“Kill white people and get paid for it? What’s not to like?”
Revenge stories can be gratifying to watch, but director Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction, Inglourious Basterds) frequently makes them even more so. Taking a page from his 2009 historical revenge tale, Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino turns his eyes to a dark time in American history: slavery in the American South. Starring Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, and Leonardo DiCaprio, this story pulls no punches in its portrayal of how brutal and dehumanizing slavery was, and its portrayal of an escaped slave taking righteous revenge on vicious slavers fits well with the stylized violence and witty dialogue Tarantino is known for. The raw brutality, though necessary to tell this story of slavery, can be hard to watch, but the pay-off at the end is completely worth it.
The story opens with King Schultz, a German immigrant, tracking down Django, an escaped slave who has been caught and is on his way to be sold again. King is an abolitionist, but needs Django’s help in tracking down and killing his former masters, who are wanted criminals with a bounty on their heads. He purchases Django and promises him his freedom in exchange for this help. Django enthusiastically agrees, and does such a good job that King offers Django a partnership in his bounty hunting practice. Django’s real mission, though, is to track down and rescue his wife, Broomhilda, who originally escaped with him, but was (intentionally) sold separately. When their wallets are full and the weather is clear enough to travel back Mississippi, King joins Django in searching for Broomhilda. But Broomhilda has been sold to a particularly vicious slave owner, Calvin Candie, and rescuing her will be more difficult than either of them imagined.
Gentlemen, you had my curiosity; now you have my attention.
Django Unchained is a hard movie to classify. Stylistically, it’s similar to a Western, with cowboy hats, shootouts, a long quest for revenge and redemption, and even a score by Ennio Morricone, but there are some significant differences. This is set firmly in the old South rather than the old West, and plantations manned by slaves are where they spend most of their time. These aren’t your typical all-American cowboys; the two leads are a German immigrant and a freed slave—not something you see in other Westerns. Black characters are shown in a very sympathetic light, and Tarantino uses some elements from modern black American culture to celebrate this. How many other Westerns feature hip hop songs in the soundtrack and do it well? This is a classic historical film viewed through a modern lens, but it has all the style and charm of some of the greatest Westerns of all time.
Speaking of history, the film received some criticism for historical inaccuracies. Part of the plot focuses on something called mandingo fighting—fights to the death between slaves, set up by slave owners. There’s no evidence of this ever actually occurring, and the concept is pulled mainly from a movie about this called Mandingo. But the accuracy isn’t the point. Tarantino wanted to tell a great story and showcase the brutality of slavery, and in that regard, he did an amazing job. Stephen Marchie of Esquire said that Django Unchained is “one of the most overt attempts made to deal with the physical reality of slavery.” And some of the details of the film are more accurate than they may seem. Many progressive Europeans left Europe and moved to America in this timeframe, so the abolitionist King Schultz and his relationship with Django are actually quite plausible. Despite a few minor historical inaccuracies, this film captures the cruel essence of slavery better than any other film I’ve seen, and that’s exactly what it set out to do.
There are some depictions of cruelty that are legitimately hard to watch, but they’re necessary to show how awful slavery truly was, and they make the conclusion of the revenge tale that much better. The crazy thing is that Tarantino actually pulled back on the violence and brutality, reasoning that this is such an important story to tell that he didn’t want excessive violence turning some people away. But make no mistake—these are the vilest characters to ever appear in a Tarantino film, and that’s saying something. Tarantino himself said that Calvin Candie is the only character he’s created that he truly despises. Leonardo DiCaprio was also appalled with his character and had trouble delivering some of the extremely racist lines. Tarantino urged him not to hold back and to be as menacing as possible. Co-star Samuel L. Jackson also pulled him aside and told him, “Motherfucker, this is just another Tuesday for us.” The result is a truly horrible character as the villain, and that’s exactly what this film needed—you will love to hate him.
Django Unchained is a lot of things—unorthodox Western, revenge tale, brutally real portrayal of slavery, love story, adventure tale, and more—but it is, above all, entertaining. Following in the footsteps of Inglourious Basterds, which showed a group of Jewish soldiers taking revenge on German Nazis during World War II, this is another act of historical revenge. It’s every bit as gratifying to watch as its predecessor, but it goes deeper with its characters and their relationships to create something truly amazing. This is definitely not one for the kids, or the squeamish. But for those who can deal with some (largely historically accurate) violence and brutality, the pay-off in the end is totally worth it—this is a very entertaining ride.
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Genres: drama, historical, western