(* If you haven't seen Django Unchained yet there are some spoilers ahead. You've been WARNED. *)
I never had thought that a song by Jim Croce, "I Got A Name" in this instance, paired with Waltz and Foxx on screen would be one of my absolute favorite moments in 2012 but it sure was. It's a great song, there is no doubt, but to have it set against Waltz's masterful turn as Dr. King Schultz now giving humanity to a man, Django, that up until that point had been just a piece of property. My God. That entire scene did something to me that I did not expect from Tarantino's blaxploitation/spaghetti western/anti-slavery amalgamation of a movie. It moved me deeply.
The entire vignette where Schultz gives him choice, for the first time in Django's existence on this Earth, to pick what he wanted to wear and to allow him to saddle up and ride? BRILLIANT scene that really hammered home what QT was able to do with this film.
Is it extremely violent? You bet your ass. Is it over the top and downright disturbing at times? Totally. Can it, however, trascend the ultraviolence into something that becomes true art and provides us with an important film?
Hands down this was my favorite movie of 2012. There are those films that are clear Oscar bait and they have their merits, no doubt, but nothing has shook me as much as QT's latest opus has.
Controversy has surrounded the release of the film as Tarantino's usage of one particular word (You know what it is) unleashed a backlash against him and his fine film. The subject matter, slavery, is one of those sacred cows that frankly is so tough to address or tackle on film in a way that's "real" and feels legitimate that it can be tough for any director, black or white, to even think of putting it down as QT has done. But, thank God, Quentin is crazy as shit. He didn't give a good god damn what others would think and he gave us an uncompromising vision of what the institution of slavery did to America and how it should have been destroyed. Yes this is a revenge tale as QT is wont to do but it is so much more than that at the same time.
Spike Lee sent out a tweet that, well, only put more fuel on the fire:
Spike Lee is definitely entitled to his opinion nor am I one to opine about the state of affairs that African-Americans face in the United States. I'm a white dude. Pure and simple. I haven't had to deal with the shit that Spike Lee has had to face in his lifetime. He is, however, a talented auteur that has, in the past, produced moments of clarity and fatalist humor on the screen in movies that were made with a black audience in mind.
That's what I find so fascinating about the response to it all. I know Jaime Foxx (Django himself) fired a shot back at Mr. Lee recently in an interview stating that, essentially, don't judge without seeing the final product, breh. Is it that Tarantino being a white fellow such as myself making a movie that speaks so strongly about slavery is a bad thing? Is it purely a racial motivation or is that he refuses to see it on artistic merit alone? If it was that then I think it'd be easy to push aside the comments but, instead, we got what you see up above. He's attacked QT before for the use of the "N-Word" with Jackie Brown. Perhaps he does make use of the word a little too often. I think it can be overlooked in Django because, let's face facts, that was the vernacular of the time and place. Honestly I think a little bit of it comes from a place of sincerity and also for the fact that Lee's own Miracle at St. Anna was a critical and commercial failure.
This is a discussion that, honestly, is better left to the fine fellows over at Big Media Vandalism. Their back and forth on not only the movie but Spike Lee and QT as filmmakers is a marvel to behold. We're here to talk about why this movie is good, yeah?
ALL of that nonsense aside as a film where does it stack up even against his ownl filmography? This is perhaps the toughest question I've had to ask myself as of late. I've went back and forth constantly in my head as to which movie is superior. Pulp Fiction is a phenomenal piece of work and Jackie Brown is, at its roots, an amazingly faithful adaptation of "Rum Punch" (a novel by Elmore Leonard) but is also one of the finest pieces of blaxpolitation to come out of anywhere in a long time (Black Dynamite and Django withstanding). Let's not forget that Pam Grier is still one of the sexiest women to ever walk the planet. AHEM.
Right now? I'm puttin' Django at the top of the list. No film to come out of his stable has ever packed this punch or has felt this significant. Few films in the last decade have resonated with me as deeply as Django has. I imagine it is partly due to my love of exploitation films, blaxploitation and spaghetti westerns but also that snuck in between all the buckets of blood and downright horrifying flashes of violence there is a message that is so strong it cannot be denied. We do not need to make these people out to be better than they were. They owned people. They made their economy based off of the backs of other human beings and justified it for the fact they were "sub-human". QT's approach to the film placed his own hatred of the instituation and also of the society that allowed it to happen and channeled into a white hot heat that sears through the screen.
