I didn't expect Django Unchained to be so intense. I expected it to be wicked. I expected it to be glib. I expected it to dialog its way through improbabilities. It was wicked bloody and profane but Django Unchained is not a buddy movie. It is the first of its kind - a SouthWestern - a full throated shoot 'em up American drama with Wagnerian resonances. It might not ultimately be director Quentin Tarantino's masterpiece but it is right now.
Say what you will about Tarantino; you cannot say that he makes movies for kids. When I say kids I mean Owen Wilson. For the past n years we have been assaulted by the next generation of male leading actors who have struggled to make themselves some fraction of the man that Ben Affleck has just barely managed to affect - a whole troop of boy band graduates all trying to be the next Ben Stiller. It has taken a lot of the fun out of going to the movies for me, and was made all the more poignant by the emergence of Daniel Craig. Funny now that I think about it, I wondered where Tom Hanks wandered off to after The Road To Perdition. The bottom line is that there haven't been many movies for middle age men that weren't somewhat escapist in a way that just wasn't quite serious enough or dunked the protagonist in such deep shit that the every act required blunt force. Somewhere between Cowboys and Aliens and No Country for Old Men, we all got left out in the cold, surviving on DeNiro, Washington, Fiennes and Clive Owen. It's one of the reasons I returned to literature - there aren't many American movies with men dealing with real life and death situations, it leaves us with weak philosophy - the philosphy of Vince Vaughn, which never quite gets beyond the reality of a bad divorce. Hell, we can do that on our own Vince. It's no wonder we've developed a hunger for the depravity of The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo. And there is my take on American dramatic film as it is continually remade for youthful disposable income.
Ahh but we are approaching more fically constrained times. So we need a little period work to get our heads out of the boom book clack reality of 50 Cent rappers whose value has deflated over the past decade. Yes there was a moment for gangsta manhood. It peaked at Clockers. Well, Set It Off, and then it was over and done with Training Day and from that moment there would never be another Gangsta movie. Somehow the Farelly Brothers got into our bloodstream (and Fishburn got sidetracked into Morpheus for a decade) and something went poof. Fortunately Seth McFarlane and Seth Rogan have not completely taken over Hollywood. Thank you Quentin. We still have at least one filmmaker grown up enough to do Nazis and Slavery. Now I'm looking forward to the moment when he decides that he has to do a Vietnam film. But, you know, slavery is good.
Now if you asked me a month ago when all the dainties were weeping in the streets about the absence of Frederick Kick Ass Douglass (read blacks as agents in their own liberation) from Speilberg's courtly drama, I snarled that all they really wanted to see was some black man killing some white men (for money). And you can bet your ass that Tarantino is going to make all that money. And now that QT has ripped the roof of that meme and soaked the silver screen with the blood of righteous retribution, the complaint will squiggle off into another boohooey direction. Or so I predict.
Here's the thing. This movie is going to be a huge success in all sorts of dimensions and I know that you will have to search to the ends of the earth to find anyone who does not sympathize with Foxx's Django. This Christmas season is witnessing (predictably past the end of the world, according to Mayans) what a generation of black radicals believed with all their hearts, souls and minds that would never happen in America. A blockbuster movie where a black man single-handedly, brutally slaughters dozens of white men and white audiences cheer. And there's a black President. Did I say brutally slaughter? This is a Tarantino movie.
Black radicals aren't stupid, just full of shit. So the trick is exactly how they're going to twist the interpretation so they can continue to pretend that there are no Republicans in those ovating audiences coast to coast. Somehow they will come up with a narrative that will twist the fact that white people will thoroughly enjoy this film against them. Rule Number One: Never let Whitey off the hook. And of course without their collaborating Uncle Tims, (as in Tim Wise) they'd be out on a limb. But there will be a white Progressive mezzo-soprano chorus joining the whine to come, indicting all of a piece.
I'm going here because I think it is inevitable that some fraction of America, the self-pitying and/or idiot fraction requires a movie like Django Unchained to ask itself self-flagellating questions on race. I'm rather surprised that it didn't do so when "Black Snake Moan" came out in March of 2007. Maybe the film was overshadowed by Shaquanda Cotton. You know how it is, some Americans go from zero to outrage in 5.3 seconds. you just never know which seconds. So it's actually possible that... naw. It's impossible for any black cultural critic to pass up. This movie is way too big, the subject far too direct, the implications much to clear to say this is not a story about slavery and race. I mean Leo DiCaprio is quoting racist phrenology right there on the screen. It doesn't get much more potent than that.
But then what was this movie about anyway? The answer is also simple and straightforward. It is about Django running through hellfire to free his wife, by any means necessary. And of course the film is marvelously entertaining because he's got the skills and wits to do so, and eventually does. His able sponsor, the crafty and wordly German Dr. Schultz gets Django rolling downhill at the outset of the film. The two pick up steam as bounty hunters in that America that had still not as of yet bloodied itself en mass of the future of that particular institution.
As a rumnation on slavery, I found the film's matter of factness, refreshingly direct and unsentimental. It was all rather credible to me, and this is the sort of cinema verite that I was hoping for before I plunked down my cash at the Arclight. Tarantino's touch is deft. There were only two things that I imagined in the entire film to be anachronistic. First, and probably my biggest gripe with the film is Tarantino's choice of music. The soundtrack here is disjointed and rarely worked nicely with the action on screen. You could always snap into the realization that this is modern music that doesn't quite fit thematically with what's happening on screen. This was never joltingly so, but annoyingly so. The second thing that seemed out of place was the quality of stitching in the garments worn by Django, and I'm trying to imagine that the sunglasses I saw were period pieces. Speaking of stitches, you have never seen in your life and probably never will see a scene that makes you laugh at KKK night riders like the one in Django. It is straight out hilarious.
I never saw Ray, so despite all of the critical acclaim, I don't believe I have ever seen Jamie Foxx act. I did see Collateral and I did see Law Abiding Citizen. Tell you the truth, I liked him better in Bait than in either of those films. Moreover, I think Jamie Foxx in person is probably more interesting than any role he has had on the big screen with the one possible exception of Any Given Sunday. And no I had zero interest in him as the street musician. So yes quite honestly I think Hollywood has really been flummoxed as to what to do with that black man. At least he's managed to keep his head above the Cedric the Entertainer level, which is more than can be said for most of the black actors Foxx's age. So now the ball is in Omar Epps' court.
Sam Jackson has done what only he could do. I put him as the anchoring picture for this blog post because his character has transcended every HNIC of the plantataion house that has ever been recorded on film. I might even get deep into that discussion with the theorists, but Jackson was brilliantly malevolent and vindictive in the role. Splendid casting - in so many ways this movie might have failed, getting Stephen wrong would not only have killed it, but shot it in the knees and left it to rot. There simply is no other possible actor for that role.
So yeah I liked this movie. It's definitely worth it.