Django Unchained Not Racist But Not Good

Django UnchainedI finally got a chance to see Django Unchained without even indirectly putting any money in Quentin Tarantino’s pocket. That’s very important to me, because as much as I think that Tarantino is a very talented guy who at times makes fine movies, I am also convinced that he is a total dick—symbolic of everything that is wrong with Hollywood as an institution.

The first half of the film is very good. I don’t see what the big deal was about racism. Tarantino’s use of the word “nigger” is more appropriate here than it ever was in any of his other films. As for the content, it is “Tarantino does the antebellum south.” With a notable exception that I will discuss in a moment, the film is a fantasy. And what’s more, the portrayal of the slaves in generally fairly accurate. It is a welcome salve after the “We jus’ loves bein’ slaves” of Gone With the Wind. And Tarantino does a good job of making each slave an individual rather than a representative of a class.

If there is a problem here, it is with the whites, who seem like a bunch of yahoos created by a man whose only knowledge of the south comes from watching Hee Haw as a kid. Still, I can justify it. We do tend to see only the whites who are most vested in the slave system. But we know from Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass that not all whites on the slave farm were hate-filled psychopaths.

The only problem with the first half of the film is that it uses a number of flashbacks to establish Django’s character. These scenes are distinctly realistic. And they are jarring compared to the main narrative that is full fantasy. They remind the viewer that the subject is no joke—there were real people suffering real torture and real lifelong servitude. And this is a real buzz kill when you’re just trying to watch a fun western where the evil slaveholders get their due. I’m afraid that their inclusion in the film is indicative of the problems that Tarantino has understanding real life. He probably put those scenes in the film because he didn’t want to be attacked for making light of the subject. But is just made it worse. This is not Schindler’s List; such a film could be made, but certainly not by Tarantino.

The second half of the film is where it all falls apart. It moves from fantasy to brainless action movie. Characters act in ways that are determined entirely by the dictates of the plot rather than their actions up to that point. What’s more, it all gets very predictable. And boring. I think that Tarantino is very often confused. He thinks he’s Sam Peckinpah when he’s really more Michael Arndt. And the less talking, the more boring his films are. Oh: the film is also about an hour too long.

But Django Unchained is not a racist movie. It is a Quentin Tarantino movie. And that means a whole lot: both good and bad.


One thing that really struck me in the first half of the film was the way that the heroes talked about playing a part in real life. This reminded me of the commode story from Reservoir Dogs, where the undercover cop has to learn a script to use in his work. We get the same thing here. It is interesting, because I think there is a lot of truth to this. In fact, Marlon Brando used to say that there was no big deal about acting—everyone did it everyday in real life.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

0 thoughts on “Django Unchained Not Racist But Not Good

  1. I think Tarantino wanted it both ways. He wanted praise for making a "daring" movie about a charged subject, and treating slavery with the horror it deserves. He also wanted credit for being all-Tarantino-y about slavery, taking a charged subject and making it into a rah-rah exploitation film. Well, you can’t have it both ways.

    The second half of the movie is such a colossal mess. Pretty much everything that could go wrong goes wrong. One of QT’s strengths is writing compelling bad guys; Sam Jackson in "Jackie Brown," Christoph Walz in "Basterds." He can make them interesting without making them likeable (I thought the bad guys in "Pulp Fiction" were too likeable, given that they were stone-cold murderers.) Jackson’s character in "Django" comes closest to this (the demented inbred sister is also memorable), but Leo DeCaprio’s role is badly underwritten. The movie has a Bond arc, where everything leads up to the confrontation with Mr. Evil, and Mr. Evil is plenty dull.

    QT does think he’s Sam Peckinpah (those spattery shootouts are getting old; what happened to the guy who gave us the bloodless finish for Bill?) He also thinks he’s Sergio Leone. And he’s not. Leone’s movies were morally very infantile, yet they had their own logic and plot rhythm. "Once Upon A Time In The West" or "The Good/Bad/Ugly" (which QT says is his favorite film) build up tension and melodrama step by step; at the end, you want the villain to get it so bad it hurts. QT’s attempts to channel Leone aren’t working; he’s nowhere near as gifted at coming up with simple, involving plots. (The latter half of "Django" has a simple plot — Leo charges Django a lot to buy his wife — and it’s hugely unsatisfying.) His best movie, "Jackie Brown," has a plot so convoluted I think even QT lost track.

