With Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino finally comes of age as a filmmaker. Tarantino’s brilliance as a writer and craftsman have always been clear. But even his last picture, the Holocaust revenge fantasy Inglourious Basterds, was overwhelmed by his geeky obsession with vintage genres (in that case, old war movies). When he showed us a group of Jews huddled in a basement being shot through the floorboards above, but declined to go below and show them actually dying (it might have clouded the film’s comedy), he shortchanged the movie’s putative subject.
With Django, the director has brought off a perfect marriage of style and history. He has appropriated the universe of another beloved genre, the spaghetti western (in particular Sergio Corbucci’s brutal 1966 cult film, Django), and set within it an unsparing tale of American slavery. The movie is outrageously funny, but it’s also unflinchingly committed to a full exploration of the horrors of its subject. Where many movies about black bondage are diluted by liberal hankie-wringing, this one feels fueled by a black rage that still simmers today. It might be the most savage cinematic depiction of slavery ever made.
Some early reviewers have expressed dismay about the movie’s extensive deployment of the word “nigger.” (“It’s a nigger on a horse,” says one marveling cretin as a black man rides by on his mount.) It’s hard to know what to say about such a reaction, except to point out that, hey, it’s a movie about slavery.
The story is set just before the Civil War. It begins in Texas, with a group of chained slaves being herded through a parched landscape by odious white overseers. Tarantino shows us the raw lash marks on the black men’s backs, and we feel their beaten-down spiritual weariness. Then a small horse-drawn coach approaches. There’s a huge wobbling tooth mounted on its top. It’s driven by Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz, who won an Oscar for his performance as the sinister Nazi in Inglourious Basterds and is unimprovably excellent here). Schultz is a German immigrant and itinerant frontier dentist. He tells the puzzled overseers he wants to buy a slave, but they quickly learn that he has something else in mind. Schultz’s sideline is bounty-hunting—apprehending wanted criminals and bringing them back dead or alive. Mostly dead, it appears. After making quick work of the overseers, he picks a slave named Django (Jamie Foxx, magnetic throughout) to join him in his quest for a fugitive gang called the Brittle Brothers. The slave finds this to be an attractive offer: killing white oppressors and getting paid for it? Excellent.
The movie may be a slightly overlong at two hours and 45 minutes, but Tarantino has packed it with great scenes and wild dialogue, and it pretty much flies by. Django has a quest of his own to pursue: finding his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), from whom he was separated when their sadistic master purposely sold her separately to another slaver. (Broomhilda was given her name by an immigrant owner, who also taught her to speak German—a point that pays off later in the film.) Along the way on their individual missions, Schultz and Django have many colorful adventures, most of them presented with a breathtakingly inventive comical flourish.
Passing through a frontier town, Schultz takes Django into the local saloon—a major violation of the prevailing racial code. The sheriff is summoned, but before he can deal with the interloping troublemakers, Schultz spots him as an outlaw with a generous bounty on his head. This is really too bad for the sheriff.
The journey proceeds. There’s an eventful stopover at the plantation of a white-haired slaveholder called Big Daddy (Don Johnson) before Schultz and Django finally arrive at Candie Land, a feudal estate run by one Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio, digging into a juicy part). Candie amuses himself and his guests with exhibitions of “Mandingo fighting”—a vicious pastime in which two male slaves are brought into an elegant drawing room to beat each other senseless while the white men look on appreciatively. Complicating this household is the presence of Candie’s head slave and butler, Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson, a wonder beneath a spackling of old-man makeup). Stephen has a complex relationship with Candie, whom he’s known since the younger man’s infancy, and his devious machinations on behalf of his fond owner become a lethal threat to the two new visitors.
It’s odd to find yourself laughing so hard at a movie that shows us so much that is hideous: black people being whipped and savaged by dogs and locked into a metal “hot box” for days on end under the broiling sun. It’s a measure of Tarantino’s ferocious talent that none of this feels like travesty. Throughout the film, Foxx’s character acts as an angel of retribution, violently righting all wrongs, and we cheer him on.
The cast is characteristically rich in vintage faces: Michael Parks, Bruce Dern, Russ Tamblyn—even Franco Nero, who starred in the original Django. I always feel it’s a mistake for Tarantino to appear in his own movies—this time with an Aussie accent, yet. His famous face is a distraction. But as quibbles go, this is a minor one.
The movie is further enriched by the raging eclecticism of its soundtrack, which ranges from spaghetti vets Ennio Morricone and Luis Bacalov (the composer who scored the 1966 Django) to Jim Croce, Rick Ross, and John Legend. Only Tarantino, I think, could mash all this stuff together and make it work—saluting both the genre glory of the old Italian westerns and the electric throb of an enduring black rage.
The iniquity of slavery is nothing to joke about, which is why it has usually been approached with careful gravity. Tarantino’s genius here is to allow his star to take vengeance on the institution’s long-departed practitioners, and in the process rouse us (and the two black people sitting next to me at the screening I saw) to a harsh and cleansing laughter.
Editor's Note: This article has been updated.