An homage to cheesy film genres like blaxploitaition movies and spaghetti westerns, the deliberately tacky style of Django Unchained allows writer-director Quentin Tarantino to pose a lot of provocative questions about slavery and violence in America. It also allows him to poke fun at the absurdity and stupidity of racism. Brutal fun turns out to be a lot more biting and enduring than pious self-righteousness. This is the one film about slavery and racism that gets it right, if perhaps not historically, in the realm of movies: They are mercilessly exposed and ridiculed, as it should be.
The grand paradox of this movie—jokey film genres used to treat a very serious, even inflammatory subject matter—is even more finely realized than in Tarantino’s similar Inglorious Basterds, which dealt with the Nazis. B-movie tropes allow Tarantino to leave no stone unturned: the ubiquitous viciousness of the n-word, mandingo fights, slaves torn apart by dogs, eugenics, the white man’s fear of the black man’s sexuality, prostitution of female slaves; only Thomas Jefferson and his slaves are missing. Perhaps that would have been too much.
Through over the top comedy and cartoonish violence, Tarantino gets away with what generations of mostly white American filmmakers have not been able to without restoring to wishful thinking fantasies about the decency of white people and the oversimplification of black people into saints. For a change, given their unfathomable humiliation, the black characters in this movie react to gross injustice with different degrees of pride, complicity, victimization and brutality. This is a movie that shows human nature at its worst. In this respect, Django Unchained is a bracing antidote to the ennobling optimism of Spielberg’s Lincoln, or any other Hollywood movie about the topic, for that matter. It’s a revenge fantasy ultimately accomplished by the black hero himself, not by the good intentions of white people.
The movie begins in a relatively pastoral mood as German bountyhunter Dr. King Schultz (the impish Christoph Waltz) liberates Django (Jamie Foxx), not out of a sense of moral duty, but so that the slave can help him hunt down some mean people. Schultz is more urbane, well spoken, and sophisticated than any American hick that crosses his path, yet he prefers to kill his bounties. The only person with vague moral qualms in the entire movie, Dr. Schultz is a foreigner, for a change.
Tarantino may have written the German bountyhunter theme in order to give the deliciously insouciant Waltz something to do. Still, the historical echoes of this startling choice are significant. By 1938, the civilized German of 1853 would have become an über-racist. History, Tarantino seems to say, repeats itself, and racism is an incurable human disease, which can be fought, at least in movies, with extreme humor and vengeful violence.
And here’s another paradox. The violence is so over the top that it both shocks and reassures. In fact, there are two kinds of violence in this movie: the cartoonish gunfire extravaganzas in which blood shoots out of bodies like geysers, and the violence of slavery, which is shown, more realistically, in all its degrading inhumanity. Tarantino shows that the dehumanization, emasculation, humiliation and subjugation of black slaves was systematical and complete. In the American South, it had idiosyncratic features all its own. Tarantino amply mocks the much touted Southern hospitality; refined manners meant to mask the vilest human ignorance and depravity. Slavery in the South also included the complicity and cohabitation that white slave owners fostered in order to weaken their slaves and turn them against each other.
Since all the white American characters are despicable, even the long-suffering Leonardo DiCaprio has a chance to have fun. He plays a horrid plantation owner with relish. Don Johnson is hilarious, and a dead ringer for Colonel Sanders, as another plantation owner and organizer of the budding Ku Klux Klan, in Tarantino’s mischievous rendering, nothing but a bunch of losers wearing clumsy bags over their heads through which they can’t see anything. As it is in real life.
Whereas Jamie Foxx’s subdued Django does not really come alive until his paroxysm of revenge in the final act, and Kerry Washington is left with nothing to do as his wife, Samuel L. Jackson, goes all out as Stephen, a very bad negro. A colluder in slavery, beloved by his owner for his amusing lip, Jackson goes to town bringing out every black stereotype in the book, topped with a generous sprinkling of acquiescent, yet arrogant self hatred. It is a ballsy piece of acting that deserves a best supporting actor Oscar nomination. Stephen’s character raises questions not only about history, but about how black people have been represented in American popular culture. How much do black entertainers collude with white people’s idea of who they are? How much of the black persona (the mammy, the Uncle Tom, the minstrels, the "Help”) has been created by the white imagination; how much abetted by black entertainers themselves? Sam Jackson’s hilarious performance is both a prickly homage and an evisceration of the way black people have been historically portrayed by Hollywood.
If I have a qualm, is that the movie, like Inglorious Basterds before it, is too long. Still, Django Unchained is funnier, sharper, a much richer film, aided by a fabulous soundtrack and great cinematography by Robert Richardson. I’ve always felt that Tarantino’s insistence on celebrating mediocre B movies was a tiresome affectation. This time he has put his encyclopedic adoration of trashy movies to excellent use.