Django Unchained
First screened in December 2012
Director: Quentin Tarantino. Cast: Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Samuel L. Jackson, Kerry Washington, Don Johnson, Walton Goggins, Laura Cayouette, Ato Essandoh, Sammi Rotibi, Dana Michelle Gourrier, Nichole Galicia, Danièle Watts, James Remar, James Russo, M.C. Gainey, Cooper Huckabee, Doc Duhame, Franco Nero, Dennis Christopher, David Steen, Tom Wopat, Lee Horsley, Don Stroud, Jonah Hill, John Jarratt, Michael Parks, Quentin Tarantino. Screenplay: Quentin Tarantino.
Twitter Capsule: Out of two frying pans (brazen voice, gutsy premise), into two fires (puerile bloodlust, QT's ever-duller images).
This review was written to be read aloud as a student-commissioned talk at Northwestern University in February 2013, and is dedicated with admiration to Amrit Trewn, Paul Jackson, and Benjamin Ratskoff.

Photo © 2012 The Weinstein Company/Columbia Pictures
In the spirit of rampant allusiveness, and in commemoration of fellow avid list-makers in the Tarantino canon, I call this review "13 Ways of Looking at a Bounty Hunter."

1. The Weinstein Company rushed Django Unchained to completion for release on Christmas Day, typically the launching date for ambitious and awards-hungry holiday blockbusters courting ticket-buyers across all demographics. Think Lord of the Rings, Narnia, Dreamgirls, Ali, Avatar, and War Horse, although Sony Pictures made a telling and profitable break from tradition last year, deciding that yuletime was the right time to unleash the sex crimes and Nazi torture chambers of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Two among many ways to read this corporate decision include: that somebody somewhere thinks ballistic crusades against plantation slavery offer good, commodifiable fun for the whole family (and please note Django's action-figure tie-ins, quickly released and then quickly recalled); or that somebody somewhere thinks that a huge swath of Americans and non-Americans, spread across age-ranges and genders and races and regions, are ready and eager to identify with a black protagonist as he whips out two pistols and fires away at the Peculiar Institution and at those people of multiple pigments who helped it endure as long as it did.

2. Django sustains writer-director Quentin Tarantino's career-long obsession with revenge narratives, starting with the ferreting out of an intramural snitch in Reservoir Dogs; the avenging of a thrown boxing match, a foot massage, and a humiliating sodomitic assault in Pulp Fiction; the rising up against a kingpin in Jackie Brown; the fulfillment of bullet-listed, vendetta-born assassinations in the bivalved Kill Bill; and the construction of a movie theater as anti-Nazi death camp in Inglourious Basterds. Django, however, is the first of these films to play its revenge narrative straight from beginning to end: not as a looping knot of timeframes and conflicting agendas but as an implacable march across American terrain, from injury to reparation: plantation comeuppance as Manifest Destiny.

3. In particular, Django continues along the vein of Inglourious Basterds—and draws a lot of leaping blood from that vein. Both movies tap into an affective zeitgeist bound up in world-historical outrage and righteously justified eugenics, placing weapons in the hands of victims. This trope does not unfold identically, however, between the two cases. Basterds constructs two plotlines of retribution, both aimed against Hitler's army. In one, the sole survivor of an executed Jewish family burns the Nazis down inside her blazing temple of cinema. In the other, a passel of blood-hungry American soldiers, few of them Jewish, attempt a related plan, but various members either die along the way or prove violently gratuitous, once Shoshanna's mission overtakes their own. Django also sports two avengers, Christoph Waltz's bounty-hunting German and Jamie Foxx's titular apprentice, but they work together throughout. Though the gun violence and sprays of blood are even more literally explosive in Django than in Basterds, there is less in the way of a collateral critique of such violence, asking whether the agents of violence are fulfilling an ethical mission or if they are instead appropriating someone else's suffering as their convenient vehicle for bloodlust. This, of course, is a question we could pose to Tarantino.

4. Django comes in three parts. In the first, Waltz's character—known alternately as King Schultz and as Dr. Schultz, but rarely by the third, teasing possibility, Dr. King—retrieves Foxx's Django from a traveling slave coffle and enlists him as both bloodhound and bounty hunter, tracking villains across the South whoom they both have reasons to annihilate. Foxx says little, but unlike the Eastwood Men With No Name whom Django clearly invokes, it reads differently when the quiet character is joined to such a chatty one, and when that verbal wizard is a white man, keeping a black man in tow as his quietly righteous sidekick. By creating Django in his own image, you could say that King Schultz is creating his own Frankenstein monster. Recall that Shelley's Frankenstein is subtitled Prometheus Unbound.

