django unchained cast

Dir. Quentin Tarantino
(2012, R, 165 minutes)

The controversy surrounding Django Unchained was not encouraging. Reactionary backlash can be misleading – no, Zero Dark Thirty is not an endorsement of torture – but when Quentin Tarantino, a frequently brilliant auteur who sometimes is also an indulgent cinema-geek who makes more movie references than movies, intends to make free use of the N-word to tell a story about slavery designed after old spaghetti westerns, we have good reason to be concerned. Has this white director, who has a tendency to wink through the camera, earned the right to wink about the historical sale and ownership of black people?

That is a high hurdle to clear, so it’s especially impressive that he clears it. This is a complex, unsettling, but ultimately empowering film that takes a broad approach to slavery – heroic gunslingers fighting to rescue innocent damsels from snarling villains – but it doesn’t co-opt slaves’ experiences to make a spaghetti western homage so much as it co-opts spaghetti westerns to flip the script on slavery. Much as he did with the Holocaust in Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino uses the language of popular cinema to turn an atrocity into a revisionist revenge fantasy that provides a catharsis not found in history.

Consider a scene involving a gang of white men in hoods (they resemble the Ku Klux Klan, though that group was not formed until years after this film is set). The abhorrent hatred and violence of this gang is undercut by Tarantino, who chooses to emphasize their ridiculousness, creating a funny extended scene in which they argue about poor visibility through their eye-holes. Before the raid even begins, their attempt to terrorize is rendered impotent.

Long scenes like those are the film’s best, and at nearly three hours there’s plenty of time for them. Tarantino is a great artist of dialogue, especially when he paces scenes slowly enough to build tension under the words, finding an almost musical rhythm in the patterns of his characters’ speech. Consider Christoph Waltz‘s interrogation of a farmer in the opening scene of Inglourious, or Uma Thurman and Vivica Fox planning a showdown at the start of Kill Bill: Volume 1, or Pam Grier turning the tables on a homicidal Samuel L. Jackson in Jackie Brown.

There are a number of similarly memorable moments in Django, including Leonardo DiCaprio as ruthless plantation owner Calvin Candie explaining the subservience of blacks, and Waltz as dentist-turned-bounty hunter King Schultz negotiating the purchase of the title character in the opening scene. The characters come fully alive at those moments, to the point that the film’s only slow moments are the ones of mass carnage, where Tarantino indulges cowboy shoot-em-up fantasies.

In addition to spaghetti westerns, Tarantino borrows from mythology. Jamie Foxx stars as Django, whose wife (Kerry Washington) was given the name Broomhilda by her German masters. Schultz explains the legend of Broomhilda, who was guarded by a dragon and trapped behind hellfire but was rescued by Siegfried. My own familiarity with this legend, and spaghetti westerns for that matter, only goes as far as this film, but the director combines his elements in a way that elevates the material beyond mere pastiche. He takes something old and makes it new.