Quentin Tarantino and I have had a tense relationship in the last few years. I hated Death Proof with all the fury of an orphan railing against his birth parents when he ends up in a workhouse. It was the first real sign that the man who played no small part in my deciding to pursue filmmaking in all its aspects had abandoned what had made him so special to me in my slightly younger years. The man who gave me Pulp Fiction had, it seems, turned his back on me. Then came Inglourious Basterds and I gave up hoping that he'd ever make a film that rewarded the patient viewer again. After seeing Django Unchained, the most anticipated American film of the year after The Master, I took to Facebook (you know, like all academics and self-respecting critics do) and said that I loved the film, though not without reservations. Specifically I said "Tarantino needs to get out of his own way and the racial politics are dubious at best." I left out that I think that it's his best film since Jackie Brown, which I do. Brettney Young, good friend and Tarantino acolyte, had a few things of her own to say on the subject. We didn't cover everything that I'd like to discuss about this film, but we do tackle the biggest moral quandaries the film presents.
NOTE: We spoil the ever-loving bejesus out of this movie. So DO NOT READ ON UNLESS YOU'VE SEEN THE MOVIE!
I think Django is, in and of itself, one big "comment about racism" and standing alone it presents the viewer with so many different questions about not only the racial politics within the movie, but those that exist in the real modern world as well. I think, however, that Tarantino isn't really interested in those questions, he's more interested in telling the story. But is it his job to be interested in those questions, and to comment on them if he's going to present this sort of movie? Normally, I would say yes, that it's definitely his job if he aims to tackle such subject matter. But in the case of this particular work it seems like the focus has shifted more towards the side of honoring the genre(s) he seeks to emulate. It's a big task to pay homage to these genres, to present such an extraordinary legend and call into question/comment on the racial dynamics that exist both within the sphere of the movie and in society.
After a second viewing, my opinion on the film as a film and its failings changed slightly because I pitched my expectations lower. Quentin's movies, whatever else is true, have a fantastic sense of discovery about them. The unveiling of one of his movies for the first time is always a thrilling (if lately enervating) experience because one is aware that he is as particular an auteur at work today as any. And though I'm one of his harshest critics, I admit to being completely under the spell of his camera whenever a new movie opens. When he's showing you something you pay attention because no one else will ever make a movie like this again. Sometimes that's a good thing.
So with the newness gone and my realization that he was essentially making a cheap-shit 70s western (albeit one with 80 Million Dollars behind it) a la Sergio Corbucci, Giulio Questi or any number of gone-to-seed, golden age Hollywood directors, a few things became easier to stomach. In fact, compared to the films it takes inspirations, specifically about the treatment of blacks in America's past (Mandingo, Mandinga, Boss Nigger, The Legend of Nigger Charley, Goodbye, Uncle Tom) it represents the absolute apex of quality. But that's sort of damning it with faint praise, isn't it? Because next to Boss Nigger and Legend of Nigger Charley, it feels regressive. And for my money The Spook Who Sat By The Door is still the Kill-Whitey movie to beat. But I digress. Django is playing by a different set of rules. Sam Jackson and Leonardo DiCaprio are frothing at the mouth, sure, but only because you wouldn't have expected any less from James Mason, Fred Williamson or Oliver Reed in the same roles. Once I realized where he'd set himself, quality wise, it became harder to complain about the Jim Croce song in the middle of the film or the logic-breaking gags he throws in. That shit would have shown up in a 70s western, so here it is. It's external, rather than internal continuity and it takes getting used to. Once you do you realize that Quentin is not making the great American film, he's making the sorta great Italian film about America. I can deal with that. That said, the presence of the modern country songs in the last act of the film were distracting and did not belong here.
