Daily Archives: February 5, 2013

Politically incorrect film reviews – Django Unchained

Robert Henderson

Main cast: Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kerry Washington,  Samuel L. Jackson

Director: Quentin Tarantino

Running time  165 minutes

Even by Tarantino’s standards this is an extraordinarily self-indulgent film, both in terms of his fixation with  disproportionate  violence only tenuously related to plot and with  his one-dimensional  representation  of slavery. This portrayal  is unambiguously cruel and, as with almost  every film about American  slavery, set against the background of a palatial  plantation.   American slavery was vastly more nuanced than that, with single slaves being owned by a master or mistress;  free blacks owning slaves; slaves working for commercial and  industrial enterprises; slaves employed in fieldwork and mining.  The most favoured in terms of their treatment were probably house servants in the larger  establishments. [1]

Slave owners being human beings it is reasonable to assume that the treatment of slaves would have varied greatly, from the indulgent to the use of the slave simply as an object to be worked or abused as the slave owner wished. Even at the base level of slaves as considered simply as  property,  the idea that slave owners would be routinely physically abusing their slaves to the point of greatly reducing their value or losing the value completely by killing them makes little sense because slaves were expensive.  The growth of the black population generally and of slaves in particular supports this view.  It is estimated that approximately 645, 000 slaves were shipped  to the territory which eventually formed the USA [2] The 1860 US census shows  a  total population of 31,443,321 with 3,953,761 slaves and 488,283 free blacks, 251,000 of which were in the slave-owning states.[3]

The plot is a straight forward revenge drama. Dr King Schultz  (Christoph Waltz) a German dentist turned bounty hunter seeks out a couple of slave traders (the Speck Brothers )  who are transporting some slaves.  Schultz wants to buy a slave from a particular plantation off them because the slave can identify three brothers who have a large bounty on their heads.   The Speck brothers  do not wish to trade, guns are drawn and a shootout ensues killing one of the brothers and trapping another under his horse with a broken leg.  Scultz, a pedant  for the  legal form but  not the spirit of the law throughout the film, makes out a bill of sale for the slave he wants, leaves this with some money with the surviving Speck brother and releases the other slaves with a suggestion that they kill the surviving Speck and head north to the non-slave states.  The slaves duly oblige Schultz.

The slave Schultz obtains is Django (Jamie Foxx).  Django is a failed runaway who was caught  trying to escape with his wife  Broomhilda Von Shaft (Kerry Washington). As a consequence the pair of them are deliberately sold separately at auction and separated. Consequently Django does not know where his wife is.  Schultz strikes a deal with Django: join me as a partner in bounty hunting until the spring and I will help you find your lost wife.   Django agrees.  Much of the  rest of the film is taken up with Schultz and Django scheming to kill people for the bounty on their heads, killing people such people and killing people to revenge Django and by extension his fellow slaves.  Eventually Broomhilda is tracked down to a huge  plantation owned by Calvin Candy (Di Caprio) and   Schultz and Django lay a scheme to persuade Candy to sell her to them.

The character of Schultz is morally absurd. He is a bounty hunter for whom the words “captured dead or alive” have only one meaning: dead.   The concept of innocent till proven guilty is redundant because he kills simply on the issue of a warrant for someone’s arrest  and he never makes even a token attempt to take them alive. Hence,  Schultz’s  frequently made claim that he is only killing those who have committed serious crimes does not stand up to moral scrutiny. He could be killing an innocent man as easily as a criminal. Yet this immoral  character postures throughout the film as a morally superior being because he disapproves of slavery. Moreover, this supposed dislike for slavery does seem somewhat flexible.  To promote the end of purchasing Broomhilda,  Schultz (and Django)   watch without complaint a slave brutally killed in what is termed Mandigo fighting, that is , no-holds barred fighting between two slaves,  and a runaway slave ripped to shreds by dogs.   Schultz’s  final pc flourish occurs when  he behaves in a maniacally egotistical   way after  Django and he have  achieved their aim of buying Broomhilda from  the slaveowner Candy. All  he has to do to seal the deal is shake Candy’s hand.  Schultz refuses, shoots Candy and then dies in the farcical  “shoot ‘em up” sequence which follows.

The Eponymous Django (Jamie Foxx) , an actor whose screen presence exudes a dismal surliness at the best of times  is ridiculous in a different way.  He adopts an aggressive  and insolent attitude towards Candy and his associates, behaviour  which even as a free black it is wildly improbable would have been tolerated by a man as rich and powerful as Candy.   Nor is it readily imaginable  that he would have been allowed to dine with Candy and his family. His acting range recalls Dorothy Parker’s put down of  Katharine Hepburn: “She  delivered a striking performance that ran the gamut of emotions, from A to B.”

