REVIEW: “Django Unchained”

Django Unchained

Credit: The Weinstein Company

Synopsis (The Weinstein Company): Set in the South two years before the Civil War, DJANGO UNCHAINED stars Academy Award®-winner Jamie Foxx as Django, a slave whose brutal history with his former owners lands him face-to-face with German-born bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Academy Award®-winner Christoph Waltz).  Schultz is on the trail of the murderous Brittle brothers, and only Django can lead him to his bounty.  The unorthodox …Schultz acquires Django with a promise to free him upon the capture of the Brittles – dead or alive.
Success leads Schultz to free Django, though the two men choose not to go their separate ways.  Instead, Schultz seeks out the South’s most wanted criminals with Django by his side.  Honing vital hunting skills, Django remains focused on one goal: finding and rescuing Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), the wife he lost to the slave trade long ago.     Django and Schultz’s search ultimately leads them to Calvin Candie (Academy Award®-nominee Leonardo DiCaprio), the proprietor of “Candyland,” an infamous plantation.  Exploring the compound under false pretenses, Django and Schultz arouse the suspicion of Stephen (Academy Award®-nominee Samuel L. Jackson), Candie’s trusted house slave.  Their moves are marked, and a treacherous organization closes in on them.  If Django and Schultz are to escape with Broomhilda, they must choose between independence and solidarity, between sacrifice and survival…

My thoughts: WHAT AN AMAZING MOVIE! Now that I’ve got that out of my system, onward to my professional critique:

There have been a few naysayers out there, and there’s been a lot of hype about a white guy directing a movie about slavery and the amount of N-words in the script and whatnot. This site is about race in entertainment, and if there was some amount of racism or other type of racial irritation in the film, I’m sure I would have picked up on it and promptly blasted the film and Tarantino. But, I can honestly say that I don’t think there’s racism meant by this movie. There’s no racism that’s meant to be in this movie. The only racism in this film stem from the villains, chief among them being Leonardo DiCaprio’s Calvin Candie and Samuel L. Jackson’s “Uncle Tom” character Stephen.

There’s a lot to take in about the film, so let’s see if I can break it down as much as possible without spoiling anything. First of all, if you’re expecting a historically-accurate film, forget about it. Tarantino said, in so many words from the get-go, that he’s not making a historically-accurate film. This is like the next part of his “History Rewritten” series of films. He’s writing history the way he wished it went down. The Jewish soldiers killed Hitler in Inglorious Basterds, and Django is killing slaveowners and all who associate with them in Django Unchained. You also have to remember that even though Tarantino is breaking historical rules, a little, he’s still trying to keep it in the realm of reality, so you have to have the N-word in the film. What would it be like to have a slavery film–even one that’s bending the rules–to not have the N-word liberally used in it? It would take you out of the film, and you’d be wondering why Tarantino just forgot about the ugliness of slavery.

The ugliness of slavery is really what Tarantino’s trying to expose; he’s not trying to see how many times he can throw the N-word in, I don’t think. He’s got a story he’s trying to tell about a slave getting his comeuppance–just so happens Tarantino is a white Italian-American director trying to tell the story. Now some people have wondered what would the film be like if there was a black guy directing it? I don’t know, since that’s not what happened, but I will say Tarantino was right not to shy away from being as grotesque as possible when it came to what slaves had to go through.  I’ll also say that perhaps seeing the black experience from a different set of eyes is sometimes needed. If it sounds crazy, keep reading to see what I mean.

As I said in one of my first videos for my new Moniqueblog YouTube channel (to be published soon!) Slavery will always be part of the African-American/African diaspora story. However, if we plan on really sealing the wounds slavery caused, we’ve got to realize that the story of slavery can be told by other people. We have to trust that those people are going to honor our story. In short, we have to finally give away our pain in order for us to look at it without feeling the scars. Holding on the pain doesn’t equal us having power; it just equals us ruminating over wrong-doings. When we as a community finally relinquish those scars, some of us will be able to see Django Unchained as a surprisingly fun and extremely thought-provoking experience.