So while I've had my craft issues assuaged, the thorn that remains in my side is that this is a movie made by a white man about a Slave Revenge fantasy whose greatest concept of evil is a complicit black man. That bugs me more than scrolling title cards as act breaks. DiCaprio's slave driver may be the movie's straw villain but when the chips are down the guy that Django wants to kill most of all is the Uncle Tom. I don't think Tarantino has the right or the chops to make that point and furthermore even the lowest Italian genre romp never went there (as Foxx says "Mr. that's pretty fuckin' low"). And there's a reason: who the fuck thinks their audience wants that as a payoff? Not that the movie needed to be longer, but a few more scenes that expressly made Sam Jackson's character the bane of the slaves on the plantation's existence would have gone a little toward explaining this last minute antagonist shift. As it is, he's very underwritten. I could fill in the logic holes myself (I've done that a lot this year), but for Quentin to be so concerned with the details of Phrenology but not give a credible motivation or explanation as to why, how and how long Jackson's been running the plantation, which would have excused the movie's attitude toward him seems to me a pretty big fucking oversight. Spike Lee and I have had our differences but I'm with him on this one. Quentin doesn't really have the right as the maker of Death Proof, to say that a black slave driver is worse than a white one. He's a millionaire who, by his own admission, wrote this by his pool. He's stated in interviews that he wanted this to be a movie about slaves getting revenge. Fine, there's the whipping scene that serves as a Roots corrective, but that's not enough, especially in light of who the real villain turns out to be. I don't think anyone who touches slavery has to make Amistad or The Color Purple but don't pretend you're making this movie for black america because you're asking an audience to cheer as a black man kills another black man. That's the film's big catharsis moment and it bugs the shit out of me. As does his repeatedly embarrassing his black characters (snow shoes, nude torture, every female character who isn't Kerry Washington is Butterfly Mcqueen, Foxx in his Lord Fauntleroy outfit. Yes I've heard your F.W. Murnau theory, it's still embarrassing and Quentin plays it that way).
And one other thing, it's slight but a matter of balance - at the plantation, Django doesn't speak for most of the evening, leaving it entirely to Schultz and Candie. Then suddenly we're robbed of their voices for the rest of the film and back with Django, who'd I'd all but forgotten about. Which is a shame because this is easily my favourite Jamie Foxx performance.
But I will say that it would take a lot less editing to get a truly great movie out of this than it would to save Inglourious, which I kind of think is beyond help. And I say this after something like a dozen viewings and having really wanted to like it. I was promised a movie about eight Jewish soldiers who kill Nazis. Boy wouldn't that have been something!
The soundtrack definitely just sort of fell apart during the second half of the movie. I was not impressed.
And as far as Jackson's character being underwritten, I'm not sure I agree there. I think his character is pretty despicable from even his first scene, where he clearly and distinctly places himself apart from the rest of the slaves on the plantation. That's the whole idea behind an Uncle Tom character - their complacence with the oppression of slavery, and willingness to play into all of it, is what makes them the bane of the slaves' existence. I'm not sure there are any logic holes per se but I agree his character could have used a little more depth other than simply being the same Uncle Tom we've seen a million times. And as far as the declaration he put forth - black slave drivers being worse than white ones - I mean... It's a similar idea, that the black slave driver is participating in the oppression of his own race, but it certainly does rub me the wrong way - now that you say it - for a man like Quentin Tarantino to be passing that judgement. For a number of reasons, a big one being that it completely demonizes the black man for doing the same thing a white man could do with the white man coming out looking better.
And while the balance problem is totally valid, I guess that I excused it because in Candieland, while Foxx's character does have a good deal of power, he is still not white. It's already a stretch that he is in the house, sitting at the table, being served with the family, why should he also have the right to speak? And while it has been established that his voice is one that is certainly heard by Candie, it is most definitely not welcome beyond the whole "southern hospitality" obligations. And it did feel like Django's character and story were lost during those few scenes, but I'm also not sure how it could have been preserved in such a setting.
I should probably watch it again.
And I should probably watch Inglourious Basterds again. But I have to say I really loved Inglourious. And it was definitely the movie he needed to make before he made Django. In Django I see him bringing back a lot of tools he tried to use in Inglourious that maybe fell short, but in this film they've tightened up and worked out better.
And yeah, Tarantino needs to get out of his own way. Those few scenes between the big gunfight and then the ultimate blowing up of the Big House were just really rushed and mostly fluff. There was no reason for them, other than to, I guess, further the idea one last time that Jackson's character was just evil and horrible and for Tarantino to write in a dumb character for himself. I guess also it creates a nice parallel to the beginning of the movie, showing what Django has learned about the power of persuasion and charm and having him give freedom to the three men as Schultz did in the opening scene. But I'm not convinced the scenes were necessary. And if they were, there should have been more thought and time given to them. But who wants to see more naked upside down Jamie Foxx when you're 2 hours and 29 minutes into a movie that you're sure will end any second? I swear there were like 5 false endings in the span of 15 minutes. But I guess I should have known.
