DISCLAIMER: Django Unchained is a work which depicts another time period in which people spoke differently. The film uses many racial slurs to depict the Antebellum South. It is almost impossible to discuss this movie without bringing up a specific racial slur. I will be quoting this movie in certain spots and thus will have to say it in quotation. Otherwise, I cannot properly address the movie and what it stands for.
Django Unchained is a western about a runaway slave trying to rescue his wife from abusive slavers, along with the help of a bounty hunter. It’s bloody, it’s campy, it’s over-the-top, it’s thrilling, it’s racially charged, and it’s poignant. And it’s one of my favorite films.
I’m going to discuss a few things from this movie that make it such a strong movie. Naturally, spoilers will abound.
Probably the second most divisive thing (scroll down for first the most divisive!) about this film was the soundtrack. The soundtrack has 24 tracks – eight of which are dialogue clips, eight from other films, and eight original songs. Tarantino is a bit of a maestro when it comes to integrating preexisting music into his films. The first song in the film is called “Django,” and is originally from Django, a spaghetti western – not to be confused with Django Unchained, from which this film is a loose, vastly unofficial, sequel.
There are so many big names on this soundtrack – there’s Rick Ross’ “100 Black Coffins,” used to give atmosphere to the slaves marching towards Candyland, or John Legend’s “Who Did that to You,” which heightens the drama as Django rides back for his revenge. During the famous shootout, there’s a mashup of a Tupac song and a James Brown song – making “Unchained,” a musical match made in heaven.
And there’s “Freedom” by Anthony Hamilton and Elayna Boynton
But then there are so many other impressive moments where music is used well. When Django pursues the Brittle Brothers and shoots one and beats another to near death with a whip. The music playing in the background has fast moving strings gradually going to a higher pitch, but eventually releasing into a chorus of trumpets as Django shouts “John Brittle!” and the camera cuts to a shot of Django that makes him look like a superhero (pictured left). It’s amazing to see. The entire film is filled with beautifully choreographed moments like this, such as when the Klansmen ride over the hill as the classic “Requiem” plays. Or, in the last scene where
Around the time that this film debuted, there was much debate regarding Tarantino’s use of the N-word. Black director Spike Lee criticized this movie heavily, saying that his heritage was improperly portrayed – “American Slavery was not a Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western. It was a holocaust.” This controversy again carried over to 2015’s The Hateful Eight. There was a great deal of debate on the matter. On the opposite side of the discussion was Samuel L. Jackson, who was in both Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight. He has the same opinion which many viewers share – it’s a matter of history, that use of the word is just to give an idea of just how heavily people were looked down on in the Antebellum South. The cultural dialogue regarding Django Unchained and the N Word is too in-depth for me to discuss here, so allow me to link to some more in-depth sources: here’s Gawker’s complete history of Quentin Tarantino and the N Word; here’s an interview in which Sam Jackson talks about the use of the word in Hateful Eight, and here’s one where he insists his interviewer use the word; and here’s Spike Lee’s take on the film.
Django Unchained has 110 uses of the word. It’s often said to be excessive. It is worth comparing this film with Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Which uses the word 219 times); the constant use of the N word might make someone feel uneasy – good, it should. That word is Within the film, it should serve as a constant (and I mean constant) reminder of the violence and racism that plagued the era.
It’s worth noting that as a white man, there’s not much I can say on the subject. The film’s use of the n-word is harsh and visceral, but feels accurate to the situation and time period. Though, what can and must be said is that Tarantino started up contributed an ongoing cultural conversation about race and racism, and revitalized the conversation regarding the word. More than just being a damn good movie, and a damn good western, this movie has brought up an important discussion.
Heroes and Villains
Django Unchained is, to an extent, a fairytale. This motif is set up in that neat little scene where Dr. Schultz tells the story of Broomhilda and Siegfried, in which Siegfried fights a dragon and walks through hell fire in order to save the woman he loves. This creates a world in which Django is a loving hero in a world of fire and dragons. The dragon, of course, is Calvin Candie, who seemingly breathes fire as he exhales smoke from whatever he’s smoking, and the hellfire is all the violence that erupts in the Candyland shootout. (Or Candyland blowing up maybe? I don’t know.)
And with this film (as with Inglourious Basterds) there is a place for such tremendous heroes because the villains are equally tremendous, as opposed to Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs where it’s mostly antiheroes with one significant villain who’s a major loose cannon. Django Unchained instead has many smaller antagonists with two major villains (Calvin and Samuel L Jackson’s Stephen) in his way. In short, Django is a hero going on an epic quest.
There is a rather black and white morality (no pun intended) with Django Unchained, as there should be. Everyone who is a slaver is portrayed as racist and therefore evil. The story’s rescue-the-princess plotline is really just a vehicle to portray the ultimate goal of the characters – to right the wrong of slavery. The injustice done to Django and Broomhilda isn’t that they’re separated and Broomhilda is held hostage, it’s obviously the systematic oppression. So how does Django plan to right this wrong?
