Looking back at Quentin Tarantino’s resume, it is easy to see it as a series of homages to various forms of B movies. Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs are film noir, the Kill Bill films are martial arts and so on. Of course it’s not that simple. Tarantino always adds something of his own, be it a verbal avalanche of pop culture references or a bit of gratuitous violence and gore, cleverly done, of course. There is always a willingness to take it a bit too far.
The truth is that nobody cannibalizes cinema history in quite the same way. In Django Unchained what’s on his plate is clear, and it’s an Italian dinner, namely spaghetti western. Except that Tarantino makes slavery a major part of the story. This fits in with his inspiration. I don’t think Sergio Leone had a clear grasp of American history or geography. Tarantino just doesn’t care.
So Django, played by Jamie Foxx and his wife, Broomhilda, played by Kerry Washington, try to escape from their plantation. They are caught and then sold separately. But the overseers at the plantation are wanted criminals, the Brittle Brothers. Django is freed by Dr. King Schultz, played by Christoph Waltz, a bounty hunter who is looking for the brothers. He needs Django to identify them. The two men form a friendship and partner up. Schultz agrees to help Django find his wife, who is at the plantation of Calvin Candie, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, a particularly despicable slave owner.
That’s a great cast there, especially if you add in Samuel L. Jackson as Stephen, Candie’s aging butler who runs the plantation’s slaves in as cruel a manner as any white bigot could. And while acting is not really the point of this film, some performances stand out. Christoph Waltz gets all the funny lines and yet he shows you his deeply hidden disgust over slavery and you believe it when he acts on it. Samuel Jackson is brilliant as always. Leonardo DiCaprio gives a riveting performance as a decadent son of the southern aristocracy who enjoys pitting his slaves against each other in fights to the death. Yet he’s also not that bright and is open to being manipulated by Stephen.
In the early days of his career, Quentin Tarantino was known as an enfant terrible. Like Orson Welles fifty years earlier, he was making brilliant independent films and not being particularly humble about it. He said what was on his mind and his films, as stylized as they were, told uncomfortable truths.
Now I think the term enfant terrible takes on a new meaning. The basic outline of the plot here is something a child might come up with. Someone hurts you and you kill them. There is very little in the way of mitigation. The only good white man in the movie is Dr. Schultz. Compare this with Spielberg’s Lincoln where the shades of gray surrounding the abolition of slavery are examined in great detail. And yet they were fighting a war to end it. I would point out that the body count in Lincoln is far higher than in Django Unchained.
Sometimes our adult sophistication gets in the way. Slavery was a complex and pervasive issue. And its legacy remains a complex and pervasive influence on our country and culture. But sometimes when you are confronted with ultimate evil, the direct approach is only response.
Sometimes you have to fight back.