Review: Django Unchained (2013)

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Django Unchained is Quentin Tarantino’s most persistently fascinating film. His examination of the self-appointed persona in this picture is particularly potent and powerful because of the implications of the characters and the commentary it has on the portrayal of slavery in cinema.

Part way through the film Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) expounds to a slave that he has freed called Django (Jamie Fox) about the nature of taking on a persona, which includes the cardinal rule of never breaking character during the act. The film in part is an examination of this primary theme within the context of that crucial declaration which Schultz makes.

The central persona that Django has to take on through the course of the film is that of a former slave owner who is well versed in the subject of Mandingo fighting, a practice in which slaves are forced to fight to the death for their owners’ amusement. The interplay here between the external and internal is fascinating as Django’s overriding goal is to save his wife; however he takes on a persona which entails compulsory cruelty to his people.

Some of the film’s most dramatic moments are Jamie Fox’s performance in the midst of this act. One particular horrifying instance is when the central antagonist- Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) asks Django if he consents to feeding his partially blind runaway slave to the dogs. Django approves, and the camera focuses on Candie observing Django’s reaction to this heinous act.

During this moment, Fox conveys subtle sadness with his eyes and then commanding and stern vocal tones when he justifies Schultz’s response to the event and articulates his disappointment with Candie’s stock of fighting men. The implication of this persona that Django takes on has fulfilling echoes in the last act of the film as he tells his captors that he entered Candyland on a horse and is not a slave. The group of black men that Django showed disdain for earlier in the picture validate his story because they believed in his persona, which marks the theme at its most focused.

This scene is also indicative of a subtle facet that pervades the film. While one can certainly make the case that the film is merely genre comeuppance regarding Django being freed and committing violence against the people who held him in contempt. The picture, I would argue is more than mere revenge thrills. When Dr. King Schultz frees Django from bondage, he educates him on not only the nature of the bounty hunter business but also hat etiquette, shooting, mythology, counting and taking on a persona.

When Django tries to persuade his captors of money that they will gain from killing the Smitty Becall Gang, the scene not only feels like a direct parallel to the first scene where Schultz frees Django. But it also seems like a culmination of everything that Schultz has taught Django throughout the picture, which speaks to Schultz relationship to the former slave. He now believes that Django can become the best version of himself, which is indicative of his positive view that all people should be free.

However, in the context of the primary theme of the self-appointed persona, Schultz is less than benevolent in his intentions. While he espouses the principal, he does not follow entirely in the second half of the film. Firstly, King chastises Django for his behaviour with the black slaves that are traveling with them to Candyland. However, most crucially he decides to break his calm and polite demeanor at the very last second when Django is close to walking away from Candyland with Broomhilda. (Kerry Washington)

The reason for Schultz’s change in behaviour and the breaking of his persona is that he can no longer abide the vile acts of cruelty and dehumanisation that he has witnessed at Candyland. Tarantino also adds another interesting facet to this shift in character. Calvin Candie finds out about King and Django’s masquerade of not committing to buying a black fighting man but instead planning to get Django’s wife.

As a result, Candie deals on his terms and mostly outwits King in some sense. King sees Candie as an evil man with presumptions of being sophisticated and cultured, but because his pride he cannot deal with losing to Candie, so he decides to break his persona and shoot the southern plantation owner without a second thought of the consequences.

Christoph Waltz’s performance as King is compelling whether one reflects on the warm paternal love he shows towards Django, his self-deprecating sense of humour, or his amusing little gestures such as stroking his beard when he is about to make a point. However, Waltz is at his most fascinating when he reflects on the grisly acts of the past, conveying a great deal with his physicality and facial expressions. The result is a performance that is far more interesting than his work in Inglorious Bastards, which had the benefit of a multi-lingual charm in the character he was playing.

Nevertheless, Tarantino’s most compelling examination of the self-appointed persona comes from the character of Stephen (Samuel L Jackson) On the surface; Stephen comes across as a crudgy and frail old man who emphatically supports his master, Calvin Candie. In these public scenes, particularly the dinner sequence Jackson plays Stephen like a parrot. He repeats his master’s words, underlying their importance and meaning.

