By Ethan Sapienza
The first hour of Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained” is blissful. Emulating the similar, fantastical, over-the-top satisfaction of watching the Jewish soldiers from “Inglorious Basterds” kill Nazis, the initial sixty minutes follow recently freed slave Django hunt down bigoted, sadistic criminals who are involved with slavery. Their deaths are in the style that Tarantino worships: bloody to the point where it’s downright silly and practically campy.
Revenge is had, all the while witnessing a comical scenario involving dimwitted KKK members and an interesting exchange discussing the morality of bounty hunting. Jamie Foxx is impressive in his drive and reservation. Christoph Waltz reunites with Tarantino in an enticing role that is obviously similar to Colonel Hans Landa from “Basterds” – this time a moral dentist turned bounty hunter. There is a care in his interactions with Django, not to mention a clear comedy in his accent combined with a mastery of the English language and sharp wit.
Surprisingly, once Leonardo DiCaprio is introduced as the hilariously titled Calvin Candie, the film devolves into a boring and flat out offensive mess. No criticism of DiCaprio here, as he plays Candie with a keen and villainous ignorance that is both fascinating and repulsive to watch. Yet his appearance marks a point where the film’s pace drastically shifts: the first third is a tour de force, the remainder is a tour de bore. From a purely entertainment standpoint, little happens in terms of progression and action for what seems like hours.
When something does finally occur – that being two overly exorbitant shootouts – “Django” has lost any credibility due to an utter lack of morality. By following Django’s quest to reclaim his wife from Candie’s clutches, the film falls into a quasi-drama-Spaghetti Western, using slavery as a backdrop. Spike Lee voiced his frustration with these practices stating on Twitter:
Bringing in Leone is important in fully understanding just how awful “Django” is. The Italian director’s magnum opus, “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” is a masterful western that is set during the Civil War. Rather than use the war as a medium for added action, it honors the brutality of conflict as well as objectively depicting the horrors of watching fellow countrymen fight one another. Tarantino has publicly stated his adoration for Leone’s film, yet fails to translate the director’s respect for the barbarity of the time period in “Django.”
As if to lessen the gravity of slavery, Tarantino features himself in what’s supposed to be a comical role as an Australian human trafficker, yet seems far more exploitative than anything else. His witlessness and explosive death are supposed to draw laughs; instead they are flatout offensive, making a mockery of the most awful of many blemishes in America’s history.
On top of the cameo, contemporary rap music is occasionally used. Again this acts as lessening the very serious nature of slavery, as well as being an utter distraction from the images on the screen.
At times it seems many complaints concerning Tarantino’s overuse of the “n-word,” African-American tropes, and absurd levels of violence are unfounded: he has created some of the best films of the past three decades. Unfortunately, “Django” cannot be included in this stipulation. Not only is it quite boring, but unflinchingly distasteful. Tarantino’s rewriting of history works more out of a man’s ignorance than artistic ability.
Ethan Sapienza is a staff writer. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.