It seems 2012 is the year for Hollywood slavery movies. Quentin Tarantino’s foray into the Western movie genre with Django Unchained is the polar opposite of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, both movies about the American slavery era. While Lincoln is about the political scene that led to the abolishing of slavery, Django goes loose in a totally different manner.
Django (Jamie Foxx) is a black slave who gets rescued and freed by German-born bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) who is on the hunt for the murderous Brittle brothers and only Django can help him find them. Django’s goal, however, isn’t to kill as many wanted white men as possible. It is to find and rescue his wife Broomhilda (played excellently by Scandal’s Kerry Washington) who is enslaved in a plantation called “Candieland” owned by a francophile who speaks no French called Calvin Candie (Leonardo Dicaprio) with his self-hating black butler named Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson).
Stylistically, Django Unchained is daring. The movie’s frames, shots, camera movements are unusual. The amount of gore and blood are also quite proficient. All of this is to be expected from a Tarantino movie who, as usual, delivers a riveting piece of cinema that will keep you hooked for over 160 minutes.
Tarantino, who appears in the movie in a cameo scene towards the end, wrote this movie as well. While the story isn’t very new and the overall ambiance is fairly typical for the Western genre, it’s the execution that makes up for it here. You can’t help but marvel at the technical execution of many of the movie’s scenes. Django Unchained is very bold in more than one way, notably as it showcases in subtle shades of drama mixed with comedy the horrors of slavery and racism.
The movie’s acting highlight is Leonardo DiCaprio who gives a tour de force performance of his character. In a way, while the movie goes off to a good start, it doesn’t find its footing until DiCaprio’s character comes into the picture to help make things much more interesting. Both Christoph Waltz and Jamie Foxx are great in their respective characters, excelling in scenes that find the two working together towards their goal, the latter with his comedic tendencies and the former with his sharp ability to navigate between cruelty and compassion in a heartbeat. Samuel L. Jackson makes his best at making his character downright unlikeable. You will hate that butler-slave. In a way, the Django-Shchultz duo is the polar opposite of Candie-Stephen.
Despite being un-needingly violent at times and despite being overly drawn-out towards the end as the movie tries to reach its conclusion, Django Unchained is at the end of the day Tarantino’s take on an era of American history that few Americans want to remember. Django’s charm isn’t that it’s fast-paced, keeping you hooked all the time. It’s all in its characters. Dr. Schultz isn’t mystified by Django’s humanity. He sees it clearly and is taken by it. He clearly knows that slavery is bad, not for political reasons but for humanitarian purposes, which is where Django and Lincoln veer off thematically. Django isn’t resigned to his fate – he is resilient, always fighting, always aspiring for more, always opposing the likes of Candie and Stephen who want to bring people like him down.
And it is here that Django Unchained excels: in seeing all those different personalities interact on screen. Towards the end, you forget that the movie has had about five thousand bullets fired and a growing casualty north of three hundred deaths (I did not count). The only thing that remains fixed is that these people whose lives you’re seeing unfold (or end) in front of you are highly interesting, to a backdrop of a very eclectic musical soundtrack and the vision of a director who makes the aforementioned historical era entirely his own.