However, in private with emphasis on the scene where he tells Candy about Django and King’s real intentions. Jackson plays Stephen like a nefarious mastermind, dropping his previously held shaken speech, deaf and confused manner. During this moment, he is confidently sitting while taking measured sips from his glass of wine and acting like a subtle ventriloquist by suggesting that his point will be embraced by Candie.

Stephen is Tarantino’s most compelling exploration of the self-appointed persona because it illustrates that the abhorrent person in this odyssey of slavery in the pre-civil war south is a black man. He has facilitated the suffering and punishment of his kind. In reality, he runs Candyland, Tarantino’s introduction to Stephen is through a quick shot of him signing a checking using Calvin Candie’s Signature, which is emblematic of the status of this character in the hierarchy of that plantation.

Additionally, the switching of his persona is extremely understated and incredibly satisfying when contrasting it with Django. One uses slavery as a ruse to achieve an intrinsically noble goal whereas the other utilises slavery for the purpose of maintaining power and status. In the end, Django shoots Stephen in the knee caps which would entail him requiring the use of a walking stick and thusly he becomes his public persona. Ironies such as this make Django Unchained Tarantino’s most fulfilling screenplay. Finally, it can be said with considerable confidence that Samuel L. Jackson’s performance as Stephen is his most nuanced because of how striking it is in subtlety and simple transformation.

Notwithstanding, Django Unchained is more than the sum of its successful thematic exploration. Tarantino’s directing is at its finest in this picture. In other films, his flashback scenes would feel like one is observing a paragraph change in a story, where the time and setting would be vastly different. This technique ultimately spoke to his novelistic tendencies.

However, in Unchained, his flashback sequences feel like poetic interludes that are striking in their immediacy and how well they connect with the current narrative thread. For example, Django early in the story observes the man who whipped his wife after their attempt to escape together. The scene cuts to a desaturated sequence where Django is pleading for his wife’s safety while also showing their escape from captivity. The sequence of painful remembrance ends with the merciless southern man saying to Django, “I like the way you beg boy.” When Django catches up with this man in the present, he says to him “I like the way you die boy” which is an amusing, vengeful and cutting one-liner.

The colors of green and blue engulf this memory scene in a haunting and vivid way, which makes the sequence feel surreal and nightmarish. Tarantino has cited Mario Bava’s Black Sabbath as one of the films that have mainly influenced his style and sensibility. With this sequence, one can certainly see that this is evident with the use of blues and greens, which were some of the primary colors that Bava employed in his shot compositions. However, Tarantino’s dark wash of the scene makes the scene feel like it ought to belong in a grindhouse classic such as Texas Chainsaw Massacre, with its passing shots of butchered chickens.

Tarantino also employs some captivating sequences that have not appeared in his previous films. He punctuates some of the seemingly ordinary scenes with elements of magical realism that come in the form momentary dream sequences where Django sees his wife, Bromhilda.

The most striking one is when Django rides into Candyland and observes as he travels by a woman working in the cornfields. She is wearing a yellow dress and is smiling at our hero. The audience along with Django instantly think that they see Hildy. However, this immediate presupposition proves not to be fruitful. Tarantino’s trick of the eye and the temporary illusion of thinking we see Django’s wife is sublime and showcases the maturity in his direction.

Aside from these two aspects, Tarantino also commits some exuberant shots that feel limitless in their scope and painterly in their composition. The best example of which is when we see Django and Schultz riding on the horses which are set against the backdrop of rolling snowy mountains. Tarantino’s camera captures the exotic and counterintuitive sunrise colours such as purple and ashy brown in breathtaking detail. The sequence is a reminder of how far the director has come from his early films which depicted isolated and secluded locations.

The final aspect of Django Unchained that makes it Quentin Tarantino’s best film is its inherent mythological dimension. The second act commences with Dr. King Schultz telling the story of Siegfried and how he rescues Bromhilda from her father’s punishment of the surrounding fire of a dragon. Schultz believes that Django is a real-life, Siegfried. Alongside this, we have Schultz, who believes that Django is the fastest gunslinger in the west, which he states in a flashback scene at the end of the picture.

