Published on May 15th, 2013 | by Clint Davis
Django Unchained 
Summary: Tarantino's exploitation-inspired western is full of strong performances bringing memorable characters to life. The film's racist language becomes an unneeded distraction though.
R | 165 min.
Director: Quentin Tarantino | Screenplay: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio
Studio: A Band Apart | Distribution: The Weinstein Company (USA), Columbia Pictures (Intl.)
After watching Django Unchained, I texted my friend John–who happens to be black–to ask what he thought of the film’s language (translation: ‘constant use of the N-bomb’), to which John said, “Dude, it’s Tarantino. He could make a nature doc and find a way to throw that word in a few times.” After laughing my ass off, I realized he’s got a point–but how did Quentin Tarantino become the only white guy in America that can not only get away with tossing that word around in his work, but can win an Oscar for it?
Honestly, it’s probably because he hangs with Samuel L. Jackson, and if Jules Winnfield is okay with it, who are we to argue?
The director’s latest is a western epic that is pure Tarantino. Vivid characters are speaking in a hip, original way as a winding plot of vengeance plays out onscreen. Django Unchained is as difficult to categorize as it is to rate, because there are about 15 subgenres at work and plenty to pick apart.
Our plot takes place in 1858, following a former slave named Django (Jamie Foxx) and the bounty hunter/retired dentist who freed him, Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz in another Oscar winning turn). As the pair travel the south picking off bad guys for cash, Django’s only desire is to be reunited with his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington)–whom he finds out has been purchased by the most infamous slaver in the south, Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). Django and Schultz attempt to ruse Candie into selling Broomhilda to them on the cheap, but his loyal house slave Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson) gets in the way.
The actors mentioned above are each fantastic in their respective roles, with casting director Victoria Thomas deserving a ton of kudos. Jamie Foxx has to be the only actor ballsy enough to play a slave with more swagger than ten Miami Hurricanes football teams–and make you believe it. Waltz got a ton of love for his performance, and deservedly so. I give Tarantino credit for allowing Waltz to turn a complete 180 from his villainous Oscar-winning turn in 2009’s Inglourious Basterds. Rather than cast him as the heavy again, here he’s allowed to show off his sense of humor (if you missed him on SNL earlier this year, it was worth it alone for “Djesus Uncrossed”) in a totally likable mentor role.
The showstopper of Django Unchained though, was Leonardo DiCaprio in my mind. Everyone loves a villain, but how about a villain that embodies every despicable aspect of racism combined with a knack for flying off the handle and a creepy relationship with his “beautiful sister(!!!)”? If you had told me when little Leo was melting pre-teen hearts in Titanic that he would go on to play a terrifying hammer-wielding slaver, I would have laughed in your face. Come to think of it, if you had told me 15-years ago that Tarantino would go on to make a World War II picture followed by an 1800’s-period western I would have had the same reaction…
No matter how different the setting may be though, at its core Django Unchained deals with the same themes the director has been tackling since Jackie Brown. In that film, he focused on a hard-working, independent black woman that wouldn’t be victimized by bad men–in the fantastic Kill Bill twins, it was similar but a white woman bent on vengeance against a gang of killers–and in Inglourious Basterds a group of diverse vigilantes took on the world’s oppressors, the Nazis. This film is also about rising above by any means necessary, typically with a pair of high-caliber pistols.
As much I enjoyed this film’s stellar acting and gorgeous cinematography, I couldn’t help but be turned off by the constant stream of unpleasant racial slurs. Of course I understand this is a film about slavery, but Inglourious Basterds was about antisemitism and it didn’t constantly bludgeon the audience with hateful language. The incorporation of “Mandingo Fighting” into the screenplay was also an uncomfortable addition–especially considering the fact that history scholars have no record of such a grisly practice ever existing. My other major criticism of Django Unchained regards the over-the-top soundtrack, which took me out of some of the film’s action sequences. That said, I absolutely loved the inclusion of Rocky Roberts & Luis Bacalov’s theme song from 1966’s Django over the opening titles.
Quentin Tarantino is arguably the most important filmmaker of the last twenty years and Django Unchained shows he still creates the most original universes in Hollywood. If you’re a fan of his, you’ll certainly enjoy this one but I wouldn’t expect him to be up for any NAACP Image awards anytime soon.