5. The most direct antecedent for Django Unchained is the 1966 Spaghetti Western-cum-exploitation film Django, a massive worldwide hit made for pennies. In that film, an unidentified drifter known only as Django, played by Italian actor Franco Nero, shows up in a poncho and modified cowboy hat, dragging a coffin around the swampy hinterlands of the Tex Mex border. He saves a white woman played by an Italian actress from multiple gangs of Mexican bandits, all played by Latin actors. The Django myth has never not been about race, but its racial politics and points of address have always been complicated.

6. Similarly, Quentin Tarantino has never not been about race. He has in fact been voracious in arrogating to himself various strains of ethnicized "cool": hooking up early with Mexican accomplice Robert Rodriguez to make Latin-cast and border-crossing midnight movies like From Dusk Till Dawn; sponsoring Wong Kar-wai's first commercial releases in the U.S.; regularly cannibalizing Asian icons, martial arts traditions, and samurai canons for his own purposes, especially in Kill Bill; and regularly employing black actors like Ving Rhames, Pam Grier, Jamie Foxx, and longstanding muse Samuel L. Jackson in stories of black charisma, black criminality, remixed black idioms, and controversially appropriated black epithets. All of this he has rendered as pop art, with plastic framings and color palettes not unlike the bold yellows, blues, and reds in these anonymous Brooklyn billboards, though every mouth in a Tarantino movie speaks unmistakably in Tarantino's own tongue, and he cannot help casting himself in cameos, even when—as in Django—he nods to audience frustration with his gadfly persona by violently blowing himself up. Thus, the last thing you could call a QT movie is "anonymous." Black, white, brown, yellow, or red, every actor in a Tarantino film is at some level a ventriloquist's doll.

7. Django Unchained has been nominated for five Academy Awards. The one I find most deserving is that for Sound Editing, since Tarantino's sonic textures are rich even when his visual ones feel too slick or too spare. His brio in bringing John Legend, Johnny Cash, Jim Croce, Verdi, Morricone, and RZA to the antebellum South is a marvel of audio bricolage. The nomination I find most flummoxing is the one for Cinematography. Once again, Hollywood has built a movie at least partially around black characters and lit its images for white complexions. Among other photographic weaknesses in the film, entire scenes go by where Waltz's or DiCaprio's face can be studied in every pore, and Jamie Foxx's face is barely legible, either over- or under-lit by comparison to his white castmates.

8. Django comes in three parts. In the second, Django and King arrive at a plantation called CandieLand, where they expect to kill the proprietor and rescue Django's mythologically named, preternaturally gorgeous, and viciously assaulted wife Broomhilda von Schaft—played by Kerry Washington, an impressively multilingual and politically active actress, currently enmeshed in Scandals in multiple media. Once at CandieLand, even Schultz is reduced to near silence for long passages, and Django persists in his own uneasy quiet, while quasi-incestuous patriarch Calvin Candie holds forth in long monologues, and the venal black overseer Stephen (close to Stepin) privately breaks down for Calvin what's really going on behind his back and under his nose. The power structures among white and black characters are thus a bit more complicated at CandieLand than they first appear, but only just, and they are essentially binaristic. CandieLand, then, is not just a place where black bodies exist under white as well as black thumbs. It is also a site where the sprawling multinational syncretism of this movie's American south—fertile with African, German, English, Mediterranean, and even Australian souls—gets poisonously reduced to a black-white dyad.

9. A note on black bodies: though critical race scholars like Saidiya Hartman have argued for years now that depictions of whipping, beating, burning, and other bodily traumas may perpetuate that violence as much as they expose it, Django hears not this call. Washington is lashed, dragged, mauled, taken hostage, possibly raped, and asphyxiated in a hot box beneath a Southern sun. Foxx, with his own choke-tree of scars on his back, is eventually hanged, naked and upside down, for the demented viewing pleasure of a violent white rube. Robert Richardson's camera is strangely complicit here, as in one high-angle shot with the camera positioned directly over Foxx's exposed genitals; Tarantino's framings capture whipper and whipped in the same shot, so that we understand Washington's beatings as a closely simulated event, not a trompe l'oeil achieved through editing. Other black actors lay their bodies on the line, being torn at by dogs and recruited into bloody, Mandingo-style wrestling brawls, rendered with stomach-turning verisimilitude. I do not imagine a single person in Django found their roles easy to inhabit, to include the white actors. I also wonder, however, about the remarkable degrees to which Quentin's crew has asked his African-American performers not just to stage corporal trauma but to sustain it within and upon their own bodies, and I wonder about Quentin's right to look and his reasons for looking, as well as our own.

