Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Django Unchained

Archie Bunker said “Revenge is the best way of getting even.” Quentin Tarantino is into revenge. His last movie, Inglourious Basterds (and that spelling still grates on my nerves) went so far as to immolate Hitler and most of his top fucking Nazis in a theater fire, which I’m reasonably sure didn’t happen. But wouldn’t it have been nice if it had?

So that one and this one are revenge FANTASIES, like Death Wish, or thousands of far inferior films. And I, like, I believe, most of us, even if only in our deepest secret hearts, get off on them. Do you never wish you could deal out some rough justice to people like, say, that kid who shot the year-old baby in Georgia a few weeks ago? Or Osama bin Fuckhead, before Obama nailed him? Or as of today (4/20/13), a cowardly little punk named Dzhokhar Tsarnaev? If you never have, you must be a saint. For myself, my own internal revenge fantasies go WAY beyond going medieval on their asses, Quentin. Blowtorches, power tools, good old-fashioned pliers … ghastly. Ghastly. I’m not proud of them, but I’m not ashamed of them, either. They are applied only to the massively, horribly guilty. And they’re just fantasies. Nobody gets hurt except, maybe, my karma.

This one is very much like that. First you need to find some people that no one will feel sorry for. In Basterds it was fucking Nazis. In this one it’s slave owners. NOTHING is too bad to happen to any of them. I wonder if his next film will feature Muslim terrorists? Maybe, instead of killing a few sleepy guards and putting a round through the pustulent head of OBL, we could have a real Tarantino-style bloodbath, with the SEALS—or one hero SEAL, preferably a black one—mowing down row after row of gibbering Arabs, blowing more blood out of their bodies than the human frame contains, lifting their quivering bodies into the air with a hail of bullets and punching them right through brick walls. He does that here, in a lovely Southern mansion built on the backs of slaves. In Kill Bill, one or two, I forget which, Uma Thurman kills at least sixty or seventy Japanese ninja assassins, chopping off arms and legs and heads as the rest patiently wait their turns. (It’s the old Bruce Lee paradigm: Please take a number and wait your turn for Mr. Lee to break you arms and/or and your fool neck.)

That one was a salute, homage, parody, take your pick, to silly old chopsocky movies. This one is the same, but it’s silly old spaghetti westerns he’s taking on this time. He clearly loves them. I don’t, I was never a fan. But he does a wonderful job of evoking the spirit of them, right from the opening credits, which have a ‘60s flavor, and the music, by Ennio Morricone. Many of the shots are iconic, turning Django into everything Clint Eastwood and John Wayne personified in westerns, only black. And the action is reminiscent of Sam Peckinpah, on steroids.

If phony blood and simulated broken bones and stuff like that bothers you, you do NOT want to see this film. For me, the blood is TOO red, the violence TOO overdrawn to seem at all real, so I just sat back and watched … and, as I admitted above, that small, ugly vengeance-oriented part of me enjoyed the hell out of it. Because every one of them sons of bitches who got blown apart richly deserved it.

Is there anything lower than a slaver? Two things, maybe. One is a slave owner who puts his slaves together to fight to the death, as Leonardo DiCaprio does here. And maybe marginally even worse is the slave who actively collaborates with his massa, betraying his own enslaved people simply to curry favor. When the French got their country back, they hated collaborators more than they hated the fucking Nazis, and I don’t blame them. Here, Samuel L. Jackson, almost unrecognizable in thick Uncle Tom make-up, with big rolling Stepin Fetchit eyes, is the chief house slave (he would call himself the chief nigger) who exposes Django and his wife to the evil owner. Absolutely contemptible. I was glad that his death, at the end, was a slow and agonizing one. Would that DiCaprio’s death had been as hard.

Most black actors who spoke up about the film had no problem with it, with the prominent exception of Spike Lee. He said it dishonored his ancestors, this without actually seeing the film. Spike seems to think that he has sole title to those ancestors, one and all, and my take is that he is deeply offended when a white man dares to make a movie about the horrors of slavery. Now, it’s clear to me that Tarantino would like to BE black, and I think that bothers Spike even more. I say, what the hell is wrong with that?

The other controversial thing about the movie was its use of what we have come to call the N-word. Someone did an actual count, and it appears the word nigger was uttered 110 times. And I ask, what would you have Tarantino do? How’s this for a sizzling line of dialogue, circa 1858: “Listen here, you uppity African-American, git down off’n that horse!” Or maybe, “Let’s get those filthy black N-words out in the woodshed and whup ‘em some!” Damn it, YOU CAN’T EXTERMINATE A WORD, like some Orwellian bureaucrat. Is it shocking to hear it bandied about so casually? Damn right it is! And it should be. Friends, that was the word in 1858. Lincoln might well have used it. Everyone else damn sure did. Hell, where I grew up in Texas in the ‘50s and ‘60s it was still the word. Let’s all be glad that it’s shocking to hear it now, but I will not pretend it never existed, and I won’t stand for it to be removed from Huckleberry Finn.

So all in all, it’s a silly movie, having little to do with real history other than the existence of the callous human attitudes that made slavery possible. But like all Tarantino movies, it is very well made, visually first-rate, and with some really funny touches, like a posse of proto-Klansmen halting in their big charge to gripe that they cain’t see shit through the eyeholes of these goldarn flour sacks we is wearin’ on our haids!

It is filled with that inimitable dialogue that no one writes better than Tarantino. Most of it is delivered by the astonishing Christoph Waltz, who once more won an Oscar for supporting performance. He is the sole good white man in the movie, and he just eats up the role. He is funny, and brilliant and, in the end, quite noble. Most everyone else is damn good, but he really, really shines.

J. Michael Riva, the production designer, died during the production, and there is a nice short about him on the DVD. These people are the least appreciated of all the creative people behind a movie. Look at his list of credits, and you’ll be amazed at the variety of things he designed. The short is full of interesting tidbits, such as the fact that they needed a lot of cotton plants, and cotton doesn’t grow very fast. So they planted something that could resemble cotton—which I believe was fennel—and then pasted 395,000 balls of cotton to the plants. This is the kind of ingenious solutions to vexing problems that production designers are always coming up with. It’s just part of the job, which covers EVERYTHING you see on the screen, from the muddy streets in a small town, and the whole town itself, to the kind of glass beer is poured into and the kind of knife used to wipe the foam away.