Django Unchained - review

Tarantino's new film does a disservice to the oppressed.

Django Unchained (18)
Dir: Quentin Tarantino

Quentin Tarantino’s last film, the wartime wish-fulfilment fantasy Inglourious Basterds, ended with the hero examining the swastika he had carved into a Nazi colonel’s forehead and declaring, “I think this might just be my masterpiece.” It’s too soon to know whether that will prove true of Inglourious Basterds (Tarantino’s soulful Jackie Brown still has the edge for me) but the case looks stronger in the light of his latest picture. Django Unchained feeds the subject of African-American slavery through the same parallel-universe hypothesis processor that the previous movie used on the Second World War.

Where the earlier film followed a band of Jewish-American Nazi-scalpers, the heroes of Django Unchained – the white German bounty hunter Dr Schultz (Christoph Waltz) and his sidekick, former slave Django (Jamie Foxx) – shoot their way through plantation owners and racists in the American South in the late 1850s. Those killed with a dainty silver pistol die from a tiny chest wound that despatches a trickle of blood. Anyone dying in a shoot-out can expect their heads and torsos to explode in tomatoey splashes. The aftermath of the Tomatina festival would resemble a minor Rioja stain by comparison.

Tarantino has made no secret of his adoration for scuzzy B-movies with Kill Bill or Death Proof. Django Unchained is a different bucket of gore altogether, marrying this lowbrow art form with a subject matter that appears to merit a less sensationalist sensibility. But the problem isn’t the tension between the sober subject and the titillating style, with its authentically amateurish crash-zooms (when the lens lurches inelegantly towards its subject). After all, Fassbinder already travelled the same route in reverse: his 1971 western, Whity, applied a classical shooting style to a lurid melodrama about the exploitation of a black servant. Tarantino’s downfall is his compulsive over-scaling. For a B-movie nut, he has often failed to grasp that the B should stand not only for “bloody” and “brazen” but also “brevity.” In Django Unchained, he stretches pulp material to indulgent length (nearly three hours) without a corresponding upgrade in depth or characterisation.

Script and dialogue have been Tarantino’s strong suits but there are few scenes that don’t outstay their natural life. A skit featuring racists complaining about the eyeholes in their prototype-Klan masks will amuse only those who haven’t seen the bathos of evil explored more cleverly by David Mitchell and Robert Webb (as Nazis realising they may be the “baddies”) or Eddie Izzard (who imagined Darth Vader in the Death Star canteen ordering penne al arabiatta).

As the garrulous Schultz, Christoph Waltz essentially plays a benevolent version of his wily-tongued Nazi from Inglourious Basterds. Schultz has a respect for procedural correctness as well as violence: when he reaches into his jacket, you never know if he will produce a gun or a warrant. He smacks his lips over language, yet doesn’t seem to know that people are “hanged” rather than “hung”, or that the expression “no worries” hasn’t been coined yet. Jamie Foxx has less to work with as Django, even once he begins searching for his enslaved wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). He gets jazzy comic notes to play, savouring his freedom by wearing a dandyish royal-blue suit as he rides through a cotton plantation, but the film grinds him down: he’s a righteous bore. Tarantino has said he wrote the character to give black American males an empowering Western hero. It’s an honourable intention, though it’s also an obscure kind of slight to have made him so glumly virtuous.

Anyone is more interesting than Django. There’s Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), the effete owner of the “Candyland” plantation who gets his kicks watching slaves fighting to the death. And Calvin’s house slave Stephen, played by Samuel L Jackson in oldage make-up and a frosting of white hair. The film is at its most electrifying when it touches on the disruption caused by slavery to racial solidarity; Stephen, a slave who colludes in the oppression of other African-Americans, is the personification of this warped state. (The name recalls Stevens, the butler from Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, who looked the other way or offered a helping hand when confronted with fascism.)

Many of Tarantino’s usual strengths work in the film’s favour, such as his unrivalled ear for music (the soundtrack includes rap, country and old Ennio Morricone cuts). But he is less skilful than usual at mastering jarring switches in tone. Funny violence and grave violence in the same film risk cancelling one another out, so that it all becomes numbing; the humorous brutality doesn’t seem such a riot, and the sense of outrage drains from scenes that should be shocking. Any gains the film makes by drawing on the vocabulary of exploitation cinema are soon outweighed by its losses in gravitas. Portraying the perpetrators of slavery as merely monstrous, and their victims as holy, does a disservice to the oppressed, who deserve at least to have their suffering understood.

Jamie Foxx and Kerry Washington in Quentin Tarantino's "Django Unchained"

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 21 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The A-Z of Israel

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When do you step in when a stranger is in distress?

Methodically, he lined up four cans of beer, spirit miniatures and a glass of wine, and got to work on them. In a very British way, I pretended to ignore it.

A little while ago I was on a commuter train during rush hour – on my way to a show somewhere in the Home Counties – when a man got on and sat next to me. In appearance he was just like the sort of businessman you’d expect on these trains: a middlingly expensive suit; short, neat hair; an iPad on which he was surely planning to open a spreadsheet, close it again, and catch up on Game of Thrones instead.

But when the drinks trolley came round it became obvious that all was not well. My new companion – whom I’d barely glanced at – ordered enough booze to kill an elephant. Methodically, he lined up four cans of beer, a couple of spirit miniatures and one of those depressing glasses of wine with a foil lid that you have to peel back. He began drinking them, one at a time, with absolute joylessness. He was clearly trying to usher himself into something as close to oblivion as possible. Plenty of people have felt like this on the outskirts of Stevenage before. Yet I couldn’t help worrying – and all the more so when I noticed he was red-eyed and seemingly on the point of tears.

Everybody else was studiously, Britishly ignoring his behaviour, but I’m a citizen of the world and so I took the more moral approach: pretending to ignore it while sneakily checking out the texts he was sending. They painted a bleak picture. He’d split up with his girlfriend. I don’t like to come across as some sort of voyeur, but her name was Becky, she lived in Guildford, and she had broken his heart. The tone of his texts was somewhat apocalyptic.

I was faced with a classic human dilemma: how much should we poke our nose into each other’s lives? I responded with a classic human decision: to do nothing until he stumbled off the train at Knebworth, and then exchange wry glances with everyone around.

A few months later I glanced at a newspaper and saw that recently a man had jumped on to train tracks, killing himself, very close to where we’d been. My heart froze for what felt like a few seconds. I made myself look at the picture.

It wasn’t the same man. It was a mere coincidence. It felt like a happy ending, in fact, until I reminded myself that it was still a very sad one.

How would I have felt, though, if it had been the same man? Appallingly guilty, I think. Even though I probably had no chance of changing the way things were for him, it would have felt as if I’d shirked my duty to another human being. Yet if I see another distressed commuter on today’s train (to Sheffield) will I make the effort to overcome personal diffidence and social taboos, and utter the question: “Are you all right?” I want to believe that I will. But a part of me suspects I’ll do the same as last time: observe from afar, let the situation take care of itself and hope that one day there might be a column in it.

Mark Watson is a stand-up comedian and novelist. His most recent book, Crap at the Environment, follows his own efforts to halve his carbon footprint over one year.

This article first appeared in the 19 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Huckster