We’re all set to discuss DJANGO UNCHAINED on the air tonight. While I don’t have time for a complete film review of Tarantino’s bloody and profane Blaxploitation/Spaghetti Western set in 1858 that sprawls across the Southern United States, I will say that this is minor Tarantino. While he arduously scripted complex and amusing set pieces and stretched out a first act that ellipses the second, he seems to be well and gleefully stuck in his comfort zone. I was hardly surprised by anything inside DJANGO (which includes the sublime Christophe Waltz’s slight reprise of his overly loquacious German from INGLORIOUS BASTERDS and Leo DiCaprio having fun out of his comfort zone, playing his villain the same way Martin Wuttke played Hitler in the end).
The surprise has come from everything else associated with the film. I was a bit stunned to see the tortuous defense of the film as some grand social work and a primer on the institution of slavery in this country. To read A.O. Scott’s piece in the New York Times, you’d think DJANGO was a filmed version of some tome by W.E. B Du Bois. (Funny that Scott in his review notes QT’s attempts to elevate and so then reexamine the exploitation film, then in the same piece states that White men have been primarily been allowed revenge, ignoring perhaps the entire early 70’s, the works of Gordon Parks, Larry Cohen and Jack Hill. )
The film is NOT ABOUT SLAVERY. It is an “exploitation” movie that uses slavery as a reason for a lot of buckets (and I mean that literally) of fake blood splashing across sets. Sorry, film critics of America, anyone with a decent high school education, or has seen ROOTS will learn nothing from DJANGO about the institution.
The exploitation genre simplifies by flattening the surfaces. Villains are one-note, as are heroes. The complexity is in the plot (sometimes) and the pleasures are visceral. So in DJANGO, that’s what we get. Most slavers are idiots, save the one psychotic Big-Boss, DJANGO doesn’t talk much and can only has on his mind his missing wife. Lots of people get shot. For instance, while Jackson’s house slave (familiar to anyone who’s seen Ruckus in The Boondocks) is at once an obsequious sidekick and chilling villain, QT has no answers for the question, why is he that way? Those who’ve studied the institution know that men like him behaved this way to survive the brutality using their wits and acting skills. QT simply presents him as a sort of race traitor and co-conspirator who deserves to die.
From this you cannot expect any complex view of slavery, but not to hear Tarantino talk about the film. It isn’t only the critics who believe the film to be socially significant. Why, QT is so presumptuous as to believe that young black men will view the film as a rite of passage.
I don’t know whether the scrawl at the start of the film that notes it takes place in 1858, two years before the Civil War is an unconscious acknowledgement that Tarantino is a high school dropout or that he is slyly signaling that we are about to enter his fictional fantasy world where Japanese people carry katana blades on airplanes.
Perhaps it’s both those things. Perhaps QT is as much a huckster as his nemesis, Spike Lee, who know that press is press and whatever gets people into theaters helps assure the next film is made
One thing is for sure, the reaction to the film is exposing a continuing Post-Obama divide on race, even among the liberal intelligentsia. As a friend says, “no conscious Black people” are going to see DJANGO, while conscious (?) White people are going in droves and loving it (and perhaps also unconscious Black people), and defending their love for it by insisting that it is something it is not.
All the while, the work itself doesn’t pretend to be anything much at all.