Christoph Waltz as Dr. King Schultz is just as revelatory as his prior role as Hans Landa in Basterds. He is our deus ex machina and his words are just as powerful as his guns are. He can frequently talk himself out of situations and also in circles around everyone else in the movie. His hatred for the whole situation is as palpable as the director's is and it shows. He, in dealing with, bounties and plantation owners does so with a smile and such warm sensibility but underneath it all is such a hatred. A hatred born of an intolerance of just such descpicable status quo. He frees Django and puts a gun in his hand and helps him to find his lady fair. I was so very glad to see that Mr. Waltz was nominated by the Academy for his role because he truly deserves it.
If there is to be an opposite side of the coin, though, it is definitely DiCaprio's Calvin Candie. Monsieur Candie, as he prefers to be called, is a calculating and charming pyschopath that has more money than God perhaps and has a penchant for not only running a plantation, as his Father did before him, but also in Mandingo fighting. One of the scenes that totally sold me on this movie involves a parlor and the duo of Schultz/Django showing up to possibly persuade the plantation owner into letting them look at his "stock". There is a fight going on between two RATHER large men in the middle of the room and Candie and assocaties are looking onward quite casually. The scene is tense and the level of violence verges of exorbiant. Once the fine host gets up to regard his new guests, however, he drops a hammer next to the two men embroiled in combat and exclaims "Keep fightin, niggers!" I don't know whether it was the sound of the hammers or just the sheer authority with which DiCaprio barked the order but it sent a chill throghout my entire body and I knew, from that moment on, that Leonardo had tapped into something quite special here.
It is truly a shame that the Academy did not follow suit with the Golden Globes in nominating him as well for Supporting Actor but, alas, it would be a tad bit unfair to nominate two from the same film I suppose. You know what? Screw all that. The Academy snubbed Leonardo here. This isn't the first time he should have been nominated or, honestly, should have been up there accepting one already. Let's hope his appearance in Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby will get him the respect he deserves.That leads me to the other performance that made this movie trasncend just entertaining popcorn faire for me into something bordering on true art.
Samuel L. Jackson. He, like Waltz, seem like they were born to speak Tarantino dialogue. His turn as Stephen, the house slave that runs the manor for Monsieur Candie was brilliant. Whether it is his uppity demeanor when regarding Django on a horse and exclaiming that they'll have to "burn the beds" if he stays inside to a rather poignant scene where Stephen is speaking to Django as our hero is chained up in a barn. He peers directly at the audience while speaking with such honesty and such sorrow about how all you'll ever do is just "breakin' big rocks into little rocks". Those eyes. My God. The saddest eyes I do believe I've seen in a film in years. They were honest and searing, peering directly into the heart of the audience. It is, perhaps, as mentioned on Big Media Vandalism's analysis of it perhaps a speech directed at "The Black Man of America". An allusion to prison and the perennial role it plays in the lives of black America as well? Again it was something that was utterly disarming after all the mayhem that occurred only minutes prior.
I don't know if QT meant for that to be as loaded a statement in the script originally as it came off to be or if it's just Jackson just acting his ass off but holy shit it was utterly overwhelming. I came away from the film viewing Stephen as a means for QT to hold up a mirror to the history of this whole sordid affair and show that, yes, the white people were complicit and did awful things but so were other black people. Some were like Stephen who allowed the system to perpetuate and even helped it along. There is a haunting scene in which Stephen is relaxing in a private study with his owner, Monsieur Candie, and swirling a snifter of brandy. The look in his eyes and the "I'm one of you" vibe he put off was tough to watch but a delight to see. Jackson took an "Uncle Tom" character and took it to the extreme and, much to our gain, he did so expertly. It is, however
There are beautifully orchestrated shots throughout the film be it through the use of rather skillful photography or just action scenes that unfurl in explosions of blood and violence that are marvelous to behold. If you are a fan, at all, of the two genres QT's playing on here you'll be in Heaven. Even if you're not, however, there's so much to be found here. That's not even taking into account the downright vaudeville-esque scene in which hooded Klansmen are arguing about eye-holes in their hoods and not being able to see out of them. There are scenes of hilarity co-mingled with spectacular violence and horrifyingly real imagery of just what went on in the South back then. There are things in this movie that have stuck with me long after I left the theater.
I know the Django won't win Best Picture this year and that is fine. I imagine Lincoln will do what it was made to do, win awards, and the Academy will go on its merry way. No offense to the Abraham Lincoln bio-epic starring Daniel Day-Lewis but no other movie this year was as manic, violent, meaningful or important as Tarantino's Django Unchained.
If you enjoyed this you better buckle up because in the coming weeks Zeitgeeks.com will be unveiling a complete career retrospective on Quentin Tarantino. Film by film Reverend Hurt and I will be breaking it down and talkin' some QT ya'll. Get ready.