The Candyland Shootout is one of my favorite Western shootouts. Django is totally badass in this scene, and we get to see a wonderful comeuppance It’s balls-to-the-walls action. But more than that, it’s the proper eruption of tension from the earlier dinner scene.
Favorite Sequence: The Dinner Scenes! Initially, I thought about doing an entire post just on this entire sequence, because that’s how fascinating it is. The first scene in this section of the film is a pleasant conversation over dinner, followed by Samuel L. Jackson’s character Stephen saying a few critical words to Broomhilda, then a tense business agreement, then Stephen explaining Django and Schultz’s plan to Calvin, the famous Calvin outburst, and ultimately, the signing of Broomhilda’s papers. All told, the entire sequence takes about half an hour, and its amazing. It’s got so many brilliant little moments that make the whole thing so amazing.
The scene is a bunch of peaks and valleys of rising tension – moments such as laughter from Schultz or Calvin will deflate the tension, but when Calvin’s sister brings attention to how Broomhilda has “big eyes for Django” the fear of the audience is punctuated by a series of small gasps and subtle fright in the faces of Django, Broomhilda, or Schultz.
There’s the oft-mentioned moment in which Calvin slams his hand on a table and breaks a class. Leonardo DiCaprio cut his hand while filming this scene and demanded to keep going – that’s real blood he smears all over Kerry Washington’s face in that scene.
One thing that I love about Schultz’s role at the dinner is that there’s a very small reminder of why he helps Django. In a small moment when Calvin’s sister plays Beethoven’s “Fur Elise” on the harp, Schultz demands that she stop playing it. And for me, this is where Schultz’s motivation becomes apparent. Beethoven is Austrian and Schultz is German- two cultures that are linked by proximity and a mutual language. Schultz looks at the American south as a barbaric land when compared to his civilized Germany, so hearing someone who benefits so greedily from slavery play a German song and partake in German culture, to him, it feels a little bit like cultural appropriation. As Schultz sees it, he’s defending European culture in every way he can, from defending freedom to stopping slave-owners from listening to Beethoven.
It’s also a huge moment for Stephen – when he meets with Calvin in the library, we clearly see that he’s so much smarter and more perceptive than he lets on. He notices the plot that’s going on right underneath his master’s nose, yet all the while his master is oblivious. It’s then that Stephen is revealed not to be just a pawn of Calvin, but his equal.
The Dinner Sequence echoes tension seen in Inglourious Basterds and The Hateful Eight – which both depict guests in a tavern, enjoying the pleasure of each other’s company, waiting for things to go awry.
Favorite Quote: I have to include two – one for Dr. Schulz and one for Django. I’ve picked some of the last things they say.
After Schultz has bought Broomhilda’s freedom and is preparing to leave, he turns to Calvin and says: “Mr. Candie, normally I would say ‘auf wiederzen,’ but since auf wiederzen means “until I see you again” and I never wish to see you again, to you sir I say good-bye.” Waltz’s delivery is firm and cold and vindicitive.
The other moment worth noting is in the final scene is Django’s monologue as he descends the staircase in Candyland’s foyer for his final confrontation with Stephen:
76 years, Stephen. How many niggas you think you see come and go, huh? Seven thousand? Eight thousand? Nine thousand? Nine thousand nine hundred and ninety nine? Every single word that came out of Calvin Candie’s mouth was nothing but horse shit. But he was right about one thing – I am that one nigga in ten thousand.
Favorite Performance: From the first scene to the last one, I love seeing Jaime Foxx bring Django to life. In his first scene, Jamie Foxx plays him as a naive man who doesn’t quite have an understanding of the English Language – when Schultz mentions the word valet, Django says “What that is?” Throughout the middle of the film, he learns how to shoot, learns how to read, and begins taking his revenge on the people who took Broomhilda and the institution of slavery. Compare this with the scene quoted above in which Django completes his revenge, speaking intelligently about how he is the exceptional one in ten thousand.
Academy Awards/Nominations: Unlike, well, most of the movies I’ve covered in earlier entries in the Personal Favorites series, Django Unchained was actually nominated for and won a handful of big academy awards. It was nominated for but did not win Best Sound Editing, Best Cinematography, and Best picture. However, Quentin Tarantino took home Best Original Screenplay and Christoph Waltz received Best Supporting Actor. Few actors win two Academy awards,
Fun Fact: Quentin Tarantino demanded his character in this movie have an Australian accent because he couldn’t do a southern accent. Additionally, that character was supposed to have more dialogue in which he explained to Django that he was working in an indentured servitude – Django then mocks him for being just as much of a slave as he is.
If you like this, also check out: Django/Zorro, the graphic novel follow-up written by Quentin Tarantino. Or, The Hateful Eight, which Tarantino originally thought would be a sequel to this film. Or, any of Tarantino’s inspirations; The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, or the original Django.
What can I say to conclude this post? Yes, this movie is tremendously campy, and violent, and brash. But it’s so much more than that. It’s an epic, it’s poignant, it has masterful dialogue, and in a time of racial tension in America, this movie remains topical.