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By Mekado Murphy
Anatomy of a Scene: ‘Django Unchained’: Quentin Tarantino, the writer and director of “Django Unchained,” narrates a scene from his movie.
“It’s better than ‘Lincoln,’ ” my teenage daughter said, as the end credits rolled at a screening of Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained.” She was teasing me — it’s a sad fact of my life that some of the people I’m fondest of do not seem to share my fondness for Steven Spielberg’s latest movie — but also suggesting an interesting point of comparison.
“Lincoln” and “Django Unchained,” the one a sober historical drama and the other a wild and bloody live-action cartoon, are essentially about different solutions to the same problem. You could almost imagine the two films, or at least their heroes, figuring in the kind of good-natured, racial-stereotype humor that used to be a staple of stand-up comedy (and was memorably parodied on “The Simpsons”): “white guys abolish slavery like this” (pass constitutional amendment); “but black guys, they abolish slavery like this” (blow up plantation).
A more substantive contrast might be drawn between the approaches of two filmmakers — both steeped in the history of popular cinema and both brilliant craftsmen whose skill inspires admiration, as well as a measure of suspicion — to a subject full of pain and fraught with peril. Mr. Spielberg, in his ambitious, history-minded projects, hews to the proud (though sometimes mocked) tradition of the Hollywood A picture, in which big themes are addressed with appropriately sweeping visual and emotional gestures. Mr. Tarantino finds inspiration in what are still frequently seen as less reputable genres and styles: Asian martial arts movies; spaghetti westerns; blaxploitation.
Not that you need, at this point, to choose. Among Mr. Tarantino’s achievements has been his successful argument that the maligned and neglected B movies of the past should be viewed with fresh eyes and unironic respect. His own tributes to the outlaw, outsider film tradition — flamboyant in their scholarly care and in their brazen originality — have suggested new ways of taking movies seriously. “Django Unchained” is unabashedly and self-consciously pulpy, with camera moves and musical cues that evoke both the cornfed westerns of the 1950s and their pastafied progeny of the next decade. (The title comes from a series of Italian action movies whose first star, Franco Nero, shows up here in a cameo). It is digressive, jokey, giddily brutal and ferociously profane. But it is also a troubling and important movie about slavery and racism.
As such, “Django Unchained” is obviously a companion to “Inglourious Basterds,” in which Mr. Tarantino had the audacity to turn the Nazi war against the Jews into the backdrop for a farcical, ultraviolent caper. He did not simply depart from the facts of history, inventing, in the title characters, a squad of mostly Jewish-American killers led by a United States Army lieutenant from Tennessee; he rewrote the past in the vivid, visceral language of film fantasy.
The point of “Inglourious Basterds” was not to engage in counterfactual speculation about a successful plot to kill Hitler, but rather to carry out a vicarious, belated and altogether impossible form of revenge, using the freedom of cinematic make-believe to even the score.
Like “Inglourious Basterds,” “Django Unchained” is crazily entertaining, brazenly irresponsible and also ethically serious in a way that is entirely consistent with its playfulness. Christoph Waltz, who played the charming, sadistic SS officer Hans Landa in “Basterds,” here plays Dr. King Schultz, a charming, sadistic German bounty hunter (masquerading as an itinerant dentist) whose distaste for slavery makes him the hero’s ally and mentor.
That hero, first glimpsed in shackles and rags on a cold Texas night in 1858, is Django (Jamie Foxx), who becomes Schultz’s sidekick and business partner. Schultz is an amoral gun for hire, tracking down fugitives and habitually choosing the first option offered in the formulation “Wanted: Dead or Alive.”
Over time the traditional roles of white gunslinger and nonwhite sidekick are reversed, as the duo’s mission shifts from Schultz’s work to the rescue of Django’s wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). After the couple tried to run away together at their former plantation, they were whipped and branded (the horrific punishment is shown in flashback), and Broomhilda was sold.
Django and Schultz’s search for her leads them to Candyland, a Mississippi estate whose debonair master, Calvin Candie, is played with almost indecent flair by Leonardo DiCaprio. Candie is assisted in his savagery by Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), a house slave who may be the most shocking invention in “Django Unchained.” He is an Uncle Tom whose servility has mutated into monstrosity and who represents the symbolic self Django must destroy to assert and maintain his freedom.
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