Django Unchained (2012) Film Review, a movie directed by Quentin Tarantino and starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Samuel L. Jackson, Kerry Washington, Dennis Christopher, Don Johnson, Gerald McRaney, M.C. Gainey, Treat Williams, Laura Cayouette, and Michael Kenneth Williams.
In many ways, Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained and Spike Lee‘s Miracle at St. Anna (Miracle at St. Anna (2008) Film Review) are similar motion pictures. Both films were not the epics they could have been, had dubious elements in their resolutions, dealt with racism, and were period-piece films. Both films missed that certain something that would have transformed them from good films to great films.
The most engaging relationship in Django Unchained was not between Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) and former slave Django Freeman (Jamie Foxx) but between Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) and slave Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson). The father-figure/mentor/caretaker relationship between Candy and Stephen was one of the best aspects of the film. Their rapport and banter begged for more: more screen time during the film and more indulgence by Tarantino. The dialogue exchange between them was as good as the back and forth between Bilbo Baggins and Smeagol during the riddle contest in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012) Film Review).
From their comradery, Stephen was obviously the closest thing to a family member that a slave could be to a white family in that world and the familial intimacy between them showed instantly. Stephen spoke to Candy as if he were his doting school teacher, protector, and nagging wife coterminous. Their contemptuous banter was wonderful to hear.
Even when Stephen subjugated himself into a yes-man role at a lavishly prepared dinner, Candy and Stephen’s relationship was still evident. The depths of that relationship were fully exposed when they were eventually alone together in Candy’s library. They were a team, one on which they both knew their roles and accepted them.
It was in this aspect of Quentin Tarantino’s script that the film excelled the most.
Another beneficial aspect of the script to the film was its various assortment of humor and how it was intermixed with the film’s handling of the N-word and race relations during 1858.
The lauded use of the N-word in Django Unchained was more an illustration of its usage during that time period i.e. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn than a denigration tool. The film’s humor (whether it involved the N-word or not) was both situational and planned and 99% of it worked. The one percent that didn’t work were some of its uses in the film’s third act and in the film’s finale.
The downward slide of Django Unchained began with the Hollywood contrivance that the hero never gets hit while his aim is impeccable, far greater than the people that had been gun slinging longer. Candy observed that Django was “one in ten thousand” and Dr. Schultz called him “the greatest gun in the South”. Perhaps Django was a phenom sharp shooter but that does not account for his opponents’ lack of aim. When the hero is invincible outside of a superhero movie, it begs the questions: why is this person invincible? Why aren’t they getting hit?
These questions are the elephants in the room never acknowledged or answered during Django Unchained‘s runtime. What was expanded upon by Tarantino was Django being ”one in ten thousand”. Tarantino was able to show in unaggrandized fashion how intelligent and adaptive Django was, learning to gun fight, read, act, and manipulate people (e.g. the men taking him to the mines) in less than a year.
Because of this and other factors already discussed, Django Unchained was a film that deserved a far better ending than the one it was saddled with. The film started out as a straight western in slave times with a fresh slant on the time period (e.g. an ex-slave bounty-hunter, brutally real slave fights, etc.) and then ended by blowing up what came before it with humorous brutality and unnecessary deaths (Spoiler): why was Lara Lee Candie-Fitzwilly (Laura Cayouette) killed? What had she done to deserve it? (End Spoiler). The film went from actors bravely being nude on camera in the most precarious and exposed positions to them being shot-yanked out of a room.
Django Unchained began like a historical drama/western but ended like a comedy/romance. The viewer wanted to take Django Unchained seriously, like they did Unforgiven and Once Upon a Time in the West but Tarantino made that impossible with his conclusion.