The two performances worth watching are DiCaprio’s malevolent plantation owner Calvin Candy and Samuel Jack’s privileged slave Stephen, part Uriah Heap, part licensed court jester,  part smart operator and wholly Uncle Tom.   Candy has something of the unwonted and disconcerting  charm of Ralph Fiennes as the Concentration Camp commandant  Amon Göth in Schindler’s List,  being capable of Southern  courtesy at one moment and gross cruelty the next.

Tarantino is continuing what he did in Inglourious Basterds . In his earlier films the themes and characters were simply violent and immoral. Inglourious Basterds changed that. Taratino suddenly decided he wanted to morally posture, in that instance by adopting the position that any mistreatment of Germans, Nazi or otherwise,  was justified in WW2 because of the Nazi mistreatment of Jews.   Consequently the film’s gang of Americans in Nazi-occupied Europe were allowed to engage in any violent  horror, for example, killing someone by sledgehammering them to death, on the pretext that it was reasonable because they were killing Nazis.  Even if that had been true it would not have given the characters  the  moral high ground  because brutality is simply  brutality when it involves killing defenceless men in a cruel fashion. But  Inglorious Basterds did not confine themselves to killing card-carrying Nazis: ordinary Germans, for example,  conscripted Wermacht soldiers,  were killed gratuitously and cruelly.    In Django unchained Tarantino substitutes slavery for the Nazi’s reatment of the Jews.  A comment made by Django early on  encapsulates the director’s intention:   “Killing white folks and  getting paid for it: what’s not to like?”  (Try to imagine a white character in any film saying “Killing black folks and getting paid for it: what’s not to like?”   Difficult  going on impossible isn’t it? )

The problem with this is that most white Americans of the time were not slave owners of any sort .   But just as the moral restraints in Inglourious Basterds were loosened to include any German regardless of whether they had perpetrated any atrocity or even whether they were Nazi party members, so were the moral restraints removed on what might be done to whites of any status in Django Unchained.

The other  serious difficulty with the film is  the violence. Violence is a necessary  and interesting part of film-making when it serves a dramatic purpose. Let it become a gorefest and it is pornography.  In  Django Unchained  it moves into the positively  cartoonish with killings which are not only incontinent in motivation but often  look completely unconvincing:  the worst example is the shooting of Candy’s sister when a single shot lifts her into the air and through a door in the manner of a pantomime fairy being lifted off the  stage.  All this becomes at first boring then irritating.

The film has been criticised for its free use of nigger.  Tarantino has a record of his characters using the word , although never with  anything like the fluency as happens here where it is used several hundred times. It is used freely by black as well as white characters. Bearing in mind the film is set in slaving country and much of the action takes place on plantations, Tarantino is probably being realistic in putting it into the film.  However, when did realism ever trouble him? Certainly not in the film as a whole with a KKK-style  slapstick scene inserted into the pre-Bellum South long before the KKK was created and the acceptance of wildly insolent behaviour by Django or his wearing of modern sunglasses for most of the film.    Could it be that Tarantino puts nigger  in simply for the thrill of playing the enfant terrible? Or perhaps he simply wants to have his pc and non-pc cake at the same time.

Although an offshoot of Blaxploitation films, both the 1975 film Mandingo and its sequel Drum were  much more finessed in their treatment of the relationships between slaves owners and their slaves. Although there was violence and harsh treatment shown it was not incessant or grossly improbable. There was  also some attempt to place behaviour in context . This last  is completely missing in Django Unchained.  For example, Stephen is shot in cold blood by Django for being an Uncle Tom after being told by Django to remain after other slaves are escape unharmed because Stephen is “exactly where he belongs  ”.  That  we are all prisoners to a large degree of where our birth places us and humans being humans will develop relationships even where the relationship may seem tainted by the disparity in power between those involved is unexamined.

Should you go and see the film? Well, Di Caprio and Jackson’s performances are well worth seeing. Just don’t expect  Gone with the wind.

[2] b Stephen D. Behrendt, David Richardson, and David Eltis, W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research, Harvard University. Based on “records for 27,233 voyages that set out to obtain slaves for the Americas”. Stephen Behrendt (1999). “Transatlantic Slave Trade”. Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience. New York: Basic Civitas Books. ISBN 0-465-00071-1.

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