Django Unchained (2012)

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For me, Quentin Tarantino is one of those film makers who is hamstrung by his own inability to curb his excesses. There are some great aspects to Django Unchained and it would be a better movie if some of its conceits and indulgences were left on the cutting room floor. Some of the monologues could be a lot shorter. The continuous barrage of guest appearenace from cult actors (Lee Horsley, Russ Tamblyn, Tom Savini and Tom Wopat to name but a few) that Tarantino venerates, does get a little old after a while. Every now and then as the film progresses and starts to achieve something of note, it is frequently countered by act of cinematic smugness, where the director decides to just indulge his own fancies. Yet despite these points there is still much to enjoy.

Performances are very good and the story has a greater depth than many would expect. Slavery is shown not only to be a repellent practise but also to be integral to the culture and society of the time. It’s not something that everyone wants to hear, even today. However, Django Unchained is not in anyway to be considered a serious study into the subject matter and it does not pretend to do so. This is an action thriller, with nods to the Spaghetti western and blaxploitation genres. However it would seem that some parties do not think this a fitting subject to be explored in such a fashion. Race relations in the US is still a very emotive issue and may not be as progressive as it is in other countries. Does the movie set out to be inflammatory? No, I think not but some people are simply not comfortable with a man with Tarantino’s and his contemporary cinematic style going anywhere near this issue.

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Hollywood has never had a particularly strong track record of reflecting history accurately and therefore should it not be held to count for “failing to be educational”. If you want to know the specifics of this the period of American history then you should seek out more appropriate mediums. Then there is the current acute angst over the use of the word “Nigger”. It is of course a pejorative term and endowed with a great deal of cultural baggage but does that mean that it cannot be referenced. Yet few have the courage to make such a stand, resulting in concerned parties awkwardly dancing around the use of the “N Word”, which only compounds the potential to offend even further. With regard to  Django Unchained, the term is used over one hundred and ten times (allegedly according to the Huffington Post) during its two and a half hour running time. As a comparison Mel Brook’s 1974 spoof western Blazing Saddles uses it seventeen times in ninety three minutes. Is the term used in the movie too freely? I think not. Have we any reason to think it wasn’t a term used in common parlance at the times?

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Then of course there is the old bête noire of cinematic violence. Django Unchained does contain a lot, from gun fights, Mandingo fights to someone being eaten alive by dogs. Yet it is presented within the context of a revenge fantasy and depicted in such stylised fashion that it is often verging on the satire ( Think Monty Python’s version of Salad Day’s as directed by Sam Pekinpah). Yet irrespective of all the points of criticism that Django Unchained lends itself to, it still produces some moments of dramatic power. Perhaps the most powerful of these is Samuel L. Jackson portrayal of the Stephen, the senior house slave of Calvin Candie. Tarantino shows that in every oppressive regime or practise, there are frequently facilitators who come from the oppressed minority and that they in some respects are equally the worst offenders and the most pitiable.

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I can’t see Django Unchained being successful in its Oscar aspirations. The academy doesn’t strike me as having the stomach to court controversy. By the time the movie get’s released on Blu-ray then the current brouhaha will have more than likely have dissipated. That’s not to say that racial politics in American cinema will have reached a state of harmony but that some new outrage will have more than likely have raised its ugly head (I’m curious to see if native American’s decry the casting of Johnny Depp in The Lone Ranger). Politics and sociology aside, Django Unchained is a solid piece of film making overall. It is certainly the director’s best movie since Jackie Brown. However, it is time for Quentin Tarantino to start showing some introspection and tempering his exuberance. It is the only way for him to realise his full potential.

 

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