Brettney, I see your point about Foxx during dinner. The only solution I can come up with, and I think you and I both see it in the last two acts of the movie, was simply for less to happen. Cut down the conversation, cut down the unnecessarily flowery language by about half and I agree, cut out the Australians (as welcome as John Jarratt is in any film). Frankly, the thing I find myself most mad about is that we don't get to know any other black characters beyond Foxx and Jackson. The other slaves in this film are troublingly one-note. They put up with slavery, they mask their feelings, they gaze admiringly or disgustedly. They don't do much else. Inexcusable, especially in a film that gives Russ and Amber Tamblyn name credits for non-speaking parts and spends ten minutes yukking it up with Don Johnson as he says "Nigger" as many times as he can in a single take. A scene of Foxx having to answer to the other slaves he pretends to be superior to would have been properly tense. A scene of Jackson having to answer to them would have been a great closer as opposed to the powerless shooting we got. Foxx killing him feels perfunctory and belies how little force the gesture means that Tarantino can't make it feel like much more than a symbolic victory than something you feel in your gut. And how much of a match is an unarmed Jackson against the 'fastest gun in the South'? I wanted it to mean more when he throws his cane aside, proving his tremor is just a character tick he puts on for the uninitiated. That's what I felt was missing from Jackson's character - the hows and whys of him being the real head of the house (the Dick Cheney of the plantation, as Jackson himself has called him). Some nuance would have been appreciated, because he feels like a cutout, even with the shading he has in the current incarnation.
Oh and I thought about this - nitpicking, but still. The Rick Ross song should have been withheld, not because it's a bad song choice, but because it scores something we've already seen - the carriages rolling along the road to the plantation and brings emphasis the scene doesn't need. Silence would have suited the scene immediately after watching a slave be ripped apart by dogs far better. The song is a stylistic gesture that distracts from the horror; it blows the tone of the scene. And I wanted the later appearance of the Tupac song to have more weight to it. If by then we'd never heard any hip-hop, it would have had more impact for Django's big, show-stopping moment of "revenge" to come with a complete dynamic shift - and I give Tarantino this: that song works perfectly in that shootout. If he wanted to, he could have used the Rick Ross in place of the John Legend, the Johnny Cash or that truly terrible Brother Dege song. Though frankly the tracker massacre should have happened with no music, let alone that awful, awful Keith Urban-sounding country thing. And it should have been another proper gunfight instead of a turkey shoot - it would have picked up the momentum again and made the last twenty minutes feel necessary.
I agree that the other black characters in the movie were just pitiful at best but I guess that's sort of the point though, isn't it? Tarantino isn't trying to enlighten us with some powerful movie about overcoming oppression an slavery. He's giving us Django, who is the exception to every rule. The "1 in 10,000". He is our exceptional hero. And the shut out of all other slave character development is, I guess, the only way Tarantino saw fit to make that distinction. I don't agree with it but I can see what he's doing. And I also agree that the movie was seriously asking for a scene between Foxx an any I the slaves at Candieland. Particularly the Mandingos. I was also desperately hoping for some big amazing speech from Jackson after he threw down his cane. I think that alone would have given him at least the idea of a fighting chance against Django.
As far as Rick Ross, totally agreed. It was unnecessary. All of the hip-hop in the movie, in fact, just felt really... I mean it wasn't offensive, that's not the right word, but it really rubbed me the wrong way. Particularly the Ross, because it occurs right after Foxx tells one of the slaves to stop giving him dirty looks, then tells all the mandingos to stop looking at him, period. Then comes the hip-hop song as Foxx, on his horse, finds his place in front of the line of slaves on foot. I know that Tarantino was definitely not trying to make a statement about the rap industry and its treatment of black people and black culture, so it just really bugged me. Whether or not that's valid I don't know; It just felt like a poor choice.
All around, though, I have to say the movie was certainly spectacular if nothing else. It was beautiful to look at, it was new and interesting material, and it was a pretty brave look at slavery in America - if not terribly thoughtful. I love Quentin Tarantino with all my heart and soul, but I'd love him more if he just wasn't Quentin Tarantino.