Django Unchained review
It’s only been in theaters a day and already Django Unchained is being praised and condemned to the levels of making friends become enemies. People will either be looked at strangely for having lack of taste in film, while others will be asked “What more do you want?!”, while others will be supremely offended by the violence and use of the word “nigger”. To some extent, you know you have a good movie if people are at least offended because that means they feel something. If they don’t care about it either way and are bored, then you’ve really failed. To like something doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good. If it is cursed and reviled, then it might just be the best piece of work. Tarantino surely isn’t without his reputation of causing some controversy. And controversy sells. Did he make this film to make people think or just for more money in his pocket, despite what he may claim in interviews? Who knows.
All I know is, I walked away from the film giving it a B rating.
Here, again, we have a film with a central Black character during an especially sensitive time in Black History being directed and controlled largely by a white male. When Red Tails came out, everyone was told to run, don’t walk, to the theater. Because if they didn’t, then nothing like it again would come out. Well here we are again with Django Unchained, and not nearly the amount of critical mass Black movement was asked for. Was it because it deals with slavery? I don’t doubt it. It’s easier to ask everyone to run to see a story on Tuskegee Airmen, people who were known as heroes, rather than a fictional hero set in one of the most oppressive periods in Black History. No doubt, there were Django’s out there who resisted and were brave, but here we are with this film. It had been in Tarantino’s stable for a long time, and now he finally has the chance to make it.
One of the people behind this film, who I think was very negligently glossed over, was Reginald Hudlin. Mr. Hudlin is responsible for making the 1st House Party, Boomerang, executive producing The Boondocks, and creating Black Panther the animated series. Many people criticised his position in running BET, but if you look at his resume, you won’t doubt his efforts to make Blackness and Black heroes just as normal as the rest. But you rarely see him mentioned except for in a few interviews. Spike Lee refused to see Django. But I’m sure he knew Reginald Hudlin was involved, so I’m curious as to why he would shun the film. Reginald is a peer of Spike’s, so I don’t know what Spike may have felt would be especially offensive about it, aside from the fact that he may still hold a grudge for Tarantino being so comfortable with the word “nigger” being used in his films.
If there were anything that I know I had a direct problem with, it was the very beginning of the film. The campiness and the music in the beginning made it feel like one of those throwback 70s films that are more style than substance. You know, those over the top title fonts that make it feel like it was a cheap hero film with a bunch of campy one liners and stuff. But if you know Tarantino, you know that he has always had a penchant for campy style, well crafted dialogue, and a certain storytelling style that is very apparent in European films. And no doubt, that’s what we got.
My original plan was to see the film by myself. I learned African history before I was even ten years old, and because of that I have an immediate visceral response to films and subjects on the slave trade. Because of that, I didn’t really want to go with friends and have a long discussion. Maybe one person maximum, but I wanted to be alone so I could see it without distraction or influence. I wanted to see it in a small theater during the day without many people. But I was impatient, and went to the showing I could get to the fastest. The place was packed. I saw a large amount of young people there. People brought their kids. I didn’t know if I was OK with that. Definitely a lot of teens.
One of the reasons I wanted to see it alone was because I had read there were a lot of funny parts of the film. I expected that, since the subject matter is so heavy that you have to even out the tension with comedy. But the problem with seeing it in a packed theater for me was the laughter was amplified. There were times where I couldn’t tell if people were laughing at intentionally funny parts. I couldn’t tell either if some of the laughter was to try to break some of the nervous tension they may have felt. I didn’t know if I felt there was enough direct focus on how morally reprehensible this period was in our history. When I left the film I didn’t know how I felt, until I realized that everything I felt was lacking was what I WANTED, not what was there.
I noticed afterward that Christoph Waltz and Leonardo DiCaprio had the most speaking lines in the film. That makes it no wonder why they are being nominated for so many awards. Samuel L. Jackson was the next most speaking role. Otherwise, none of the other Black characters speak all that much. I don’t know how I feel about that, or if I should even care.
I also found it ironic that Waltz’ character is German, given that about 100 years from when the film is set Germans would also create a terrible holocaust. I guess we assume that Schultz is Jewish from his last name (which a Google search shows as a somewhat common Jewish German surname). It’s also ironic that the character’s name is “Dr. King”. The more I see the irony, the funnier it gets.
At the end of the day though, I didn’t want to see it again. It was enjoyable enough. But there wasn’t anything in it that made me want it on DVD, other than to see a few scenes with DiCaprio and Don Johnson (Johnson was unnecessarily good in the film by the way). Yes there’s a lot of violence, but after a while it’s so over the top that I didn’t really get bothered by it that much. And maybe that’s another problem….the campiness and over-the-top violence that makes the other scenes of torture feel..confusing. How do I feel about the bad people being shot, with one of them being shot in front of his son, and then another moment where Kerry Washington is being whipped? I didn’t know how to feel, and in some cases still don’t. I have Dr. Schultz calmly telling Django (and the audience) not to feel bad for some of the people they’re killing. Next, I see Dr. Schultz struggling to keep his calm as he has flashbacks of a Black man being torn apart by a dog. It’s as if we are being told to feel more sorry for the Black people, but not show a commonality of human life. It feels a bit inconsistent. But when you tackle something of this nature, I doubt I would have been too consistent in a way to please everyone either.
With Django Unchained, Red Tails, and all the rest of these movies, I (and I’m sure many others) are looking for some kind of redemption. Something to make others truly understand a level of sadness and frustration associated with having centuries of mistreatment embedded in our past, that is automatically read by our skin color. But really, nothing is going to do that all at once. From a 3 hour film, to a mini series, to a Black president, nothing will ever be enough to make it “OK”. And that’s really something I’m saying more to myself than to others.
So overall, it was good. Nothing I want to see all over again necessarily, but it wasn’t bad. As I’ve said before, there’s going to be a lot of other grand conspiracy theory, bell hookian analysis, and critical study applied to looking at the film and the politics of making it. I don’t have time for that. As I discuss it more with others we’ll see if my feelings don’t change. For now…
…it was pretty good.