When I initially heard that Quentin Tarantino was making a pre-Civil War western centered around slavery, I cringed, thinking back on some of his gory films such as Kill Bill and Grindhouse. I felt that such a horrific genocidal event as slavery should not be exploited as an excuse to revel in mayhem and violence. However, I had seen Inglourious Basterds and felt that his approach to the Holocaust was measured and respectful, while still creative in imagining what if Hitler had been assassinated, by Jews, during the war. I adopted a wait and see approach. As the cast was announced, I grew more interested – Jaime Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Samuel L. Jackson, Leonardo Di Caprio, Don Johnson and Kerry Washington. Then there was mention of rape scenes and I grew apprehensive again.
Last month, Kerry Washington, knee deep into an amazing year with the success of her hit TV show, Scandal, began doing press to promote Django. She discussed her decision to take the role of a slave – that the story of Broomhilda, a German-speaking slave, was quite unique. Broomhilda was basically a damsel in distress, as opposed to the strong black woman. I too couldn’t recall any mainstream movies featuring a black woman who needed rescuing; every film that came to mind either contained a white woman or a black child. Now I was really curious. I re-watched Inglourious Basterds a few days later and decided to see the film.
I crept into the theater at the last minute, once the lights were already down. The opening credits rolled as a group of male slaves, in chains, trodded across a rocky landscape, the bare backs of many displaying the heinous scars of whippings. I clenched my jaw and dabbed at my eyes. This was going to be tough.
Two hours and thirty minutes later, as the closing credits began, I was disappointed. Disappointed that the movie was over. It was truly an amazing experience and one of the best films of the year.
I tend to gravitate to media that are exposes on society. For example, I consider the Wire to be the greatest TV series of all time, because over the course of five seasons, in painstaking detail, the show laid bare everything so wrong in American society, from the all-too obvious drug and gang warfare destroying urban landscapes, to the increasing levels of social class (working class whites and wealthy politicians) that make such carnage possible, either through greed, ineptitude or indifference.
What Quentin Tarantino does in Django is thoroughly dismantle every crevice of White (and Black) society that perpetuated slavery before the civil war. From junk science that indicated blacks were genetically inferior, to intellectually and economically inferior whites who needed someone to feel better than, to the blacks who had somewhat close relationships with their masters and enjoyed tormenting other slaves (not necessary along mulatto/non-mulatto lines), to wealthy whites who desperately wished to imitate European nobility. And he doesn’t shun the horrors of slavery either in an effort to make the movie “more comfortable” to watch. Disturbing practices such as death by castration or animal mauling, neck restraints, branding, “hot boxes,” slave sex trafficking and mandingo fighting are all noted in the movie.
While all of this greatly adds to a very compelling story, the “what” that is being said in this movie isn’t as important as “how” Tarantino chooses to deliver the story. He’s taken flack for it being a spaghetti western, where some have felt that such a light genre is inappropriate homage to slave ancestors. However, from a filmmaking perspective, this helps to keep the movie’s very dark places from stalling the story line. You need the audience to stay engaged and not get so angry at what’s happening that they have to leave the theater. The lighter moments keep the story on pace by injecting humor appropriately.
The use of a love story (as opposed to a flat out revenge driven plot) helps people feel invested in Django, who some of the audience may not connect to. He’s a “scary looking” slave, who’s been wronged (just by nature of being a slave) and understandably, has a lot of anger. However, Django being so in love with his wife, that he is willing to venture back into the deep South (where it is NOT safe for a freedman) to rescue her, adds a softness and vulnerability to his character. Jaime Foxx uses a somewhat soft voice in the role which clues you in on the fact that it’s his mind, not physical intimidation, which is going to help him get his wife back.
Christoph Waltz’s character, a German doctor, was a wonderful contraption. It provided balance to the evil Southern whites displayed in the film, but without coming off as a “white savior.” He did not help Django’s character due to some moral superiority but because he genuinely saw in him a partner and found Django’s German connection (via Broomhilda – there’s a great reference to an old German myth) too fascinating and coincidental to pass up. The role of Dr. Shultz also allowed the audience the vantage of seeing slavery and black inferiority as outsiders or non-Americans likely saw it, utter bullshit that the South put on and took off as it pleased, in pursuit of what America values above all else – capitalism.
Finally, Tarantino has received flack for being a white director making a film set in slavery. While it’s true that white privilege likely allowed him to make such a film (I don’t think a black director could make this movie without people suspecting he or she was trying to start a race war), I believe his background actually helped in terms of the some of the nuance of white culture in the film. There were some indications about virility vs impotence that I couldn’t really follow but seemed to be lurking underneath the central plot of the story.
Overall, I enjoyed the film and believe Tarantino approached the story he wanted to tell amidst the backdrop of slavery respectfully and without resorting to tired clichés for his main characters. The writing, acting and directing was superb, and I look forward to seeing Django recognized by the Academy.