Friday, January 18, 2013

"Django Unchained" (2012)

"Django Unchained," the latest film from Quentin Tarantino, is a story set a few years before the Civil War in the American South. It tells the story of a bounty hunter who frees, and then partners up with, a slave named Django (Jamie Foxx), in order to collect a bounty on men that only Django will recognize. Django eventually becomes a bounty hunter in his own right, and Dr. Schultz (Christoph Waltz), the bounty hunter who freed him, helps him rescue his wife from a Mississippi plantation owner (Leonardo DiCaprio).

This was a surprisingly good movie, on multiple accounts. I tried to watch Tarantino's "Inglorious Basterds" over the Christmas season, and found I couldn't cope with Brad Pitt's heinously poorly written dialogue and what seemed like jumpy movement between scenes (a friend of mine claims that one must simply accept poor dialogue in Tarantino's movies). "Django," though, was fluid, every scene full of tension and something to keep me moving, and I didn't find anything wrong with the dialogue (even if it was, at times, a little cheesy). It was much longer than I expected - I think it was nearly three hours long - but, with the exception of a false ending, it never really flagged.

"Django" is a good pulp action flick and all that, but what was really interesting for me was Tarantino's setting - namely, the brutal world of slave-trading and slave-industry he depicts. One can't really trust Tarantino to provide the most faithful depiction of history; for example, I was really shocked and blown away by the concept of "Mandingos," slaves who are pitted against each other in gladiatorial fights, but it turns out there's no historical basis for this (looks like it's actually taken from a novel). On the other hand, there were scenes of whipping and slaves running away from brutal plantations that I found very powerful, that made me feel very angry and sad and upset.

So it's interesting to read that Spike Lee tweeted, vis-à-vis Tarantino's movie, "American Slavery Was Not A Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western. It Was A Holocaust. My Ancestors Are Slaves. Stolen From Africa. I Will Honor Them." Lee was hardly the only critic, either. And these voices are very correct. "Django Unchained" is undoubtedly a revenge movie with an unrealistic narrative: Django is a hero who achieves feats of vengeance that would have been utterly impossible in reality. In the same way that the American national myth that you can be whatever you want to be is untrue because of social, political, and economic realities, Django's feats could never, really, have been accomplished, and the revenge Django wreaks on slave owners is a fantastical wish fulfillment and cover for a horrid part of history.

But this movie definitely made me aware of slavery in a way that I never had been before (and in a way I'm surprised a Quentin Tarantino movie could make me). In Canada, most of the standard teachings on slavery are dedicated to Canadian participation in the Underground Railroad - in short, to an education in anti-slavery. We never really learned about the horror of the institution itself. I'm also reading a biography of Thomas Jefferson at the moment, and the way the biographer deals with Jefferson's hundreds of slaves makes it seem like they all had this warm, beautiful, family relationship; so "Django Unchained" is, ironically, probably a much more accurate portrayal of master-slave relationships in the antebellum American south than the Pulitzer-winning author of "The Art of Power."

Suffice to say, this has an inspired a need for some reading. And it's also got several excellent shoot-outs, about which, as a consumer of action movies (even socially problematic ones), I certainly can't complain.


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