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Movie review: Django Unchained

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Considering Quentin Tarantino is my favorite director and the ultimate Spaghetti Western--The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly is my favorite movie, chances were good I was going to like Django Unchained, Tarantino's take on the Spaghetti Western. It did not disappoint. However, there was an element in it that was disturbing in a way that goes beyond the violence usually associated with Tarantino's films, which normally I don't find offensive. He uses it to portray gritty reality, as in Pulp Fiction, or as cartoonish nods to 1970s Kung Fu movies or similarly grueling Japanese anime. The violence in Django Unchained, however, seemed more like an attempt to be inspirational rather that imitative of reality or a movie Tarantino wanted to recreate.

I'm not one that finds it easy to criticize Tarantino's movies. I own most of them and have seen them enough to recite most of the lines. I didn't need to read Django's credits to spot stunt actress Zoe Belle from Death Proof as a silent, masked, Boba Fett-like slave tracker in the thirty seconds she was on the screen. I recognized Michael Parks as the pimp in Kill Bill 2 and as the same sheriff character in Kill Bill 1 and From Dusk Till Dawn; I'm not a stranger in the Tarantinoverse. Furthermore, as a fan of Spaghetti Westerns, I'm delighted to see scenes in Kill Bill and Inglourious Basterds that could have been taken right out of The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.

Like many others, I became a fan of Tarantino's after watching Pulp Fiction in 1994, and I circled back to watch Reservoir Dogs, then saw Jackie Brown when it opened on Christmas Day in 1997. The Kill Bill movies were a departure from the realistic, Neo-Noir, original storyline style he helped mainstream--indeed they were the complete opposite of his earlier films, being more comic book than crime drama, while preserving his films' dialogue-driven style. He remade movies that he saw growing up in his own unique style--Jackie Brown was his Blaxploitation movie, Kill Bill was his Kung Fu movie, Deathproof was his slasher movie, Inglourious Basterds was his Dirty Dozen-inspired war movie, and Django is his Western.

Tarantino isn't just a copycat robbing other movies. The originality he inserts into them makes them good enough to stand on their own. He writes amazing dialogue, so that characters sitting around a table chatting about seemingly nothing--whether it be the crime crew in Reservoir Dogs, Jules and Vincent in Pulp Fiction, The Bride and Hattori Hanzo in Kill Bill, or Hans Landa and a French dairy farmer in Inglorious Basterds)--not only keep you interested but have you quoting them long after the movie.

Django Unchained seems to be a Frankenstein of all of his influences--it's part Spaghetti Western, part Blaxploitation, part Kung Fu, and part slasher; all rolled into one.

It definitely has the weakest of Tarantino movie openings--there is no witty dialogue around a breakfast table as in Reservoir Dogs, no "what the heck just happened" (again at a breakfast table) in Pulp Fiction, not even Jackie Brown standing on a people mover for five minutes. It's just slaves walking in the desert to the theme from Django, a 1960s Spaghetti Western that is lesser known than Sergio Leone's Man With No Name trilogy.

Like Leone's movies, Django was a low-budget, Italian/Spanish Western centered around a strong silent type that never missed with his revolver. Except it didn't have Clint Eastwood and it wasn't scored by Ennio Moriccone, so it failed to be the overseas successes that For a Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly were.

In addition to Leone's visual style and Moriccone's weird-but-effective music, the plots are rather intricate for corny overdubbed movies. They involve uneasy alliances, where clever characters with competing interests have to team together for a short while.

In The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, which Django Unchained undoubtedly draws some influence, a bounty hunter (Eastwood) forms a partnership with the notorious criminal Tuco, wherein the pair will travel to various towns, Eastwood will hand Tuco over to the authorities for reward money, then spring him from jail. They split the reward and repeat the trick wherever Tuco has a bounty on his head (which keeps rising as he becomes even more notorious).

The unlikely duo betray each other but come across a dying man who knows the location of a buried treasure. He tells Tuco the cemetery and Eastwood the name on the grave. Each armed with only a piece of the puzzle, the shaky alliance reforms as they set out to recover the treasure before a third rival gets there first, all set against the backdrop of the Civil War. The three arrive at the same time and the matter is settled with the three-way Mexican Standoff, which has become of a fixture of Tarantino's movies.

In the first ten minutes of Django Unchained, we also meet a pair of bounty hunters who form an alliance, the German immigrant Dr. King Shultz--played by Christoph Walz, who basically reprises his role as the charming-but-evil Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds (except now he's a good guy who hunts criminals instead of Jews)--and Django, a runaway slave.

