Django Unchained is a Tarantino film. No matter what else can be said about Django Unchained, it is very much WRITTEN AND DIRECTED BY QUENTIN TARANTINO. This brings with it a great deal of baggage, and not all the baggage is good. On the plus side, Tarantino is a very skilled writer, delivering dialogue that is witty and urbane, eloquent without being forced. His plots require and reward attention, and he can structure an individual scene and set piece superbly. As a case in point, the introduction of Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) in Django Unchained, his banter with two slave owners and the (literal) unchaining of Django (Jamie Foxx), is a master class in tension and dark humour.
Tarantino has great strength as a director of actors as well. Christoph Waltz has now won two Oscars for his performances in Tarantino’s films, and Django Unchained also features outstanding displays from Jamie Foxx, Leonardo DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson. This is perhaps due to Tarantino taking a step back and allowing his actors to enjoy his dialogue, resulting in conversation scenes which are longer than many other directors would allow. These sequences can also be extremely tense, such as when Calvin Candy (DiCaprio) explains the biological differences between white and black people, and when the threat of imminent death literally bursts into the scene, Calvin transforms into a ferocious demon. By prolonging the scene, the tension is all the greater.
This prolonging though, is indicative of Tarantino’s greatest weakness: self-indulgence. Tarantino the director seems incapable or unwilling of restricting Tarantino the writer. Not only are dialogue scenes prolonged, but so are action sequences, particularly the big shoot-out in which several of the film’s main players are killed. This sequence is unnecessarily protracted with excessive amounts of agonised screaming and blood spatter. Worse, there are scenes that do not progress the plot and, while they may work individually, they slow the narrative and make the film bloated and flabby. Ridiculing the Klu Klux Klan (and possibly Birth of a Nation) is all very well, but it does not aid Django and Schultz’s quest for Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). Similarly, having Stephen (Jackson) regale Django with details of his impending doom gives Jackson a chance to be very very nasty, but it serves little other purpose, as Stephen’s despicable nature has already been established by this point.
I could go on, as there are many indulgent moments and unnecessary scenes in Django Unchained, which add up to a bloated, overlong film that lacks pace and is sorely in need of discipline. Of course, perhaps I only say this because I am accustomed to films that are made by directors without Tarantino’s creative freedom, with producers demanding that the film come in under a certain time so there can be more screenings in a day to generate greater revenue. Harvey Weinstein clearly trusts the Tarantino brand enough that the film’s length won’t harm its box office (and let’s not forget that the extremely successful Gone With the Wind and Titanic are even longer than Django Unchained, so the industrial logic of shorter films may well be hokum). Perhaps Tarantino is to be admired for not restricting his films, letting them play out at a leisurely and unhurried pace. But that doesn’t stop the director’s cameo being unnecessary and very frustrating.
Tarantino has stated that his intention with Django Unchained was to put slavery up front and present it honestly. Whether the details of this presentation are correct or not is beside the point, because the premise of slavery presented in Django Unchained is one of utter dehumanisation. Black people, within the institution of slavery as it appears in Django Unchained, are treated as inferior beings in every possible way. Calvin’s (literal) dissection of the reasons for this inferiority is chilling in its absurdity, and the physical violence inflicted on slaves is utterly horrific. Examples include being locked in a metal box in the hot sun; whipping; physical combat that leads to fatal injuries and, in perhaps the film’s most upsetting scene, a pack of dogs are set upon a would-be escapee. These scenes are oddly juxtaposed with more over-the-top violence, such as the four shoot-outs that occur towards the end of the film. As mentioned above, one goes on for a long time with much wailing and spraying. Another is comical in its abruptness and suddenness. Django’s final revenge is drawn out and, again, over the top to the point of absurdity.
These moments of “Tarantino-esque” violence are pure spectacle, almost amusing in their excess, very different to the violence inflicted upon slaves, which is presented as mundane. This normalcy exacerbates the cruelty of the violence, convincingly expressing the dehumanising perspective of slavery, which provokes revulsion and dismay on the part of the viewer. It may be trite and obvious to say that slavery is bad, but Tarantino makes an effective presentation on just how bad it is to view and treat people in such a way. He has been criticised on many occasions for his use of the word “nigger”, but in Django it is used appropriately and not excessively. Django Unchained is an excessive film, but not in terms of its language and violence.
This utilisation of violence to express man’s inhumanity to man makes Django Unchained Tarantino’s most interesting film politically. The flippant nihilism of Pulp Fiction and the genre homages of Reservoir Dogs and Kill Bill stand in sharp contrast to Django Unchained’s angry condemnation of racism, inviting comparisons with Blazing Saddles. Jackie Brown commented on the difficulties facing particular demographics, especially a black woman over the age of forty with a criminal record, but did not explore these ideas in depth. Inglourious Basterds is a love letter to cinema and its potential for propaganda, part of which is explored in its amusing disregard for history, but it doesn’t make much of a statement. Django Unchained demonstrates Tarantino’s canny understanding of cinema and the different uses of its features.
