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Review: Tarantino's 'Django Unchained' is bold vision of what a black hero can be

Published Dec. 17, 2012

By Eric Deggans

Times TV/Media Critic

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 n-word.

According to the trade magazine Variety, it is 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.

Mostly, such language obliterates the tentative attitude of too many other Westerns, which either refuse to feature black characters or pretend they were treated as equals to white people.

It is the perfect environment for the perfect revenge fantasy, and Tarantino deploys a glorious mash-up of genres in Django Unchained to achieve it. Long known as a film geek who wears his influences on his sleeve, the antic mind behind the kung fu homage Kill Bill and the war movie homage Inglourious Basterds has now created his own genre. Let's call it the blaxploitation spaghetti Western love story.

Ray star Jamie Foxx is Django, a slave freed by bounty hunter King Schultz (Basterds Oscar winner Christoph Waltz) to find a trio of wanted men who brutalized Django and his wife after a failed escape attempt. The two hit on a bargain; the former slave points out the men, the bounty hunter kills them, and Django gets his freedom. But the ex-slave, who must pretend to be Schultz's valet to reach his targets, proves a quick study in the killing-villainous-white-folks-for-profit game.

Before long, Schultz and Django have a new bargain: They'll team up to rescue the ex-slave's German-speaking wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington, moonlighting from ABC's Scandal), at a plantation deep in Mississippi. Thus black and German culture is united to smash American slavery in another delicious, Tarantino-bred irony.

The filmmaker's influences are obvious. He whips the camera around for crucial close-ups — including Leonardo DiCaprio's introduction as villainous plantation owner Calvin Candie — just like Django, the classic 1966 Italian ("spaghetti") Western that inspired this film.

I also wonder if Tarantino found inspiration in an unlikely place: the TV miniseries Roots. Not only has he created a bold depiction of black empowerment, Tarantino may have borrowed a sly casting trick from ABC's miniseries about a black family's journey from Africa to slavery in America. Just as in Roots, Tarantino casts well-known and -liked white actors in the most villainous parts, keeping white audiences engaged. So Dukes of Hazzard star Tom Wopat pops up as a sheriff, Bruce Dern is Django's brutal onetime owner, Miami Vice alum Don Johnson plays a blithely racist plantation owner, and Titanic heartthrob DiCaprio's Candie is 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's laconic, quick-thinking center, overcoming his limited slave education to outwit the few white men he can't outfight. He is 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.

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, QT, for the best Christmas present this fan of racially conscious films and blockbuster action movies could ever imagine.

Eric Deggans can be reached at edeggans@tampabay.com.

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