Django Unchained: History in bad taste

Quentin Tarantino’s latest ties his usual obsessions to the backdrop of American slavery, providing three hours of fun for his fans and discomfort for others.

Quentin Tarantino is like some kind of incorrigible misbehaving child. And we are the parents who keep encouraging his behaviour by indulging him, blinded by our conviction that his temperament is the result of genius.

His latest, Django Unchained, begins with a parade of African-American slaves, marching across a Wild West landscape in chains… with a neo-spaghetti-Western song blaring over top. Right away, the central problem of the film is thrown in our faces. Tarantino is using slavery, the great shame of American history and source of so many of its ongoing problems, as a vehicle for kitsch.

I don’t know why this would surprise me, as he did the same thing with Nazism in his last film Inglorious Basterds. But somehow, in light of Tarantino’s past issues with race — the copious dropping of n-bombs in his dialogue, his mortifying 1997 ebonics-talking appearance on the Keenan Ivory Wayans Show (unfortunately not on YouTube for illustration) — his use of the topic to pursue his usual arrested-adolescent obsessions seems incredibly tasteless.

Let me pause to describe the plot, as professional obligation demands. Christoph Waltz plays Dr. King Schultz, a German dentist turned bounty hunter, who buys slave Django (Jamie Foxx) to help him find and kill a trio of slave traders. That task completed, Django enlists Schultz to help him rescue his wife (Kerry Washington), who’s been sold to the plantation of sinister Southern charmer Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).

Waltz, as he was in Basterds, is excellent at delivering Tarantino dialogue. DiCaprio, who I’ve found difficult to swallow in dramatic roles for a while now, is actually quite great as a scenery-chewing cartoonish villain, while Foxx is perfectly serviceable as an action hero and man of few words. And I’ll say this for Tarantino: he’s a master of tension, with an unparalleled ability to keep an audience in a state of unease.

But I couldn’t help think about some of the B-movies I used to watch as a teenager, in which women were subjected to all manner of sexual humiliation, only to then turn around and wreak revenge on their assaulters. It allowed the filmmakers to have it both ways — to depict atrocious actions with sleazy glee, and then turn around and go “see, we’re on the good guys’ side!”

Tarantino is essentially doing the same thing here. One scene shows a slave being torn apart by vicious dogs; another depicts a hand-to-hand fight to the death between two slaves, put on for Candie’s entertainment in his salon while he sits sipping cocktails. As is Tarantino’s habit, he doesn’t actually show that much gore, and the greatest horrors happening offscreen. All the same, these scenes are sickening. And they serve mostly just to whet the audience’s appetite for an even greater bloodbath.

Maybe I’m just getting old and soft. I used to enjoy violent, gory films, the bloodier the better. But these days, I feel like the world we live in is violent, depraved and amoral enough without having to have my face rubbed in even more of that onscreen. For Tarantino die-hards, this film gives you everything you want. For everyone else, there’s an old Dave Chappelle skit about the black fantasy of going back in time to kill a slave master. This film is basically that for three hours. ■


Django Unchained opens Dec. 25

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