On the other hand, Calvin Candie introduces the other myth of the picture, which of the exceptional black man. He contends that every black man can aspire to be that individual who is, one in ten thousand. On the surface, all these myths seem terribly disparate. However, Tarantino cleverly ties them completely. Firstly, he considers Django’s journey to be mythological in scope. However, it is viewed through the prism of the current time, which encompasses slavery in the Deep South two years before the Civil War.

Through the course of the picture, we do come to believe that Django is the exceptional black man that Candie spoke about. Even Django thinks this is the case when he says at the tail end of the film, “Every word that came out of Calvin Candie’s mouth was horseshit, but he was right about one thing. I am that one nigger in ten thousand.” Tarantino takes this idea of the exceptional black man and synthesises it with the western archetype of the gunslinger, and they reconcile in a satisfying manner.

In fact, Django refers to a western character who appears in over thirty films. Franco Nero was the original actor who played this character in Sergio Corbucci’s Django. (1966) Nero has a cameo in the movie in which he amusingly asks how Django how he spells his name. Django with pride sounds out his name and says that the D is silent, and Nero’s character says before he walks off-screen, I know. One can read the cameo as an amusing suggestion that Nero is playing an older Django, who acknowledges the existence of another man with the same name.

However, I read the scene as Tarantino’s reconciliation of the exceptional black man and the gunslinger. He is clearly showing that he is taking the western character of Django from Italian cinema and combining it with the idea of the exceptional black man, thus creating a mythical transcendental figure. However, Tarantino also suggests that Django is the ancestral figure for the seventies sub-genre- Blacksploitation, which makes the previous mythological harmony take on far more fascinating life.

In the same breath, Tarantino also subverts our cultural perceptions of particular aspects of slavery. He does this in the best scene of the film, which involves the Ku Klux Klan. During the period in which the film was set, they were at the height of their power in their first incarnation in southern America. The scene starts out with a large assortment of the group riding towards a destination with their masks and burning torches in hand.

Tarantino scores the Klan’s dramatic horse riding entrance with the ‘Requiem and Prologue’ from Battle Royale, which makes the Klan’s presence seem operatic and terrifying. However, when they all stop at Django’s camp, where they intend to kill the free slave and his partner Schultz, this initial impression of the group is shattered instantly.

They all start to argue about their masks, which was made by the wife of one of the members who rides off after being offended by their attitude. Additionally, they show confusion about the nature of their current task, and whether the masks will be required in their current raid. The scene paints the Klan as disorganised and ultimately bumbling oafs whose threat one can be extinguished swiftly. As a result, it makes them far less terrifying.

The scene does present a pertinent question about the nature of slavery in cinema. Is it right to portray a historical event that has such a magnitude of suffering and dehumanisation in the clothing of genre cinema? While many would argue that conceptually, the idea is abhorrent and historically inaccurate, I would claim that it is a great thing.

If one takes the premise that film is a valid art form that can project our dreams, fears and struggles than why can’t we apply this to a painful moment in our history? Django Unchained fundamentally reinvents the way one can portray slavery. I think that by steeping it in genre cinema, it allows the audience to feel uplifted by a form of emancipation that takes place throughout the picture.

Django is allowed to become the best version of himself with respect, patience and education, illustrating that those are the actual qualities that one need to be truly liberated and free. However, Tarantino also fundamentally demolishes the idea that the gunslinger archetype has to be white by using the character of ‘Django’ from Italian cinema as a jumping off point to conceive of an entirely new creation with strong mythical resonance.

Finally, through his primary thematic exploration of the self-appointed persona, Tarantino asks the audience to confront some challenging ideas. There is an inherent irony that the evilest person in the film is a black man who uses the slavery as a ruse to maintain power and status. The malevolent group of racists who are historically feared are portrayed as bickering fools, and the leading white villain has an admiration for our titular hero.

The Unchained in the title seems to allude to more than Django being freed from bondage; it also describes how slavery on film has been unshackled and has taken on greater depths of exploration and meaning with its new found freedom.

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About Sartaj Govind Singh

Notes from a distant observer: “Sartaj is a very eccentric fellow with a penchant for hats. He likes watching films and writes about them in great analytical detail. He has an MA degree in Philosophy and has been known to wear Mickey Mouse ears on his birthday.”
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