Tarantino Unchained: Reinterpreting slavery as only the master can

Tarantino Unchained: Reinterpreting slavery as only the master can

By ABHIMANYU DAS | | 5 January, 2013
A still from Django Unchained

This column's word limit doesn't leave room for a rundown of all things cinematically worthwhile in 2012. It was a heartening year for the medium, with superior examples of commercial and independent filmmaking emerging from all over the world (yes, Hollywood included, pseudo-intellectuals). Leos Carax redefined meta-narratives with Holy Motors; Jafar Panahi thumbed his nose at authoritarians everywhere with This Is Not A Film, the Dardennes created another milestone of naturalism in The Kid With A Bike. America had an introspective year with knotty, thinly veiled social commentary in prestige pictures like Zero Dark Thirty and The Master as well as intimate dramas like Beasts of the Southern Wild and tentpole blockbusters like The Dark Knight Rises. In the absence of words to do them all justice, I decided to focus on the last film I viewed theatrically in 2012. Marrying pulp thrills with subversive mythmaking, astute cultural commentary with fannish delight in directorial technique and writerly flourishes alike; it's Quentin Tarantino's latest opus Django Unchained.

Opening in a gloomy Texas forest in 1858, Tarantino elicits another grandiloquent, glorious performance from Christoph Waltz as German dentist-turned-bounty-hunter King Schultz who frees titular slave Django (Jamie Foxx, protean and single-minded like never before) from a pair of slavers. He does so to enlist his help in capturing valuable prisoners but the pair decide to stay partnered up to rescue Django's wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) from demonic-yet-charming plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio doing his best work in years). Gory reprisal is, naturally, the order of the day.

However, it's never quite as straightforward as a superficial viewing of the third act's violent crescendo may suggest. This savage, hilarious, poetic slice of post-post-racial pop sociology hinges its moral investigation around very relevant questions about revenge, justice and the frequent conflation of the two. When do the means used by aggrieved parties to avenge genuine wrongs start to diminish the moral ground of the formerly righteous? Tarantino provokes and analyzes, even as he indulges – if there was ever a director who has his cake and eats it too, it's him. Even as the film's many scenes of vengeance-inflected interracial carnage quicken the pulse and OD on catharsis, there is always introspection; a constant interrogation of the human impulse toward bloody retribution.

This savage, hilarious, poetic slice of post-post-racial pop sociology hinges its moral investigation around very relevant questions about revenge, justice and the frequent conflation of the two.

As with so many of the major American films this year, Django's release was swathed in fiery debate. This time, criticisms focused on Tarantino's heavy use of racial epithets in the screenplay and (according to some) trivializing of slavery by re-contextualising it in revenge fantasy tropes. To these people, I would say – as I would to those dismissing Zero Dark Thirty as straightforward pro-torture jingoism – that they weren't watching carefully enough. Contrary to accusations, Tarantino takes slavery and the attendant institutional psychology with dead seriousness. Every exchange, every relationship, every word is thematically loaded. Tarantino has always been enamoured of the intricacies of language and the n-word is inserted into conversation for reasons that transcend historical accuracy (which, incidentally, is a valid consideration – slave-owners in 1858 were not referring to "African-Americans"). Master-on-slave violence is portrayed in non-fetishised, unblinking, deeply discomfiting terms, particularly during a brutal "mandingo fight". Even the heroic partnership between Schultz and Django is complicated by the latter's indentured status and one-third share of bounties. Schultz is a humanist and virulently anti-slavery but there is a hint of white man's burden about his endeavours. But the knottiest, most constructive chapter of Tarantino's thesis on race relations comes in the form of Steven, Candie's black manservant and a greater threat to Django than any white man in the film. Played with relish by Samuel L. Jackson (who has not been this good or this interesting in a decade) as a Stepin Fetchit/Uncle Tom archetype, this character is the most complex dimension of an already difficult deconstruction of America's history. Steven is the embodiment of the slave-subject mentality, his indoctrination into the system of exploitation so complete that he enforces Candie's cruelty and imposed power structure even in the master's absence. Some of the most protracted acts of sadism here are enacted between Django and Steven, a queasy little suggestion that the over-the-top brutality doled out by our hero in the Peckinpah-esque final act is learned from good Godfearin' white folk. It is an intelligent, well-informed, counter-intuitive reinterpretation of the classical narratives of slavery and emancipation so recently reiterated by Spielberg's Lincoln.

And alongside these lofty considerations, Tarantino has as much fun making movies as he always does. The performances are exuberant; career highlights for those involved, all of whom are obviously grateful to be speaking Tarantino's measured, often hilarious dialogue. Every scene hums with tension, every set piece holds together like clockwork; every shot has the weight of cinema history behind it. Alive with the beats of 70s blaxploitation, spaghetti Westerns and every revenge film this side of Death Wish, Django Unchained (like every other Tarantino film) takes the key notes of the filmmaker's beloved genres and reconstitutes them into a whole new masterpiece of perfectly orchestrated rhythms. QT is America's ballsiest director; the only white man who could put blackface on the country's most famous black actor in the service of an analysis of slavery that doubles as Shaft prequel and also – somehow – modelled on nothing less than the Nibelungenlied. I don't think there was a single film in 2012 that gave me quite as much satisfaction.

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