10. As Stephen, the turncoat and overseer, Samuel L. Jackson plays the closest thing in Django to a Luís Congo, and Jamie Foxx its Juan San Malo, figures hauntingly reprised for us in Brenda Marie Osbey's poem "The Business of Pursuit." Congo was a free black man in the early 18th-century U.S., granted land, marriage, and autonomy in exchange for working as the public, machete-wielding executioner of runaway slaves and other blacks in New Orleans' public square. Juan San Malo was the leader of a nearly-successful slave revolt in late 18th-century Louisiana. Osbey imagines that the final thoughts of this violent self-liberator—amidst his captivity and on the eve of his own beheading—may have turned toward his red-handed Faustian forbear, imagining how easily he himself might have been enticed into such venal treachery. Under Tarantino's hand, and in multiplexes limned with cola ads and spilled Raisinets, the comparable figures of Stephen and Django confront each other even more directly. Ask yourself what it means to occupy this imaginative standoff in the space of Brenda Osbey's poetry and embodied performance, versus what it means to occupy it within an AMC or Cinemark multiplex. Do not assume the answer is easy, for you or for me. Savor the rare experience of seeing two unrelated black characters negotiate an exceedingly dangerous and complex relation to each other on an American movie screen, which feels like an important advance. Ask yourself, too, about the particular narrative framework in which that inflammatory bond has been staged, which feels like a costly step backward in at least a few senses.

11. The earlier, Spaghetti-style Django conquered box-offices around the world from 1966 to 1967, years in which American moviegoers' primary conduit for thinking about race was the Sidney Poitier trifecta of To Sir with Love, in which he teaches white working-class youths in the U.K., dancing a climactic Watusi with them at their prom; Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, in which he and a white fiancée half his age implore her liberal parents for the permission to marry; and In the Heat of the Night, in which Poitier's Philadelphia lawman, stranded overnight in rural Mississippi, solves a race-, class-, and gender-inflected murder that none of the local white cops come close to figuring out. Scholar Andrea Levine has written about how even the latter, richer movies are not really "about" Poitier but about the white father in Dinner and the white sheriff in Heat, two male authority figures simultaneously impressed by Poitier's smarts and sangfroid and peevishly agitated at their own sense of diminishment in the face of this dark-skinned paragon. She notes how these movies appeared as Civil Rights discourse shifted from a primary chorus of nonviolent integrationism to spikier refrains of black nationalism and self-determination "by any means necessary." Ask yourself what has changed in Django, in which Foxx is the nominal hero but Waltz's Dr. King, the charmer-mentor-annihilator, gets all the best lines, often the only lines, and also reaped the only Oscar nomination among the cast. His death is the only one in the movie that anyone really mourns. Again, do not presume that the answer to this question is easy, or politically straightforward. Treat it as a puzzle.

12. Django comes in three parts, the last of which has drawn the ire of many reviewers and filmgoers, tacking extra footage onto an already-two-hour affair, but it is the one I find most interesting. Django winds up re-imprisoned, but also re-released, by his own ingenious hand. Fellow black prisoners, bound for the salt mines, know not what to make of him. He returns to CandieLand, freeing the servants, drawing his weapons, sending plantation mistresses flying through the air, exploding the aortas of wrongdoers, and inaugurating one great ball of fire. There is no one—asterisk—with whom he shares center stage, replete as that stage becomes with ghosts he creates through his own gunblasts. Only Foxx, by the way, out of everyone involved in Django, has publicly asked whether the violence in this movie, and the violence in all movies, goes too far. In any event, I wonder about the strong consensus even among the movie's fans that the hour of Django where the hero is most self-determined is the one that "ought" to have been excised. I wonder what I think, and what other people think.

13. Last but not least—except, apparently, to Tarantino—we note Broomhilda, the rescued damsel of antebellum distress, who ends the movie shooting not a gun but a gaze, directly to the audience, plugging her ears with her fingers as Django burns the joint down. (The "D" in joint is silent.) By contrast, we can keep our ears open as wide as we want, and we'll barely hear Broomhilda. The whole plot hinges, for over an hour before we meet her, on Broomhilda's ability to speak German, and her consequent ability to help her unchained husband and his Teutonic comrade to avenge Calvin Candie and all he stands for. When we finally meet this polyglot sorceress, she falls silent and faints. Not for her the dexterity of Schultz, the agency of Django (however qualified and ballistically discomfiting), the moxie of a Mia Wallace or a Jackie Brown or all the gals who take names in Tarantino's Kill Bill and Death Proof. Django Unchained is inflammatory enough about race, about history, about genre, and about the politics of storytelling. But let's not treat gender as a footnote, shall we? And let's not omit that not every arm has been empowered in this highly provoking movie, and not every tongue unchained. Grade: C


Academy Award Nominations and Winners:
Best Picture
Best Supporting Actor: Christoph Waltz
Best Original Screenplay: Quentin Tarantino
Best Cinematography: Robert Richardson
Best Sound Effects Editing: Wylie Stateman

Golden Globe Nominations and Winners:
Best Picture (Drama)
Best Director: Quentin Tarantino
Best Supporting Actor: Leonardo DiCaprio
Best Supporting Actor: Christoph Waltz
Best Screenplay: Quentin Tarantino

Other Awards:
National Board of Review: Best Supporting Actor (DiCaprio)

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