Django Unchained 2

Credit: The Weinstein Company

Now, as for the film itself–it’s another feather in Tarantino’s filmmaking cap. It’s a great film that has all the elements Tarantino has become famous for–Blaxploitation elements, grindhouse elements, comical gore, great music as a vehicle for further telling the story, great characters (yes, even the racist ones stand out) and just genuine fun. You can tell Tarantino loves the filmmaking process and really revels in bringing his crazy, zany ideas to life. All his movies tend to have an energetic, charismatic quality that is infectious, and that quality is all over this movie. All of the actors genuinely seemed like they loved being in the film and loved telling the story of a slave getting his wife (and his vengeance) back.

Jamie Foxx is fantastic as the film and, as you watch the film, you begin to feel like you’re on the journey with him. His banter with the racists in the film is especially fun to see. Leonardo DiCaprio is especially vicious as the evil Calvin Candie (especially when you see one scene dealing with DiCaprio’s blood). He believes all black people are naturally submissive due to backwards phrenology (as stated in the article I linked to, DiCaprio found a book on phrenology and Tarantino used some of it for his script).

I talk about this part of the film in my upcoming video, but if you have heard things about this scene, just remember this–Calvin believes what he’s been taught. This part is put in the film to further show how backwards and deficient Calvin actually is; the fact that he believes this pseudo-science is supposed to make him look ridiculous. You as an audience member are supposed to recognize that what he’s saying is ludicrous. Django’s confidant and bounty hunter teacher, Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) gets back at the Francophile Calvin by telling him that Alexandre Dumas–an author he loves–is actually black. If a black man is “naturally submissive” and stupid, then how could Alexandre Dumas create such works of art? Granted, there could have been more about the skull in the film, but it’s painfully obvious Tarantino doesn’t actually believe black people have a portion of their brain devoted to submissiveness. Why else would a character like Calvin Candie say it? If Tarantino really believed it, he would have had Schultz–a character we’re supposed to be sympathetic towards–say it.

Calvin Candie

Credit: The Weinstein Company

Speaking of Schultz, he gets some very awesome lines in the film. He’s a character you love to see on screen, and you’re rooting for him, Django and Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) to ride off into the sunset. His interactions with Broomhilda were also cute to see. I’m sure if he was in today’s world (or heck, even in his own time), he’d totally be an interracial dater.

Of course, it goes without saying that Samuel L. Jackson is great in the film. Jackson, a staple in Tarantino films, takes on the most unlikable role in the film, even more unlikable than Calvin Candie (for black people, anyway–we expect the slavemaster to be terrible; we hate when the slave is just as racist as his master). Jackson truly embodied the self-hating black man to a T, and it was great to see what happened to him in the end. In fact, it was great to see what happened to every bad guy in the end.

I also must shout-out to two friends of Moniqueblog via TV Equals and Magic City Post, Sammi Rotibi and one of the most unsung people in Hollywood, Walton Goggins (both really nice guys in real life). They did good work in this film, and it’s awesome that they got to show their talents in a film like this. As Rotibi said in my interview with him, he thoroughly enjoyed his time on set, and Goggins seemed like he did too; in one scene with Foxx, his character was supposed to chuckle, but instead, he seemed genuinely amused with the lines he and Foxx were trading. There were also a lot of crazy cameos, like daughter and father actors Amber and Russ Tamblyn, Jonah Hill and Don Johnson. Of course, Tarantino made an appearance as well; more on that later.

Two things that really stuck out to me in the film were the KKK ambush scene and the Cleopatra Room scene.

At first, I thought the KKK scene was odd, since we don’t normally associate these domestic terrorists with humor. But, as I watched the scene, I thought it was an interesting sidebar. Even though it’s tough to actually think of them this way, the KKK were people too, and the idea that somebody’s wife went through the trouble of cutting eye-holes into pillowcases is a little bit hilarious. Equally hilarious is the idea of her efforts being unappreciated. The scene also makes the KKK look just like what they are–a bunch of uneducated buffoons who have no idea what they are doing, except that in their heart of hearts, they know it’s wrong and don’t want to be caught. Why else do you think they’re wearing masks? If I have any quibble with the scene, it might be that it probably lasts 30 seconds to a minute too long.

