because they’re interested in a slave who prizefights, but actually, they’re there to rescue Django’s wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), and yes, the similarity to the German folk epic is also intentional; another form of Tarantino irony.
How many times can they say the “N” word in one movie? And how many acts of brutality and condescension and oppressive hatred can we endure in one sitting? And yet, we do care about our violent anti-hero, Django, finally safely reuniting with his beloved young wife, and their ordeal during the separation only adds to the poignancy of their romantic reunion. But there are a lot of dead bodies littered in the path behind them.
“Django Unchained” features some fantastic secondary performances, in service of an overly long, blatantly polemical project that will hardly make the spirit soar.
Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, Minister, St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church, Irving, Texas