Tarantino Unchained

Quentin Tarantino at the 82nd Academy Awards, ...

A Review of Django Unchained (2012)

Last week my wife and I went to see Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained with two friends, an occasion we anticipated so highly that we named our new dog Django months before the movie’s December 25th release date.  Quite an act of faith, but Tarantino has never disappointed before.

The movie started off as expected: old-fashioned title screens with an original and old-fashioned song, leading to a Tarantino-esque opening scene of witty conversation and dramatic monologues, only this one didn’t have quite the pace and depth as those in Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, and Inglourious Basterds.

Still, the movie was funny as hell.  Much of the humor is topical, relying heavily on novelties like the shock of seeing Leonardo DiCaprio using the n-word so believably and naturally in the company of Jamie Foxx and Samuel L. Jackson, two guys who can be both funny and intimidating.  (Although Samuel L. Jackson probably takes the prize for the most racist character, if you can believe it.)

Christopher Waltz plays a German bounty hunter and former dentist, Dr. King Schultz, who comes upon two men in the night leading several slaves to auction.  A few gunshots later, and Dr. Schultz “purchases” Django so Django can lead him to three slave masters he intends to kill for a large bounty.  In exchange, Schultz agrees to help Django find his wife, who was sold to another plantation after the two of them tried to escape.

This movie has caused a big stir.  People are up in arms, calling Quentin Tarantino a racist and a gun-worshipping hack who repackages old genres of film and sells them as originality.  A lot of people believe Django Unchained disrespects a sensitive part of American history, the enslavement, torture, abuse, and systematic murder of an entire race of people.

If that’s the case, why didn’t Inglourious Basterds make such a splash in the PC pool?  That movie was a cannonball of violence, and just like in Django, Tarantino burst into a time of tragedy and outrage and used it as his playground.

I can tell you why.  The difference is, in Inglourious Basterds, nearly all of the violence was committed against Nazis.  Here in America, no one has a problem with Nazis getting their heads bashed in.  We don’t see them as brainwashed, conditioned, and drugged human beings.  We don’t see them as human beings at all.  They’ve historically been represented as pure evil.

In Django Unchained, on the other hand, you see violence against slaves–violence against the victims, instead of just the perpetrators.  (Imagine if Quentin Tarantino directed Schindler’s List with the directing style he used in Kill Bill: Volume Two.  I imagine it can be hard to stomach for some people, especially those who went into the movie unaware of his previous work.)

IMG_0605 - Quentin Tarantino & Jamie Foxx

IMG_0605 – Quentin Tarantino & Jamie Foxx (Photo credit: Anime Nut)

It’s funny how conditional our tolerance for violence is.  American culture in particular is saturated with it.  I’m not a proponent of removing violence from film and literature.  A few pages into one of my books and you’ll know some of my writing is lush with violence.

Why do I write about violence?  Because it is here.  It’s everywhere.  It cloaks our very existence.  It must be addressed for its relevancy.

What should we do with it?  Artists, journalists, filmmakers, and writers should always respect the finality of death by portraying violence in an appropriately horrible and unappealing fashion.  To revere violence or even handle it sloppily is to promote it.

Which begs the question: how do we categorize Quentin Tarantino’s use of violence–in all his films, not just this one?  It does appear celebratory.  Jules and Vincent were some pretty cool guys, after all.

Here’s what I have to say about the matter: Quentin Tarantino proved with Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction that he can manipulate his audience into looking at things a certain way, into having specific types of conversations.  With Django Unchained, he’s done it again.

Think about it.  How long has it been since a book or film has launched the issues of slavery and violence into the mainstream for nationwide discussion?

He tried to rile everyone up with Inglourious Basterds, but the conversation never took off.  This time, he brought it home to us.

When we talk about violence and related topics–gun control, mass shootings, war, personal rights, etc.– we need to remember the core of the matter.  Communication and debate are good things.  The real-world violence itself is what’s bad.

What did you think of this movie?

Winston Emerson


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