December 29, 2012

Movie Review: Django Unchained (Spoilers)

So the Hot Little Number and I rolled out to catch the first showing of the day for Django Unchained, the latest Tarantino flick. For those of you who don't know me (most of you), I'm an avid movie fan, especially of action, sci-fi and good thrillers. I had seen several trailers for Django already and was interested in the movie.  As some initial reactions began to roll out about the film, including Spike Lee's declaration that it was disrespectful to his ancestors and he would not see it, I began to suspect there was a bit of stealth advertising going on. 

Movies with racial themes to them sometimes smartly sell themselves as something else. Best example in recent history I can think of is "Remember the Titans".  Watch the trailers and you mostly thought it was a football movie.  Once you got in your seat, you found it it was a lot more than a football flick.  Very smart marketing.  Django does a bit of the same.  The trailers leave you thinking its a kind of dark comedy with a crazy revenge fantasy premise; a former slave turned bounty hunter with a license to kill white people, a kind of of black 007 operating in the antebellum South. The film does deliver a bit of that. But like Remember the Titans, Django has an additional task it seems to set itself, namely graphically portraying the accepted and casually cruel callousness of the "peculiar institution". 
Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word 
It does this in two particular ways, neither of which are for the squeamish. First and foremost, the copious use of the word "nigger" by whites directed at blacks. The word is a constant verbal denial of the humanity of blacks in the film and its spewed forth continuously from the lips of the film's white characters.  This is jarring, even disturbing to some I imagine for a variety of reasons, not all easily explainable. These days, your average decent white person has a real sense of avoidance of the "N" word.  People even describe the term "nigger" as "the N word" in quotes and say it hesitantly, almost gingerly.  If you are white, letting that word so much as cross your lips today is more than enough to instantaneously brand you as a racist in the mind of others. At the same time, "nigger" gets bandied about all the time in the popular culture via rap music, urban themed movies and outrageously vulgar and funny comics like Katt Williams ( a personal favorite, brotha seems to be having some problems lately).  We have debates about who can say it and who can't.  All that tension and angst gets messed with as the films white characters say "nigger" over and over.   Some people criticize Tarantino about the copious use of "nigger" in the film and I felt a little put upon about it myself.  Tarantino calls such criticism ridiculous and while it was a bit uncomfortable, I can't fault his comeback: that's how they talked to and about black people in 1858, two years before the Civil War.  Even the actors were not immune. DiCaprio reportedly began to shrink from its constant use until he was hemmed up on set by co-star Samuel Jackson. Kerry Washington in a recent appearance on the Tonight Show noted the difficulty of being called "nigger" for pretend for eight months of filming.

The second tactic the film employs is the sometimes graphic depiction of the brutality of bondage routinely visited upon slaves. Oddly enough, while many people have characterized the film as full of brutal violence, I actually feel like the film pulled its punches in this respect. The scene in which DiCaprio's character has one of his slaves ripped apart by dogs to make a point is the one which most react to.  It's a brutal scene, no doubt, but Tarantino doesn't give you a long look at it and cuts to and from the gore and blood quickly enough that you can keep your bile down.  As someone who routinely watches very violent movies, the movie isn't doing anything extraordinary in this department. I think what takes people aback is watching this brutal violence in the service of subjugation and dehumanization.  This is the element of the film that gets you a bit by the throat, the truth telling portrayal of what's possible when one set of humans operates a system that confers life and death ownership over another set of humans. The barbarity that the film does depict hints at the depravity which most certainly must come to inhabit the souls of all who profit from such a system.

For all the film's supposed head on portrayal of the brutality of slavery, I actually think it wimps out a bit on this point.  It doesn't shy away from the violence of control visited upon men, but seems surprisingly shy about doing much more than hinting at the brutalization of women. The brothel scenes, the mention of the passing of Broom Hilda to the Mandingo fighters and the German bounty hunter, the near whipping of the egg breaking slave girl, all are hints at the many ways sexual brutalization was visited upon slave women.  The film by and large shys away from trying to portray any of this head on however.

The Hot Little Number had mixed feelings about the film.  Its tendency to boomerang from scenes of intense brutality or dehumanization to humor made it hard for her to be entertained by it. That said, she had an appreciation for what it was attempting to do, and what kept her engaged was the love story.  We both faulted the movie for not giving much humanity to any of the other blacks in the film outside the main characters.  She didn't care for the somewhat passive aspect of Broom Hilda, whose strength was there but extremely understated in the film (when Django gets to Candieland, he learns she's in the box for trying to escape for example). I found a certain amount of fault with the slack jawed dim witted demeanor of the slaves around Django in the opening scenes and at the end. The whites were all ignorant, degenerate beasts and the slaves all slow witted oafs.  With some more narrative discipline, I imagine Tarantino could have given the slaves a more nuanced demeanor and there was an exploration to be had right there. What kind of double mask is being worn by people surviving day to day in such a system? People doing even more than that; loving, marrying, bearing children, worshiping God. If I have a major fault with the film, that's probably it.  It doesn't reach for the heights in this way, and it could have.

Other quibbles? The film is overlong.  When the bullets start flying the first time, he could have won the fight and gone on, but then we go all that bit with  going to the mine and coming back.  That said, I enjoyed the film. Spike Lee says its disrespectful of our ancestors. He is offended by the treatment of the subject with humor and packaging it in a spaghetti western envelope. I understand his point, but I have a hard time believing he would offer the same critique if a black director like Melvin Van Peebles had helmed it. Despite Spike's far greater knowledge of film and film history than mine, the critique also seems a bit trite considering Spike is condemning it without having seen it.  I don't understand how you can comment intelligently on it simply because you know the wrapper it comes in.

Bottom line? I like the film. It's both though provoking  and entertaining.  Especially since it delivers the spaghetti western payoff at the end, because I was certainly thinking to myself, if we are doing this film on the formula, then dammit, Django better get the girl and kill every one single one of these degenerate racists pigs.  You get exactly that. Go see it. Judge for yourself.

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