There are three movies that Quentin Tarantino did that are sort of historical do-overs. The first was Inglorious Basterds(2009). In it, a group of American soldiers infiltrate a Nazi movie premier and murder Hitler. As the German leader, by way of Austria, never stood trial for his crimes, there is a certain satisfaction to see him pay for them at the hands of an all Jew hit squad. A more recent one that I did not enjoy is Once Upon a Time . . . In Hollywood (2019). In the real 1970 in which it is set, no one wanted to see Sharon Tate murdered. Tarantino waves his moviemaking wand and makes that event cinematically disappear, though I was never totally sure what the film was about overall. The third is Django Unchained (2012), and I have yet to review it for The Legionnaire. It covers the awful institution of slavery.
Django Unchained gets you up close and personal with the life of the slave with the opening credits as you see the title character (Jamie Foxx) being transported with a group of other bondsmen. One evening they are approach by a strange man on a horse drawn cart with a tooth bouncing and swaying along atop it on a spring. This is Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), who masquerades as a German born dentist, but is actually a bounty hunter. His true purpose becomes evident when he guns down the guards watching over the slaves, and calmly walks over to Django. Schultz needs Django because the latter can identify the three men he is searching for, the Brittle brothers, wanted dead or alive. Schultz also finds the institution of slavery abhorrent, and tells Django that if he agrees to help the bounty hunter in the execution of his duties, a portion of the earnings will go the former slave’s way and he will be given his freedom. Doing so also gives Django a taste of the bounty hunter’s life, which fits him to a tee since it involves killing white people and getting paid for it. While traveling together, Schultz asks what Django plans to do with his share of the bounty. Django replies by saying he aims to track down his wife, Broomhilda von Shaft (Kerry Washington), Hilde for short. Schultz is floored that a slave would be named after one of the most famous figures in German folklore, and even more so when he finds out she speaks German, the result of being brought up by German missionaries. Given the bond they share, and Schultz seeing Django as a modern-day Siegfried (the legendary rescuer), Schultz takes Django into his tutelage as a bounty hunter and agrees to help reunite him with Hilde. Following a winter of hands-on bounty hunting training, they travel to Mississippi to find out where Hilde had been sold following their previous attempt at escaping. She is on the plantation of Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), a site known as Candieland, and it has a reputation for being a cruel place for slaves. Schultz comes up with the scenario of getting into the “Mandingo Fighting” trade, a term for the brutal sport of having slaves fight one another, of which Candie is an aficionado. In approaching Candie in this manner, they hope to make a ridiculously high offer for one of his fighting slaves, and then being invited to Candieland to complete the transaction. Once there, they can contrive to meet Hilde and buy her from Candie, while not actually intending any other transaction. This all goes mostly according to plan until Candie’s head slave, Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), figures out what Django and Schultz truly desire. Enraged at being hoodwinked, Candie forces Schultz to buy Hilde for the enormous sum the German initially said he would pay for the fighting slave. Upon completing all the necessary documentation, Candie insists on shaking hands with Schultz, which the latter has no intention of doing as he finds Candie to be a boorish. Instead, Schultz guns down Candie, and a fierce gun battle ensues where Django is eventually outnumbered and surrenders. Through some cunning fast talking, he is able to convince those tasked with transporting him to a stone quarry where the life expectancy of a slave is not long to free him. He then gallops back to Candieland, rescues Hilde, and finishes off the rest of Candie’s household. The final shot is of the former slave spectacularly blowing up the plantation house. Take that, slavery.
I said it differently when recently re-watching Django Unchained, but that does not need to be repeated. There was a time in my life, a younger, more foolish time, when I wanted to act out against all forms of oppression. Fascism, racism, all the bad -isms, mostly, were my main targets. My weapons now are that which God provides, namely prayer, and daily to I ask God for an end to so many of the problems of the world. Hence, it is an echo of my more youthful self when I say the things I do at the end of a film like this one. Nobody living today can do anything to change the past, but we can fantasize about it on film. It is because of this latent desire that I can put up with some of the anachronisms and inaccuracies in it. Right away it dates itself by saying that it is 1858, “Two years before the Civil War.” Sorry, but no, the first shots of that conflict were fired in 1861. There are also a lot of people in this film that look like cowboys, the kind that you would find in some of the classic Westerns of Hollywood’s golden years. The thing is, Tarantino seems to love that genre more than any other, and he tries to fit many of his films into the framework. Sometimes it works, as it does here (kind of), others it does not, as with Once Upon a Time . . . In Hollywood.
In my review of Amistad, I talked about the Christian take on slavery. Even though the actual events depicted in that film were not specifically addressing the moral underpinnings of the institution, the filmmakers wanted to do that anyway. While their approach is philosophical, Django Unchained’s is more direct. To be clear, I advocate non-violent means of addressing any and all social ills. Non-violence does not mean a lack of action. If Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. were still alive today, he would echo those sentiments. Still, I understand the desire to do something drastic in the face of such bald-faced oppression. I hate to see wrong doing as much as the next person. I also doubt that Django would have gotten anywhere in saving Hilde had he tried to appeal to Candie’s better nature. Unfortunately, it appears that some people have so utterly trod upon whatever good nature they might have been blessed with as to appear to be beyond saving. Society would also question a man’s dedication to his wife’s welfare if he did not at least attempt some kind of bold move to protect his loved ones. Finally, since a movie only has so much time to tell a story, such narratives naturally lend themselves to action. All I am trying to say is that, as a Christian, there is always an alternative to fighting. Obi-Wan Kenobi (Sir Alec Guinness) said that in Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope . . . er, right before he fought Darth Vader (David Prowse).
There are some wildly inappropriate parts of Django Unchained. At the end of the day, it is a Quentin Tarantino film. There are copious amounts of blood, swearing, and a bit of nudity (male and female) as well. His films can be an acquired taste, so proceed with caution. They are usually about revenge of some kind, and this one is no different. The right people lose, so that is something.