Django Unchained: Nevermind the n-words, Quentin Tarantino has created a new black superhero
Before we go any further, let’s get one thing straight: Quentin Tarantino’s latest masterpiece, Django Unchained, has an astounding amount of lines featuring the word “nigger.” According to the trade magazine Variety, it’s used 109 times.
And while that makes Tarantino’s tribute to his beloved spaghetti westerns one of his most provocative and politically incorrect films ever, it doesn’t make it racist, or even racially insensitive to this African American critic’s ears.
I have no idea whether such usage is historically accurate, as some critics have implied. But such baldfaced profanity does obliterate the tentative, halting attitude other filmmakers display in depicting how black people were treated in the Old West – either refusing to feature black characters at all or pretending they were treated as equals to white people.
In Tarantino’s world, that means extended conversations where white characters sling around the n-word like extras in an N.W. A. video, poking at the sensibilities of modern audiences. Meanwhile, black characters must stand by, powerless to resist those who insist their degradation is the natural order of things.
It is the perfect environment for the perfect revenge fantasy, and Tarantino turns Django Unchained into a glorious mishmash of genres to achieve that feat. Long known as a film geek who wears his influences on his sleeve, the antic mind behind the ‘70s homage Pulp Fiction, the chop socky kung fu film homage Kill Bill and the war movie homage Inglourious Basterds has created his own genre while paying tribute to so many others in Django Unchained.
Let’s call it the blaxploitation spaghetti western love story.
The plot is quirky yet simple: Jamie Foxx is Django, a slave freed by bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Basterds’ Oscar winner Christoph Waltz) to help him find a trio of men with a price on their head who brutalized Django and his wife after a failed escape attempt.
Django is the only one who knows what these men look like, so the two hit on a bargain; the former slave points out the men, the bounty hunter kills them, and Django gets his freedom, plus a little coin. But the ex-slave, who must pretend to be Schultz’s valet to enter the plantation where the men are working, proves to be a quick study in the killing-villainous-white-folks-for-profit game.
Before long, Schultz and Django have a new bargain: Teaming up to rescue the ex-slave’s German-speaking wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington, moonlighting from ABC’s Scandal) from the clutches of a new plantation deep in the heart of the worst slave state, Mississippi. Thusly, black and German culture is united to smash American slavery in another delicious, Tarantino-bred irony.
The filmmaker’s influences are woven into the movie’s fabric. He whips the camera around for crucial close-ups – Leonardo DiCaprio’s introduction as the villain, plantation owner Calvin Candie is a prime example – just like Sergio Leone’s classic Italian “spaghetti” westerns (though Django Unchained is more directly inspired by Franco Nero’s 1966 film Django.)
And the often-operatic, graphically slow motion violence plays like one of John Woo’s classic action films, as blood splashes across walls and wounded men scream in visceral agony.
I also wonder whether Tarantino found inspiration in another unlikely place: The TV miniseries Roots.
Not only has he created a bold depiction of black empowerment against all obstacles – not even betrayal and scorn from his own people keeps Django down for long – Tarantino seems to have borrowed a sly casting trick from ABC’s historic miniseries about the journey of author Alex Haley’s family from Africa through slavery in America.
Just as in Roots, Tarantino casts well-known and liked white actors in some of the film’s most villainous parts, keeping white audiences engaged. That means Dukes of Hazzard star Tom Wopat shows up as a sheriff, Bruce Dern appears as Django’s brutal onetime owner, Miami Vice alum Don Johnson is a blithely racist plantation owner and Titanic heartthrob DiCaprio plays Candie as the oily, entitled organizer of to-the-death fights among slaves, known here as “Mandingo fights.”
(Kudos, too, to Samuel L. Jackson’s crafty turn as Stephen, Candie’s head slave and feisty confidant.)
But Foxx’s Django is the movie laconic, quick-thinking center; a talented gun hand who overcomes his limited slave education, outwits the few white men he can’t outfight and emerges as 2012’s first black movie superhero at a time when most big-budget action films relegate people of color to cool sidekick or tough boss archetypes.
Foxx even rode his own horse in the action sequences. How cool is that?
Some will blanch at such extensive use of the n-word by a white filmmaker; others will question the avalanche of bloody violence amid a cascade of real-life mass shootings. And they will all have a point.
But Tarantino has pushed those buttons to create something unique: A bold vision of what a black hero can be in a period piece developed with a modern film geek’s eyes.
Thanks, Q.T., for the best Christmas present this fan of racially conscious films and blockbuster action movies could ever imagine.
The movie opens Christmas Day. My grade: A-.