Struggling after the fact to put my conflicting feelings about Django Unchained and Quentin Tarantino into words, I came up with this: Tarantino never makes films in the genres he admires. Rather, he borrows the trappings of genre to talk about subjects he finds important. With Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino used the trappings of a war film to tell a story about the language of cinema as it relates to national identity*. Django Unchained dresses up like a Western, but its meaning should, well, be obvious.
It’s not only possible to get a good education in America – best high schools and colleges – without knowing just how bad slavery was, it’s pretty damned likely. This isn’t to say that we never covered slavery in civics class, or that our teachers overlooked Black History Month. But the narrative that most folks would agree to is that slavery was this awful thing that happened long ago, but the Civil War fixed it, and then racism just kept happening for some reason, but then Martin Luther King fixed that, and that’s why we get the day off. We don’t really get how bad slavery was, not in the gut. Six hundred thousand people kidnapped from Africa. Four million slaves in America at the dawn of the Civil War. Iron shackles on bare calves, knotted whips on bare flesh, starving in wooden pens that reek of shit. An evil on par with the Holocaust, an industry that was so ingrained in the infrastructure of this country that the regions that profited the most off it – like Mississippi, the setting of most of the film – are miserable pits today.
Tarantino’s tendency toward excess, which I’ve always had a hard time with, serves him well here. We’ve all seen after-school specials and 19th-century woodcuts on the evils of slavery, but nothing makes you recoil like seeing Kerry Washington getting whipped by a sweating, ugly slaver while her husband not only pleads with the overseer to let her go, but pleads with her in the language of his oppressors: how master wouldn’t want a good house nigger marked up. After a few displays like that, including one pivotal scene I won’t spoil, you’ll cheer when Jamie Foxx, as Django, pulls his pistols. The shootout scenes are equally indulgent – they literally wallow in blood – but are well deserved.
Sylvia and I parted ways on Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance. I bought into the caricature he was going for: the plantation owner with the Satanic profile, right down to the devilish goatee and dinner jacket; the spoiled brat grown up, still looking like a boy as DiCaprio always will, living in a paradise called Candieland and talking about how well he knows black folks. But DiCaprio’s never been a subtle actor, and if you can’t take that you won’t quite like him. I don’t know that I’m qualified to comment on the whole spiderweb of controversy surrounding Samuel L. Jackson’s character, save that it felt legit to me. Sylvia also pointed out that Kerry Washington’s character didn’t have much to do beyond the “damsel in distress” role, which is sadly true.
Tarantino’s drive to load a film with every cool bit he can think of hurts the overall narrative, as it always does. While every distinct scene is entertaining or moving, the whole is less than the sum of its parts. There were scenes I laughed out loud at that I would still suggest cutting. At two hours and fifteen minutes, the movie could have been a masterpiece. As it is, the length doesn’t take away from the gripping power of the most visceral scenes, but it does take away from the overall composition. See it once on the big screen to see what it does to your gut; after that, you probably don’t need to see it again.
* Also, as with Basterds, the ostensive subject of the film, as depicted in the trailer, is discarded in the first 30 minutes. Oh, the Brittle brothers, yup, that’s them over there. I wonder if trailer editors have a hard time turning Tarantino’s bloated films into enticing packages, or if Tarantino perhaps salts enough narrative in there to give the marketing team something to play with.