Movie review – Remaking a western hero

2013-01-20 10:00

Django Unchained ticks all the boxes you’d expect from a Tarantino film, making it a galloping good romp, writes Gayle Edmunds.

There was much muttering in film circles – and others – from the likes of Spike Lee about Quentin Tarantino daring to make a movie about slavery.

But with his particular brand of storytelling, Tarantino has silenced his critics by treating those who perpetuated slavery with the disdain (and ridicule) they so richly deserve, while portraying the stories of those who were enslaved with care.

All this while having a thoroughly bloody good, irreverent time.

And that includes everyone – cast, crew and audience.

Django Unchained is a Tarantino movie in every sense.

It tells a grave tale in a fun way that accesses popular culture to create a universe that is as real as it is surreal.

Tarantino says of slavery: “It can’t be more nightmarish than it was in real life. It can’t be more surrealistic than it was in real life. It can’t be more outrageous than it was in real life.”

But Tarantino does try.

Two of the film’s scenes take Tarantino’s trademark death and blood-letting to almost unviewable levels.

But they both illustrate the terrible truth: if another man owns you, you are at his mercy in every way.

And if he has no mercy, there are fates worse than death.

Set a few years before the American Civil War, Django Unchained is a Western in every sense of the genre.

Tarantino includes all the stuff you’d expect – a shoot-out in a dust bowl town, a standoff between the law and the outlaws, men in Stetsons galloping across endless plains and music that begs for a swaggering cowboy to accompany it.

The Western draws so eloquently on the battle between good and evil, and the chase of the villain by the law, that it is the perfect genre to tell the story of history’s most abhorrent practice.

Also, as so often happens in Westerns, right is not necessarily represented by the law, which holds true in the case of slavery, so using the Western framework is a further stroke of genius.

The name Django also has its roots in the spaghetti western tradition.

He was a character who reappeared time and again as the hero, so it’s fitting that Tarantino is already talking about a sequel to this film.

Good thing that although the ending was sticky with blood for most of the characters, he left the saddle on the horse for Django (Jamie Foxx) to ride again.

He even gets Franco Nero, the original Django, to put in an appearance.

Christoph Waltz (now clutching his Golden Globe for best supporting actor) swaps the metaphorical black hat he wore in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds as a Nazi of epic badness for a white one as Dr King Schultz, the bounty hunter who buys Django, a slave, to help him hunt down a trio of brothers working as overseers on a plantation.

Before long, the pair have created a partnership to catch baddies together and Django tells Schultz about his plan to save his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington).

Though steeped in American culture, the German folk tale of Broomhilda and Siegfried provides the romantic impetus that drives this bloody tale.

This ties in with Schultz’s nationality, but also reminds the audience that the US is a nation of immigrants – giving the horror of the practice of slavery a multicultural flavour.

Broomhilda is an oddity, a slave who speaks German and who is named after a German folklore princess.

She is further proof of the reality of slavery. Her owner missed hearing German so taught it to another human being to satisfy her whim of hearing her mother tongue.

The traditional black cowboy hat of the Western tradition is shared between a breathtaking number of men, most notably for their chilling and hilarious performances: Leonardo DiCaprio as Calvin Candie, Samuel L Jackson as Stephen and Don Johnson as Big Daddy.

The interchange between Big Daddy and a slave woman about how she is to treat Django, a freed slave, is brilliant in its absurdity.

Jackson’s turn as a slave, with such developed Stockholm Syndrome that he’s as bad as his owner, is terrifying and DiCaprio proves that nobody dare call him a baby-faced actor any more.

But far and away the funniest scene in the film is the one in which the precursor to the Ku Klux Klan tries to lynch Django.

Tarantino shows them for what they always were, a bunch of ignoramuses with pillowcases on their heads.

We are all so steeped in American culture because of that country’s successful, if somewhat accidental, cultural imperialism that it doesn’t matter that Django Unchained is what you might call an all-American film that draws on conventions of Hollywood to tell its tale.

Film fans across the world will get the references.

Big Daddy standing on the porch of a plantation pokes fun at Gone with the Wind’s romanticised view of slavery, for example.

Tarantino’s mission is to restart the debate on slavery, to get Americans to talk about their country’s darkest hour – and to not take the glorification of it in popular culture at face value.

We too need to talk more about our nation’s darkest hour as Twitter and newspaper commentators are always telling us.

Wouldn’t it be great if someone could find such an engaging way of kick-starting the debate?

Most of all, with slavery and human trafficking still rife across the planet, Tarantino’s movie shows – in almost unbearable graphic detail – the grim realities of slavery for the enslaved.

»?Follow me on Twitter @GayleMahala

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