The Cleopatra Room scene was especially intriguing. Tarantino did a really clever thing by having this whorehouse be named after an African historical figure. The idea of the Cleopatra Room represents everything that the racist mentality represents–due to close-mindedness, lack of education, etc., some people decide to perverse another race’s culture simply because they don’t understand it. In an effort to keep the slaves suppressed in depression and anger, southern racists decide to spread the wrong version of African culture, tainting figures who were once powerful and turning them into symbols of sex and brutality.

Having the bust of Nefertiti in the building is a huge moment in the film–it’s showing how racists basically used mental warfare to subdue who they thought was the “enemy.” They ended up making Nefertiti’s own descendants forgetting their past by using shame and violent, forceful acts. Calvin Candie asks why the slaves don’t fight back; he knows why–his family’s only goal (and the goal of others like his family) was to keep the African-American buried under self-hatred and loneliness. That kind of mental warfare would work on anybody over a prolonged period of time. You eventually get tired of fighting, and your only mission in life is to survive; your will to remember your culture gets beaten out of you because staying in touch with it could kill you.

What’s also funny is that Django’s mentor has “Dr. King” in his name. Get it? (nudge nudge, wink wink)

Sheba Django Unchained

Sheba (Nichole Galicia), Candie’s favorite “show pony.” Her power comes from being a sexual object, even though her name comes from the ancient biblical Arabian kingdom, as in “Queen of Sheba.” She has been taught to disown her culture in order to survive. Credit: The Weinstein Company 

The music in Django Unchained is amazing. Does it get any better than this for an opening song?

Listen to the soundtrack for yourself here. Tarantino knows how to get a great soundtrack together, and he hasn’t failed with this one. I don’t know how to describe the music aside from saying “Awesome” tons of times, so I’ll say there are some heavy hitters on this soundtrack–Anthony Hamilton, John Legend, Ennio Morricone, Rick Ross and even a mash-up of James Brown and Tupac. Just listen to it and be amazed.

The only real problem with the film is Tarantino’s cameo. Seeing him is way too jarring, even if you know you should expect him–he always makes an appearance in his films. However, it’s not enough that we’ve got to see him; he’s got to have an Australian accent on top of it. We’ve already gotten used to Schultz’s German accent and Django’s wife Broomhilda’s ability to speak German, but we’ve got to contend with a non-Australian doing a wonky Australian accent? Too much, Tarantino. Too much.

Only a few disclaimers, though: If you’re not much for gore either see it at home or go to the theater with someone you can hide behind. Also, the film is almost 3 hours long (165 min). Luckily, it doesn’t really feel like it all that much. You get a little weary in the middle, but the drive to know what happens to Django in the end overrides the tiredness (perhaps I was just tired because I kept bracing myself for the shooting. I’m a scardey-cat). Overall, I think this is a great film and will become an instant classic.

Watch our first episode of  Hot Culture, in which we discuss Django Unchained:

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6 comments for “REVIEW: “Django Unchained”

  1. Mark Trammell
    January 7, 2013 at 3:03 am

    Wonderful review, Monique! I couldn’t have said it better myself and I mean that literally. I think you hit the nail on the head in your observations about the film. (Couldn’t agree more about the QT cameo, and I’m not alone there…) I was worried the extreme violence might turn you off- it basically turns into Scarface towards the end- but I’m glad it didn’t phase you too much to enjoy it. Nice going, and keep up the good work!

  2. Mark Trammell
    January 7, 2013 at 3:04 am

    PS- Russ Tamblyn is Amber Tamblyn’s father. He was a character actor known for Westerns, as well as West Side Story & Twin Peaks. His daughter was in Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants & was Joan of Arcadia. She was the one in the window looking down at the street when Django & co. roll in.

  3. moniquej
    January 7, 2013 at 12:02 pm

    Thanks for catching that! Does Amber have an actor brother? Or am I just making something up?

  4. Mark Trammell
    January 7, 2013 at 5:28 pm

    If she does, I’m not aware of it, but she did just get married to comedian David Cross, of “Arrested Development” fame.

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