Wednesday, January 2, 2013
I went to the new Tarantino movie, Django Unchained, with reservations. I wasn't quite sure the director's style would do justice to the issues of slavery or the sensitive nature of the film's central theme. That being said, I think Django transcends its genre and even its director and is, in my mind, a masterpiece. Tarantino has always been a good writer/director. Pulp Fiction and Inglorious Basterds remain two of my all-time favorites. Recently he seems to be moving away from small, self-contained storylines to larger "issue" films masquerading as genre pieces, which is brilliant. As much as the literary/film critic crowd likes to poo-poo genre fiction in all its forms, it's what sells (in both Hollywood and the publishing world), and is a better mouthpiece for social issues than so-called "higher" forms of art.
I think what makes Django Unchained a great film is its combination of elements: solid writing, intriguing characters, and a storyline that resonates with a modern audience (particularly here in the South). Tarantino's portrayal of the plantation owner Calvin Candie captures the sentiment of an entire period of history. One scene in particular struck me as genius, in which Candie saws open the preserved skull of his father's deceased caretaker, a black slave named Ben, in order to show his guests the difference between the white and black "species" as evident by the supposedly distinct shapes of their skulls. While this might seem totally exaggerated to people of my generation, there was an entire branch of "science" called Phrenology devoted to this very thing, thus justifying racism and slavery to an entire civilization. Though Django is steeped in violence and brutality, much of which is served up in hyperbolic Tarantino style, at its heart it is a movie about prejudice and hatred and does a better job examining these issues than more serious films.
One of the best moments in the entire movie is when the Klan pursues the protagonists, Django and Schultz, in a scene that recalls Birth of a Nation, serving as both an homage and a parody. Tarantino is a filmmaker's filmmaker, honoring his predecessors while also making every element of the craft undoubtedly his own. Django Unchained is a great film, and a necessary film, though not everyone will think so. There're always going to be certain individuals who are quick to label movies such as this "racist" or suggest that they make light of social issues, but I will argue the opposite. Tarantino tackles what other filmmakers have been afraid to tackle for fear of stirring up controversy: the prejudice and ugliness of much of the Deep South's cultural roots, many of which are still present today in a supposedly enlightened age. This makes Django Unchained not just a revenge western, but a truly fine example of modern filmmaking. So stop reading this and go see it! You'll be glad you did.