It is especially interesting to compare Django to Lincoln. Both are concerned with slavery, and set within ten years of each other, 1858 for Django and 1865 for Lincoln. One is explicit, gory, brutal and violent; the other is reserved and concerned with political procedure and debate. Oddly, both are very wordy, the scripts of Tarantino as well as Tony Kushner featuring extensive dialogue scenes, but Steven Spielberg is a more economical director than Tarantino, editing more ruthlessly and using intercutting as a means to generate tension and suspense. Both approaches are valid, but I find the classical technique of Spielberg more effective because it is more dynamic. While Tarantino can be dynamic, there is an overly staged quality to his films as a whole, whereas Spielberg’s style is fluid and flows easily from scene to scene, creating a more unified cinema experience.
I much prefer Lincoln to Django, partly because I prefer intercutting to long scenes, and also because I adore political dramas. Spielberg’s finest film since Munich, Lincoln has been described as The West Wing in wigs, and while I have never seen The West Wing, if it’s anything like Lincoln I know I will like it. Political dramas are tremendously entertaining because the delight is in the detail, the precise perusal of principle paralleled with persuasion to produce policy. Lincoln could be described as a film about talking. Aside from the central debates over the amendment to the Constitution, as well as the end of the Civil War, there are various personal alliances and dramas that play out in conference rooms, bedrooms and other domestic spaces. When I first heard about Lincoln, and saw the trailers, I expected an epic war drama with vast battle scenes, as Spielberg delivered in Saving Private Ryan and War Horse. Instead, it is one of his most intimate films, dealing with interpersonal dramas in the midst of great upheaval, emphasising the importance of talking in the progression of human civilisation. Abraham (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his wife, Mary (Sally Field) have severe family problems, as Mary suffers from mental health problems and their son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) desperately wants to fight in the war, against the wishes of his parents. While Abe listens to Mary’s advice, he acts against it and grants Robert’s wishes, driving Mary closer to a breakdown in some truly heartbreaking scenes. It is testament to the skill of the filmmakers that these scenes do not feel out of place or a distraction from the political posturing and pontificating.
Various politicians debate the 13th Amendment and its political impact, including dry witticisms in their offices as well as impassioned speeches on the floor of the House of Representatives. As Thaddeus Stevens, Tommy Lee Jones is on especially fine form, playing a firebrand abolitionist whose frail physicality belies the passion of his words and the strength of his resolve. If there was any flaw in Lincoln for me, it was that I wanted more of Stevens – his solitary limp out of the House once the Amendment is passed suggested a great deal more, a history that it would be interesting to see. Perhaps someone else could make a film about this courageous and impassioned advocate for human rights. But please bring back Tommy Lee Jones to play him!
In contrast to Django Unchained, Lincoln is less concerned with the representation of cruelty so much as the political topic of slavery, emphasised by the multiple scenes of abolition being debated. Like Django, Lincoln has some chilling moments in which slavery and racism are justified, in eloquent and (almost) persuasive ways. What makes these speakers so repulsive is that they are not stupid rednecks but intelligent, educated men, mostly lawyers, so their political stance is one born of belief in their own superiority and righteousness. This gives Lincoln contemporary resonance, as eloquent, educated speakers with dangerous political agendas are just as prominent today as in 1865, and many are in prominent positions of power. In the centre of Lincoln’s battle between the pro and anti-slavery factions stands the figure of Lincoln himself, on whom the film casts an interesting light. He is presented as both saintly crusader for social justice (which Lincoln most likely was not), and a canny politician (which he must have been). Whether the film is historically accurate or not is irrelevant, because what it aims to do is show the balance between idealism and pragmatism, which is exactly what Lincoln does, brokering deals and promises in order to obtain the votes he needs to get the amendment through. Daniel Day-Lewis perfectly captures this balance, and combines it with impassioned resolve and palatable personal pain. A towering performance that rightly won Best Actor.
Django Unchained and Lincoln explore ideas around slavery in different ways. Tarantino’s “Southern” is typically referential, both to the Western genre that it pays homage to as well as to movie violence and its potential more generally, striking deep notes in its depiction of the psychology that justifies slavery. Spielberg’s account of the 13th Amendment is sombre and monumental, but never treats its weighty subject matter as anything other than human actions and decisions. This ensures the film does not slip into preachy or patronising territory, but truly treats slavery as a political and economic issue, as well as an ideological one. This is what impressed me most about Lincoln – it takes the notion of romance in politics, a highly dangerous proposition, and manages to walk the line between romanticising major historical events and presenting them rationally. Perhaps inevitably for Spielberg, there is an ultimate slide into sentimentality with Lincoln’s death, much as Django’s final revenge is gratification for the audience who have waited for it. But whereas Django Unchained suffers from indulgence, Lincoln’s precision and poise ensure that it makes its point, but is never less than thoroughly involving.