Thursday, January 17, 2013

7 Random Thoughts I Had After Watching "Django Unchained"

1a. I'm on the fence regarding the whole Spike Lee vs. Quentin Tarantino drama. I completely understand Lee's gripe. Slavery is the black Holocaust, and it's uncomfortable to watch it being played for laughs by a white director. At least Roberto Begnini made the comedic aspect of Life Is Beautiful integral to the plot. On the other hand, though, I get Tarantino's vision. He wanted to create an amalgam of Spaghetti Western, '70s blaxploitation flick, historical period piece and buddy movie, and he did succeed on all those counts.

1b. Most of all, though, Django Unchained succeeded as the ultimate black male revenge fantasy, with Django as a sort of fictional Nat Turner, leading the charge against the 19th-century white devil. Aside from the bit with the pre-KKK hoods, which made me giggle on the inside, the comedy in Django Unchained fell flat for me, but who would have thought I'd ever find myself cheering on the black side during a movie depicting the horrors of slavery and actually get my wished-for outcome? It's hard not to appreciate Tarantino for making that particular fantasy onscreen reality.

2. Here's the biggest problem with Django Unchained (aside from the running time, which at nearly three hours was at least an hour too long): Django was not particularly likable. I'm not sure if it was the way he was written, or the way Jamie Foxx played him. He was a man of few words, seemingly more concerned with freeing his beloved wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) than the larger historical picture at hand. The scene where he stopped Dr. Schultz (Christoph Waltz) from buying the freedom of the slave who was about to be ripped apart by wild dogs was the hardest one to watch, less because of the actions of those hungry canines than Django's. That said, it was the one where I think Waltz really earned his second Golden Globe and Oscar nomination.

3. But what is he doing in the Best Supporting Actor category? Like Helen Hunt in The Sessions (I promise, more on that soon), he was the very definition of a co-lead in Django Unchained. I know he didn't stand a chance of getting an Oscar nomination in the crowded Best Actor field, but his demotion stood in the way of Leonardo DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson getting well-deserved nominations. In a less competitive year, Don Johnson even might have been part of the Best Supporting Actor conversation. His performance started off a little too campy and hammy, but by the time he was shot off his horse, he'd won me over. I wonder if Tarantino got the neat parallelism of casting Crockett from the old Miami Vice TV series opposite Tubbs from the recent big-screen remake. Of course, he did!

4. Speaking of DiCaprio, what an interesting career he's had. He's still an attractive guy, but there's hardly a trace of the teen-idol pin-up he was during the Romeo+Juliet and Titanic days. He made Calvin J. Candie despicable and irredeemable without resorting to the sort of moustache-twirling villainy of slave owners in '70s and '80s TV miniseries about slavery and the Civil War, like Roots and North and South. I still shudder at the campy memory of David Carradine in North and South, stomping around his plantation, terrorizing everyone in his path, especially poor Maum Sally and Lesley-Anne Down.

5. I guess I must continue to wait for a big-screen role substantial enough for Kerry Washington's talent. Broomhilda was the only significant female character in Django Unchained, with an interesting back story and a nicely fleshed-out personality, despite her limited screen time and minimal dialogue (a testament to Washington's skill as an actress). Aside from Dr. Schultz, she was the one truly sympathetic character. I recently watched a documentary on YouTube about a female black slave who ran away to avoid being separated from her kids and spent years living in what was basically a box, apart from her children anyway, while they were raised by relatives. I found myself thinking about her while watching Django Unchained and wishing it were Broomhilda Unchained instead.

6. I admire Tarantino for casting way-past-their-prime-time TV stars in pivotal small roles (Don Johnson, Tom Wopat, Lee Horsley, who also appeared in 1985's North and South), but he really needs to stay out of his own way. He was far less cringe-worthy in Django Unchained than he was in Pulp Fiction (where, astonishingly, his character came across as even more of a racist), but the show most certainly would have gone on without him in it.

7a. It's always good to see Samuel L. Jackson -- even when he's barely recognizable. His character, ancient house slave Stephen, was an interesting, though infuriating, one. It was the most I've enjoyed a Jackson performance since he blew me away more than 20 years ago in Jungle Fever, another racially charged movie directed, ironically, by Tarantino's philosophical nemesis Spike Lee. Watching Stephen in action, I kept thinking of Tilly, the maid played by Isabel Sanford in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. Remember how she scoffed and scowled at the arrival of Sidney Poitier's character, who had the nerve to show up as the fiance of her employers' daughter? Why do uppity black people always have it in for fellow uppity black people?

7b. Then and now, in many ways, the black man's (and woman's) greatest enemy was/is the black man (and woman). Ultimately, Stephen was the biggest villain in Django Unchained. Though he neither killed anyone nor did he raise his hand to another living soul, he set into motion the final act's bloody chain of events. If anyone should have known better, it was him, an old man who had spent his entire life under the control of white men. Though Calvin J. Candie treated him with a glimmer of respect, the way a master would handle an old faithful dog, he was still private property. Forget the violence in Django Unchained (which, to these eyes, was more comedic than graphic) and the incessant use of the N word. Making a fellow black man Django's -- and by extension, the black man's -- biggest enemy actually may have been one of Tarantino's ballsiest and most telling moves yet.
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