Director: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kerry Washington, Samuel L. Jackson
Django Unchained is the movie that made me fall in love with movies. For me, it transcended what cinema could do. At the time of its release, I had gone through phases of loving things like slasher films and comic-book blockbusters, but this was something completely new. I’d already seen Kill Bill (and loved it) but that film had more value in exploitation than that of the social relevance of Django. This film inspired me to learn everything about it, which involved going down the rabbit hole of Tarantino’s influence, which eventually motivated me to know as much as possible about cinema. There’s no film like Django Unchained, and the feeling of seeing it for the first time is one that has not been replicated, only vaguely emulated.
A film about slavery in the guise of a western, Django Unchained is set in the antebellum South in 1858, just before all this “slavery malarkey” is over and done with. Upon a chance meeting with Christoph Waltz’s wonderfully eccentric and mysterious dentist-turned-bounty hunter King Schultz, a slave known as Django (Jamie Foxx) garners his freedom and embarks on a quest to save the love of his life, who was lost in the slave trade. In doing so, the doctor and the freeman meet with DiCaprio’s volatile Calvin Candie, a man who pits muscular slaves against one another to fight to the death. And upon uncovering this illegal trade within Candie’s plantation, they not only find Broomhilda, Django’s lost love, but they also encounter the Uncle Tom slave, played by Samuel L. Jackson in the single most despicable role I’ve ever seen him in.
The synopsis in the preceding paragraph contains no spoilers, but it does trim a great deal of baggage of the film’s 165-minute runtime. In the events leading up to the meeting of Calvin Candie, there’s bounties, blood, and a great deal of humor. I’ve always maintained that some of the best humor comes from moments of ironic comedy in the most serious of environments. Breaking Bad is one example, Django Unchained is another. There’s a scene that involves a pre-Civil War Ku Klux Klan-like group, which is one of the funniest sequences I’ve ever seen in any film. In his more modern films, legendary director Quentin Tarantino sprinkles in jokes that are satirical to the time and genres they are parodying, jokes that are never pretentious or exclusive to those who don’t get his obscure cinematic references.
Then there’s the performances, and the more serious parts of the script. Christoph Waltz earned and was awarded an Academy Award for his role as Dr. King Schultz, who spends every moment onscreen as charismatic as he is bloodthirsty for the next bounty. He strokes the intrigue of every individual he confronts, and has more of a clear moral compass than that of the typical western bounty hunter. DiCaprio’s Calvin Candie is the other kind of charming; he carries a menacing presence as he is introduced by jovially sentencing a slave to his death. Despite this, he is less terrifying the more you learn about the person underneath, an insecure and uncertain pseudo-intellectual, whose hate only signifies himself as someone who will be forgotten or dismissed by history. Samuel L. Jackson’s Stephen is, as stated, one of film’s most pathetic characters. He worships the ground that Calvin walks on, and doesn’t mind indulging in his nonsense to maintain his status as the head house slave. Jamie Foxx’s Django shows some of the strongest character growth in a Tarantino film. He is like most slaves when we first meet him; subdued, timid. But through his escapades with Dr. King Schultz and his natural ability to fire a gun, we see him transform into a smooth and confident western hero tradition, something that the African-American community had been deprived of up until this point.
Being quintessential Tarantino, the film is riddled with references and nuances to other films. The namesake of Django is a tribute to the original Django from 1966, complete with a cameo from Franco Nero himself. The name Broomhilda von Shaft is a subtle implication that Django and Broomhilda are the distant relatives of the blaxploitation hero Shaft. Mandingo fighting was never real, but there certainly was a film called Mandingo. I could go on, but you get the idea.
For its bloodshed and its use of a certain infamous word, this film has received a certain backlash from certain audience members, including Tarantino’s contemporary Spike Lee. I think those who fixate on these matters are simply missing the point. There’s so much substance in every frame of Django Unchained, and so much to read into, I can’t help but pity those who write this film off due to small details like violence and cuss words, and I feel those individuals are depriving themselves of one of the few cinematic experiences that are truly worthy of applause.