    There were worthwhile things in it. I really enjoyed the Jim Croce music cue. Foxx is very good playing an uneducated man who is also very smart; Walz is very good playing the Han Solo, opportunist-with-a-heart-of-gold part without being condescending. (Killing him off for no good reason was a disastrous script choice.) I think it’s easily QT’s worst movie, though. He’s struggling for ideas, now, and for the first time watching any of his movies this one had almost nothing which surprised and delighted me. Even "Bill 2", as dull as some of its sequences were, had Pei Mei and the coffin and Bill’s goldfish speech. "Django" had "I Got A Name." That was about it.

    It’s unfortunate that QT wants to be a rock-star director, acclaimed for being cutting-edge and different, when his skills are really very throwback and traditional. He can write good dialogue. He can film an action sequence so that viewers actually understand what’s happening, instead of relying on fast cuts and loud sound effects to gloss over the confusion. (Not at John McTiernan’s level, but then nobody is.) I really thought, with "Basterds," that he had finally gotten over his obsession with cheesy violence and was mocking it, in a way. I was wrong. As the person I saw "Django" with commented, "you know, you think this guy’s kinda sophisticated when he’s probably not."

  2. @JMF – Wow. I agree with all of that. QT (I like that name for him) has always been a clever artistic thief. Even Roger Avary claimed he had to stop talking to QT because he kept stealing ideas. I think there is a limit to this. He would be better off using someone else’s script–or at least working with a good writer like David Peoples. Of course, the problem is that any good writer would not be able to deal with QT for very long.

    One thing I would add to what you’ve written: I loved Walz’s character, but it was not believable. He is, after all, a psychopath. Leone was much better at sculpting those kinds of strange characters. And for the record, I’m not all that fond of either of the pictures you mentioned. I most like [i]Duck, You Sucker![/i] I think it is Leone’s best realized film. But I really wish Rod Steiger had been Eli Wallach!

  3. Yes, the Walz character is pretty ridiculous. He’s such a likable actor, though, I don’t fault QT for writing him a flawed-good-guy part after giving him "Epitome Of Slimy Evil" in "Basterds." Too bad QT has never written (or just directed) Sam Jackson in a good-guy part. "The Negotiator" and "Changing Lanes" were both over-the-top, silly-plot movies, but Jackson has a gift for playing characters pushed to their limit. His huge Muppet eyes seem to suck you into what he’s thinking, so behavior that would seem nuts if a deadpan Kevin Spacey did it seems perfectly understandable from Jackson. And QT could do it; "Jackie Brown" showed he can frame sequences about average people just as well (if not better) than he does his pseudo-iconic figures. Imagine a QT movie with Jackson as a guy driven to desperation by the million little wounds we all know (living in America, we know them) and you get an idea of what I mean. Unfortunately, QT isn’t that kind of director. Too bad.

    I’ll give you "GoodBadUgly" not being all that. I’ll disagree on "Time In The West," but probably just for the Morricone score. (Also Bad Fonda; Bad Fonda is much cooler than Noble Fonda.) Some years ago, while in a bad patch, I read one of Stephen Fry’s fiction books and in it the main character broke up with his girlfriend but decided, as they split their possessions, to keep the Morricone disc. This struck me as exactly right.

    (QT wanted Morricone, still alive, to score "Basterds." Morricone declined. I’m not sure if the reason was age, health, scheduling conflicts, or that Morricone knew QT was a thunderous ass.)

  4. @JMF – I’m not saying those pictures are bad. And I agree with you about Fonda. I like him better in that film than any other. He is [i]so[/i] evil. Both those films work. Maybe I’m just board with them. I’m also very fond of [i]For a Few Dollars More[/i], but it is actually weak. I think I just like seeing Lee Van Cleef as a good guy. And the hat shooting scene is great.

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