Django is a slave. Or at least that’s what he’s been for far too long. He’s a man who’s been broken, beaten and whipped into submission. He longs to be with his wife, Broomhilda, raise a family, live a real life. But after their last attempt at escape, he was thrown into chains and she was sent off to some Southern plantation, likely never to be seen again.
The year is 1858 when the weary and hopeless man finally sees a light on the horizon. Itinerant German dentist turned bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz buys Django as a means of identifying three white brothers whom the slave once encountered. The hunter’s plan is to find the men, kill them … and then set Django free. But that scheme soon changes.
You see, Dr. Schultz is a hired killer with a kind heart. And he hates slavery. So the two men quickly form a makeshift bond and come to an agreement. If skillful and adaptable Django will join up with the bounty hunter for the winter, not only will Schultz teach him his gunslinging trade and give him a slice of the profit, he’ll also help him find Broomhilda.
Dr. Schultz warns Django that the work before them won’t be easy. There’s a lot to learn. There are many obstacles to overcome. And there will be numerous people to kill before their deal is done. But as the former dentist offers his hand to the former slave, Django can’t help but murmur out loud with wonder:
“Kill white folks and they pay you for it? What’s not to like?”
For all its exploitative story choices, if looked at from just the right angle Django Unchained can be seen as slamming slavery and the slave trade, showing us how they corrupt and/or destroy everyone involved with them. The well-spoken (and flamboyant) Dr. Schultz abhors the fact that men would enslave other men. And he diligently strives to do right by his new friend. For his part, Django recognizes the good side of the doctor, and he comes to respect him for it. He’s especially grateful that a man—a white man—would help him find and attempt to rescue his beloved wife.
A killer spouts a few twisted “hellfire and brimstone” lines while wearing pages ripped from the Bible.
Note that many of this film’s scenes of nudity involve violence, not sexuality: Two men are seen fully nude from the front; one is hanging upside down as another man grabs his genitalia and moves to castrate him with a knife (he’s stopped), the other stands up in a bathtub. A female slave is doused with a bucket of water and dragged naked out of a punishing “hotbox” that’s baking in the blazing sun. (We see her struggling form from the waist up.)
There’s talk of “comfort girls” and forced prostitution. (Oral sex specifically is referenced with slang.) Crude terms are used for sexual anatomy.
Here’s where we start to call into question Django Unchained’s commitment to condemning the atrocities of slavery. Because Quentin Tarantino’s bloodbath sensibilities and penchant for graphic cruelty also revel in that brutality.
Gunfights and shoot-outs produce huge spouts of blood, brain matter and ground-up flesh. Men are left squirming, bleeding and screaming in anguish on scores of occasions. Blood paints nearly everything, the walls, sidewalks, floors, horses and the lily-white bolls of a cotton field.
A man is attacked and torn asunder by crazed dogs that rip and tear viciously at his legs and arms. “Mandingo Fighter” slaves pound each other savagely on a bloodied hardwood floor before one snaps his opponent’s forearm, gouges out his eyes and uses a proffered hammer to end his opponent’s screeching misery. Men have their flesh flayed with whips. Dozens of Klansmen are “comically” obliterated by the flame and percussion of a detonated bomb. Men are left screaming from the pain of broken bones when horses fall on them. A man is shot and bleeding, but then shot in the crotch to add torture to torment. Another is kneecapped with gun blasts to leave him writhing and struggling before being consumed by a massive explosion. A woman is shot and propelled backward through an open door.
Close to 40 f-words. Nearly 20 s-words. Scores of uses of “a‑‑,” “b‑‑ch,” “b‑‑tard” and “h‑‑‑.” We hear “b-gger” and several crude allusions to anatomical parts.
God’s name is combined with “d‑‑n” at least 30 times. It’s also combined with the f-word. Jesus’ is abused a few times too. And the n-word is spit out something like 100 times. Other racial pejoratives include “blackie” and “injun.”
Cigarettes, cigars and pipes are smoked regularly. Beer, wine and bourbon are all sipped and/or guzzled in a number of situations including scenes in a saloon, at a Mandingo fight, while lounging in a library and while eating dinner.
Plantation owner Calvin Candie makes a protracted speech about the “submissive” part of a black man’s brain—trying to make the case that some men are genetically structured to be slaves.
Quentin Tarantino has been in the thick of screenwriting and moviemaking since his mid to late 20s. But he’s said his creative story really started when he landed a job at a two-bit video store soon after dropping out of high school. There his directorial approach was informed by discussions of cinema with fellow movie fanatics and his notice of the types of gritty, raw films customers gravitated toward.
Whether that tale is fact or merely pulp fiction, Tarantino has certainly come to be known for his exploitative, kitschy and often extremely violent movie fare—a filmography that includes the recent likes of the Kill Bill movies and Inglourious Basterds. His newest flick fits snuggly into this bloody portfolio. It blends the ugliness of pre-Civil War slavery with spaghetti Western quick-draw action and exploitation pic sensibilities. (The Vancouver Sun reports that Tarantino “draws his hero’s name from the 1966 spaghetti Western Django, starring Franco Nero, who also makes a cameo” in this film.)
The result is a messy swirl of historical pulp and repulsive flesh-rending. Or, as Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman puts it, “It’s a low-down orgy of flamboyant cruelty and violence: whippings, a scene in which a man gets torn apart by dogs, plus the most promiscuous use of the N-word ever heard in a mainstream movie.”
Tarantino told London’s Daily Telegraph that he wanted to create a film that examined “America’s horrible past with slavery and stuff.” But The Vancouver Sun has him saying, “I wasn’t necessarily trying to throw my hat in the slavery movie bandwagon, it was more about making a proper Western. It was more about the idea of doing a proper Western film that didn’t ignore slavery.” Entertainment Weekly asks, “Is Django attacking the cruelty or reveling in it? Maybe both, and that’s what gives the film’s best parts their danger—the way that Tarantino, with lip-smacking down-and-dirty subversive gusto, rubs our noses in the forbidden spectacle of America’s racist ugliness.”
Best parts? That’s a debatable distinction. This flick is far more concerned with foul-mouthed grindhouse chatter, revenge-filled rage, skin-tearing bullwhips and bullets, and slow-motion geysers of meat and blood than in communicating anything truthful and enlightening.
Indeed, watching Django Unchained for this review, I was not much informed, edified or challenged in my thinking on the subject of slavery. I was beaten, battered and bludgeoned, a fate African-American film director Spike Lee says he wants to avoid. He says he’s refused to see the film, commenting on Twitter, “American Slavery Was Not A Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western. It Was A Holocaust. My Ancestors Are Slaves. Stolen From Africa. I Will Honor Them.”
“Django Unchained becomes an almost sadistically literal example of exploitation at its most unironic,” concludes Gleiberman, and I’m hard-pressed to put a finer point on the matter.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.