Spike Lee has long been one of Quentin Tarantino’s detractors. When Jackie Brown was released, the African-American film director attacked Tarantino for including the N-Word roughly 40 times. Now, in the wake of the release of Django Unchained (Tarantino’s Spaghetti Western riff on slavery; think Inglourious Basterds set in the antebellum south), Lee has once again attacked Tarantino. In an interview with Vibe, Spike Lee said he would not see the film because seeing it would be “disrespectful to [his] ancestors.” He later tweeted that “American Slavery was not a Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western. It was a Holocaust.” Now, as a white man, I’m the last person who should comment on whether or not Spike Lee has the right to be offended. To his defense, I think Django has a lot in common with Basterds, as both films offer up a revenge fantasy alternate universe that intersects with an actual historical genocide. Thus, just as Spike Lee has issues with Django, Basterds was criticized by several Jewish commenters for being morally simplistic. However, there is one key difference in these critical approaches to Tarantino’s work. The Jewish commenters I’ve read make thought-provoking and insightful arguments because they have watched the movie. Spike Lee is citing it as being offensive (like the Campus Crusade for Christ with The Last Temptation of Chris) sight unseen.
That said, the film includes many instances of the N-word and does present a revenge fantasy that puts the slave Django (Jamie Foxx) and his humane owner, Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz)— who eventually frees Django once he helps him collect a bounty his former tormentors—on the hunt for Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). Candie, a plantation owner, has purchased Django’s wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). The biracial duo hatches a plan to purchase her while posing as two business men interested in purchasing one of Candie’s “Mandingos,” or burly slaves that Candie forces to fight to the death for his amusement. Like Tarantino’s Kill Bill films, Django climaxes at multiple points in time with violence that is both visceral and cartoonish (a gunfight takes place over a wounded man, who keeps getting shot by stray bullets that produce geysers of blood and screams of pain).
However, just as Basterds offered up a violent revenge fantasy that depicted a small group of Jews single-handedly defeating the entire Third Reich, Django does not veer away from the atrocities of slavery. We witness lashings, psychological torture, a “Mandingo fight,” and a slave getting fed to a pack of rabid dogs (amongst other horrors). Yet, Tarantino presents this violence without a trace of the dark comedy that defines Django’s violence. It’s more visceral, driven by sound design instead of exploding squibs. For instance, Django’s assault on Candie Land (the name of Candie’s plantation) is similar in tone to The Bride’s assault on the House of Blue Leaves while Candie’s second-hand sadism (unlike “The Jew Hunter,” Candie never directly gets his hands dirty) is similar to the opening interrogation of Basterds. You’ll laugh watching Django take his revenge on bumbling racists; you’ll look away when Broomhilda is asked to show the scars from a whipping at the dinner table.
Moreover, it has all the other hallmarks that we’ve come to expect from Tarantino. The dialogue is sharp and witty, the performances (especially Waltz and DiCaprio), and the cinematography (by Robert Richardson) is all top notch. The three areas of weakness that diminish the film are Jamie Foxx/Django, the pacing, and a narrative contrivance. Now, it isn’t that Jamie Foxx is bad in the role. He just isn’t given much to do. Unlike The Bride, Django doesn’t have much of a long-game character arch. Sure, he transitions from slave to ruthless bounty hunter, but this is done rather economically in the first thirty minutes. From the end of the first act to the end of the film, he remains a rather static character because he is driven by such a simplistically realized goal: get Broomhilda. On the other hand, Waltz’s Dr. Schultz has much more to work with as he transitions from a business relationship with Django to a friendship. Secondly, the film isn’t particularly boring at almost three hours, but there are moments where the loss of Tarantino’s former editor, the late Sally Menke, are felt. Specifically, the transition from the “Mandingo Fight” to Candie Land seems to take forever and easily could have shed a few minutes. Finally, I found myself scratching my head at one contrivance (slight spoilers). Django and Schultz approach Candie in disguise to purchase a “Mandingo” so that they can tangentially make a deal for Broomhilda. When Candie, with the help of his house slave Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), discovers the subterfuge, he takes great offense at being taken for a fool. However, considering that the duo is willing to pay $12,000 for a $300 slave, it seems rather stupid of Candie to get offended on that front.
Thus, ideologically, Django is able to have its cake and eat it too. However, I can’t quite decide if, in the theorization of Jean-Luc Comolli and Jean Narboni, the film is in category b – politically combative in both form and content – or in category d insofar that it is politically combative in its content but compromised in its form. After one viewing, I’m leaning towards the latter. It’s everything we’ve come to expect from Tarantino after Basterds. It confronts a cultural taboo in an equally hilarious and horrifying fashion and, in so doing, acknowledges the atrocities of slavery while exposing the buffoonery of racism.
Verdict: See it in theaters.