But rather than the alliance being fragile, uneasy, and tense, which is at the core of each of Leone's great Westerns, there is no such drama in Django and Shultz's partnership. They become friends and Shultz takes Django under his wing and promises to help him find his wife who was sold into slavery. There is no betrayal, no paranoia of who-is-on-whose side that we feel in Reservoir Dogs. Tarantino passes up a chance to tempt Shultz into betraying Django over the reward money his head is sure to command after their string of killings. Without the tension, Django lowers itself to be just a revenge movie with Kill Bill style violence and Tarantino's snappy dialogue.

Not that there's anything wrong with revenge movies. We cheer when Mel Gibson wipes out a company of English soldiers in Braveheart, and when he does again in The Patriot. We love it when Denzel Washington in Man on Fire takes out anyone in a cartel who was associated with a little girl's kidnapping. Every father roots for Liam Neeson when he dismantles a crime organization to save his daughter in Taken. We get all vigilante with Charles Bronson in Death Wish. We just plain love it when someone gives the bad guys what they deserve--see Eastwood in Dirty Harry, Unforgiven, and Gran Torino (which is a more mature version of Unforgiven).
In those movies we hate the oppressive British overlords, the Redcoats, evil cartels, kidnappers, rapists, murderers, and gang members.

Tarantino's Django Unchained continues that tradition, and makes slaveowners the target in the way Nazis were in Inglourious Basterds, which culminated in a Jewish soldier emptying a MP42 in Hitler's face. It was violent and vengeful to be sure, and it was directed toward a specific, evil group of people.

Basterds didn't make us hate all Germans. Braveheart and The Patriot didn't make us hate all Englishmen, Gran Torino didn't make us hate the Hmong, and Taken didn't make us hate Rumanians.

Can the same be said for Django Unchained? We are repulsed by the slaveowners just as we are of the Nazis in Basterds. Does it stop with that odious group or does it bleed into something else?

We start to see clues as to Tarantino's intentions when Django catches up with the white slave overseers that whipped his wife. He turns the tables on them and in front of the other slaves, whips and kills them. Iconically and in slow motion, the other slaves lift their heads to see their tormentors' blood splatter the cotton fields. 

I don't have any sympathy for the slaveowners--they are enemies of freedom. However, is the violence against white slaveowners portrayed in the film specific enough so that the audience doesn't think the film is meant to be a violent fantasy directed at white people in general?

With today's racial tensions and increasingly different worldviews separating blacks and whites, it's dangerous and irresponsible to make a "let's have all the black people kill all the white people" movie.

Unfortunately, on deciding to become a bounty hunter, Django has the attitude of "Getting paid to kill white people--what's not to like?" He then goes on a rampage and kills just about every white person in the movie.

Then to promote the movie on Saturday Night Live, Jamie Foxx joked that he thinks it's "great" he kills all of the white people in the movie. Not just the despicable slaveowners--all the white people.

It seems Tarantino allowed this to become about black people versus white people, instead of slaves versus slaveowners. Yes, slaves were black and slaveowners were white, but not all white people were slaveowners. Tarantino dangerously lumps them all together. Not only do the slaveowners die, but their families as well.

But perhaps more disturbing, white people aren't Django's biggest enemy. A black person is--the house slave played by Samuel L. Jackson. The "Uncle Tom." Truly, he's a despicable character, worthy of the audience's hate. Nobody cries over his fate.

To the extent that people extrapolate Django Unchained into contemporary social commentary, then guess who they will identify with Jackson's character? That's right, the group liberals hate the most--black conservatives.

After all, that's what the Larry Elders, Allen Wests, Condoleezza Rices, and Thomas Sowell's of the world get called every day of their lives.  

Ironically, those brave souls are the true Djangos. They are the figures that should be the real sources of inspiration for black people. They rebelled against the velvet, hidden slavery of free handouts to strike it out on their own and escape the dependency of the government overseers, where blacks are taught from birth that they can't compete without help from paternalistic liberals. Like Jackson's character who can't stand to see a black man ride a horse, today's black "leaders" are the first to attack Elder, West, Rice, and Sowell who preach independence and dignity.

Tarantino made yet another solid movie with Django Unchained, a good entry into the "revenge movie" genre. But if he, or anyone in his audience, attempts to make it into a social message that extends beyond the characters in the film, they irresponsibly exacerbate existing racial tensions.
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This blog attempts to add perspective and context to local and national politics, through a variety of disciplines, such as history, economics, and philosophy--all tempered with common sense. About the author

Eric Ingemunson's commentary has been featured on Hannity, CNN, NBC, Inside Edition, and KFI's The John and Ken Show. Eric was born and raised in Ventura County and currently resides in Moorpark. He earned a master's degree in Public Policy and Administration from California Lutheran University. As a conservative, Eric supports smaller government, less taxation, more individual freedom, the rule of law, and a strict adherence to the Constitution.