Quentin Tarantino has always had a knack for mixing genre motifs into unlikely new forms. His latest fad seems to be for historical “Retribution-Fantasy”, transposing a sort of Alien vs. Predator paradigm to the goodies and baddies of the most sensitive historical subjects out there. Django Unchained picks up where the Nazis vs. Jews showdown of Inglorious Basterds left off, this time merging Spaghetti Western Comedy with Blaxploitation, creating a kitsch simulacrum of the American slave trade fit for pop corn and giggles.
Django (played by Jamie Foxx) is freed by dentist turned Bounty Hunter Dr Schultz (Christopher Waltz) in the hope that he can identify a slave owner wanted by Schultz as part of his flesh for cash business. They soon become brothers in arms, but what starts as a mercenary exercise transforms into a more righteous and personal mission objective: Django and Schultz blaze through the slave owning Deep South hoping to re-unite Django with his wife, Broomhilda, who is imprisoned at Leonardo Di Caprio’s “Candie Land” plantation.
The question is, of course, whether Tarantino trivialises black history. Is Django Unchained, in its own ridiculous way, a film of catharsis and black empowerment? Or has the slave trade been used too cheaply as part of a Tarantino genre exercise? The problem with this film is that style so often feels like an end in itself rather than the means to something more critical. The sadness and brutality of the slave trade feel lost within a web of lovingly choreographed splat-violence and laugh-a-minute one liners. Funny violence overlaps serious violence. Serious violence overlaps light-heartedness. The horror and revulsion that should accompany such a subject emanates instead from a film maker presenting historical tragedy as a pantomime. Perhaps this is precisely the point; perhaps the entertainment is a foil, an inventive way of tackling a subject that is too painful to truly represent. That said, if the holocaust (Inglorious Basterds) and the American slave trade make for post-modern entertainment, they might be better off in the hands of a more thoughtful director.
Jamie Foxx cuts a fairly average, righteous Hollywood bad ass as Django, and although Dr Schultz is more playful, he comes across as affected, patronising and essentially annoying. There is no on-screen rapport between the pair, but a bromance ensues and Schultz’s innate decency eventually triumphs over his smug, “cash for corpses” vigilantism. He joins Django as one the two heroes and thus proves (with Christopher Waltz having been the face of Nazi evil in Inglorious Basterds) that Germans aren’t all that bad after all. Leonardo Di Caprio is convincing as the charming, psychotic Calvin Candie (even if his sprightly face isn’t the most convincing facsimile of evil), providing one of the saddest moments of the film when he saws open the skull piece of a deceased slave to demonstrate some racist pseudo-science. Samuel L. Jackson takes the biscuit though as the wicked, hobbling Stephen, whose attempt to intercept Django’s reunion with his wife is as harrowing as Calvin Candie’s scholastic white supremacy
Django certainly doesn’t take itself too seriously, and these are the terms on which the film is to be enjoyed, for sure. However, whether you’re able open your heart to Tarantino’s childish but well-meaning brand of fun will depend entirely on your sense of humour.