It is very rare that you watch a film and know within the first 30 minutes that you are witnessing history being made. As the events unfolded before my eyes I was acutely aware of the quotes that would become legendary, the scenes that Undergraduate students would analyse and dissect. It was immediately obvious that this film would sweep the board for prestigious awards and become an undisputed classic. This revenge western is like nothing I have ever seen before. Set on the cusp of the Civil War in 1858, we meet the slave, Django who becomes an unlikely accomplice to a notorious bounty hunter…
The film features the recognisable conventions of Tarantino classics: characters that defy definition, that stay with you beyond the cinema, a water tight script that dances along the borderline of astounding originality and cliché, and a culminating blood bath that is as ridiculous as it is disturbing. This tried and tested formula has already seen Django Unchained rake in $193,296,000 in a week, thus surpassing Jackie Brown and Kill Bill in terms of economic success.
Jamie Foxx in a nutshell was absolutely amazing. His refined, his recent achievements are astronomical compared to where he was in the 90’s (who remembers Booty Call and Held Up), roles such as Ray, Dreamgirls and now this mark him out as a versatile force to be reckoned with. Whilst he skilfully handled the wonderful script, his power came in his facial expressions and what he could effectively commincate with his eyes alone. Christoph Waltz as Dr King Schultz was similarly impressive in effortlessly portraying a forward thinking, decidedly lovable assassin. The chemistry between the two was refreshingly realistic and provided the film with much needed positivity amongst the dire backdrop of slavery in the deep south.
I personally adore Kerry Washington, a beautiful talented black woman that gives young girls a positive role model to be inspired by. While she can play the generic hottie in films such as ‘I think I love my wife’ and ‘Save the last dance’, it is her decision to tackle politically charged, roles such as Idi Amin’s wife in ‘The Last king of Scotland’ and Kelly in ‘For Coloured Girls’ that have seen her transcend the ‘black movie’ stigma that a number of other women are saddled with. I was therefore disappointed in her resolutely conventional portrayal of a damsel in distress. Being a fantastic actress, every single tear looks heart-wrenchingly authentic but it irritated me that she screamed, wailed and cried her way through the film. Broom Hilda is the antithesis to the heroic kick-ass Black Mumba of Uma Thurman in Kill Bill. She appeared notably sensitive for someone that had endured a lifetime of brutality at the hands of slavery. I didn’t feel that her character represented the bravery and courage it took to repeatedly resist the shackles of slavery.
When Leonardo Dicaprio sinks his teeth into a powerful script and provocative character he is simply unstoppable. In this film, we get to see him in a light that is almost inconceivable. Leo portrays the disturbingly charismatic Calvin Candie, a sadistic plantation owner whose outlook and attitude is beyond repulsive. Candie is a manifestation of the hypocrisy that underpinned the justification of slavery, embodying everything deplorable about human nature. As someone that owns a copy of the Titanic script, I will never feel the same amount of sorrow for Jack Dawson as he sinks to the bottom of the Atlantic ever again. Leo told VIBE magazine that; ‘it is a f’king horrible character; the worst display of humanity I’ve ever read in my entire life.’ I didn’t think it was possible to feel so much hatred for a fictional character, but unfortunately men like Candie were only too real and I loathed every piece of dialogue that came out of his mouth. Leo was incredible in portraying such an abhorrent creation.
Samuel L Jackson gave an outstanding performance as Candie’s right hand man, Stephen; a concentrated depiction of the institutionalised Uncle Tom’s that betrayed their own people in order to momentarily align themselves with the ruling race. He was sickeningly servile, an ugly, poignant depiction of the black men that facilitated slavery and its legacy. While this was an exaggerated caricature of the ‘house-slave’ mentality, it served as an important contrast to the liberated black hero of Django. With similarities being drawn between Stephen and Uncle Ruckus of The Boondocks cartoons, it is safe to say that Stephen was in part created to provide some laughs, even if they were uncomfortable ones.The sense of anxious comedic input is further pushed in a slapstick Klu Klux Klan scene –by individualising the members and highlighting their ignorance we are encouraged to anaesthetise the fear that they embody, however I found it strayed dangerously close to trivialising one of the most harrowing, repugnant gangs in American history.
A sickening scene showing a ‘mandingo’ fight and the punishment of a runaway slave were intensely disturbing and portrayed brutality on an unbearable level. Leonardo Dicaprio’s initial response was, “Do we need to go this far?” The scenes seemed to luxuriate in the suffering, dragging out the pain until I seriously considered walking out of the cinema. It was not entertaining but vitally important in establishing the true nature of what America’s ancestors actually did. My stomach churned with the sound effects alone and I was almost on the brink of tears. I found it so profoundly disturbing owing to the fact that once upon a time this was perceived as a perfectly acceptable way to treat human beings. Whilst addressing a BAFTA press conference Tarantino stated that: “I’m here to tell you, that however bad things get in the movie, a lot worse shit actually happened.” My blood boiled with rage that this happened to people and that I was being subjected to a reconstruction of it. Foxx himself however admits that “It’s supposed to make you angry”. If this was the intention it was executed to full effect.
Thus Django Unchained returns important observations surrounding slavery back into the mainstream media. Never before has a huge budget Hollywood film tackled slavery with the aggressive authenticity that Tarantino confronts the audience with. While most black families own or have shown their children at least part of ‘Roots”, Tarantino brings the plight of African Americans intimately close to a wider spectrum of people. While historians will argue that the screen adaptation of Alex Haley’s ‘Roots’ was the Disney version of slavery, no one will walk away from this film with any false pretences. The educational properties of the film are undeniable with Kerry Washington telling VIBE magazine that: “I realized as much as my degrees and everything I’ve read on slave narratives should have informed me, I didn’t even know that they wore masks like that, that people did that to us. It took a Tarantino movie for me to know that that’s not some crazy thing out of his imagination.”
I felt emotionally drained by the end of the film and was almost glad that it was over. Tarantino always takes his audience on a relentless voyage full of carnage and charisma, grit and retribution. Underneath the racism, the politics, the brutality and injustice lies a beautiful love story. As in the unbreakable bond between mother and child in Kill Bill, Tarantino somehow conveys utter devastation and violence to finally extract the fundamental essence of humanity: Love.
The cast was phenomenal in courageously portraying a side of history America would rather forget; it was emotionally exhausting but utterly captivating. Race will always be an uncomfortable subject to tackle, but I believe that Tarantino has opened the floodgates, revealed America’s darkest taboos and has dared us, in the modern world to confront the depraved past. For a man that is as controversial as he is talented, I salute him for daring to make a masterpiece that will change the way we perceive the past.