I 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.