The Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences announced its 85th Academy Award nominations on Jan. 10, and among the nine films nominated for Best Picture is “Django Unchained,” Oscar –winner Quentin Tarantino’s brilliant, albeit ultra-violent, Western starring Jamie Foxx, Samuel L. Jackson, Christoph Waltz, and Leonardo Di Caprio. This incredible film inarguably is one of the year’s best pictures, and it is an absolute sacrilege that Tarantino was not nominated as best director.
“Django Unchained” is set in 1858 and begins with a nighttime encounter between Dr. King Shultz (Waltz), and itinerate dentist, and the Speck brothers (James Remar and James Russo), who are taking some slaves through Texas. Shultz tells the Speck boys he’s looking for a particular slave, and Django (Foxx) is the one he wants. It seems Shultz is really a bounty hunter, and he’s on the trail of the Brittle brothers, three killers who are working for a plantation owner. Shultz has never seen them, however, and because Django knows them, he needs the slave to point them out to him.
When the Speck brothers refuse to sell Django, the good dentist kills one bother and wounds the other one. Then he takes Django with him after freeing the other slave and leaving them to take care of the wounded Speck brother.
Shultz explains his business as a bounty hunter to Django, who is stunned that the dentist is paid for killing people, but he agrees to help him find the Brittle brothers because he has a quest of his own to fulfill. Django and his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), became separated at a slave auction where different owners purchased each of them.
After Django and Shultz work together for a time, the dentist makes Django his associate and agrees to help him find his wife. They finally track her to a plantation known as Candyland owned by Calvin Candie (Di Caprio), who is most cordial to them when they first arrive at the plantation because they are there under the pretense of shopping for a Mandingo fighter. (Mandingo fighting pits two slaves against each other in a fight to the death for the amusement of those watching.)
Things are going rather smoothly until Shultz tells Candie he wants to purchase Broomhilda in addition to a Mandingo fighter. At this point, Stephen (Jackson), Candie’s faithful house slave, figures out that obtaining Broomhilda is the real reason Shultz and Django are there, and all hell breaks loose. Now I can’t reveal any additional plot details here without giving too much away, and so let’s say the film ultimately evolves into a wonderfully satisfying revenge story in the tradition of Tarantino’s two “Kill Bill” films.
Although I am certain some people will be offended by the graphic violence, prolific profanity, and the constant repetition of the politically incorrect N word in referring to African-Americans, I consider “Django Unchained” one of the year’s best films. Not only does it achieve a superb blend of drama, action, and humor, but it also features some of the finest acting you will ever seen on the silver screen. And it’s a love story! And it’s a Western!
One of Tarantino’s favorite film genres is the Spaghetti Western, a term that originated in the mid-1960s in reference to Westerns made in Italy by such Italian directors as Sergio Leone (“The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly”) and Sergio Gorbucci (“Django”). In the film’s production notes, Tarantino expressed his love of the genre and also explained why it would be an appropriate vehicle for telling the story of slave who risks his life to rescue his wife from a despicable plantation owner.
“I’ve always wanted to do a Western. I like all kinds of Westerns, but since Spaghetti Westerns have always been my favorite, I thought that the day I do one, it would be in that Sergio Corbucci universe.
“It can’t be more nightmarish than it was in real life. It can’t be more surrealistic than it was in real life. It can’t be more outrageous than it was in real life. It’s unimaginable to think of the pain and the suffering that went on in this country, making it perfect for a Spaghetti Western interpretation. The reality fits into the biggest canvas that you could think of for this story.”
From its opening scene to its closing credits, this film completely captivated me. Tarantino is one filmmaker who doesn’t shy away from the harsh realities of life, and man’s inhumanity to man was unspeakably despicable during the time of slavery in the United States. Thus, some of the scenes are horrifyingly gruesome, but they effectively underscore just how unimaginably brutal things were back then.
Even though voters passed Tarantino over in the best director category, he did receive a nomination for his original screenplay, and the riveting story is what makes the movie such a great one. In addition to being an action-packed Western, it’s also a memorable love story about two people who refuse to be torn apart by overwhelming odds and circumstances. And anyone who doesn’t feel like standing up and cheering at the end simply doesn’t possess a heart.
The film boasts remarkable sets, stellar costumes, and an outstanding musical score, but it’s the superb acting that makes “Django Unchained” such a marvelous movie. You will not find one weak link in the cast, and although Waltz certainly deserved his Oscar nomination as best supporting actor, I cannot understand why the voters ignored Foxx, Jackson, and Di Caprio.
Waltz’s portrayal of a bounty hunter masquerading as a dentist is consistently delightful because he imbues Shultz with whimsical personality with a penchant for using big words. Shultz is a smooth talker and operator, and Waltz plays the part to the hilt, and when Shultz and Candie meet, their ensuing repartee is one of the film’s many highlights.
Di Caprio, who has blossomed into one of Hollywood’s finest actors, portrays the ruthless Candie with beautiful élan, but he really showed his dedication to his craft during one scene when he slams his hand onto the dinner table. On a particular take he accidentally smashed a crystal glass and slashed his hand open. Instead of stopping for medical attention, Di Caprio continued with the scene and actually enhanced the segment by using his bleeding hand as he played it out. Now that’s devotion, folks.
I don’t know that I’ve ever seen Jackson give a bad performance, and this is no exception. His character is critical to the story because he figures out the connection between Django and Broomhilda, and I really cannot see anyone other than Jackson in the role.
And speaking of Broomhilda, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention how perfect Washington is for the part of Django’s wife. If you have seen her as Olivia Pope on the hit TV series “Scandal,” you know that she brings a quiet elegance to that character, and that aura carries over to her portrayal of Broomhilda as a slave who refuses to be broken by the cruelties imposed upon her. In the production notes, Washington explained why she accepted the role and also expressed her appreciation of Tarantino’s courage as a filmmaker.
“The thing that most drew me to the project was this idea that in a time when so much of the world was committed to the idea that people of African decent were not human, that you could have this love story take place between these two human beings who love each other so much at a time when they couldn’t legally be married on their own accord because they weren’t even their own people. They were property. These two people find a way because of the power of their love to be together, and to honor their commitment of marriage to each other in this historical context. It’s just so powerful.”
Finally there really isn’t much I can say about Academy Award-winner Foxx that hasn’t already been said. All you have to do is run through a partial list of the memorable characters he has created to see what an amazing talent he is. Think of Max in “Collateral,” Ray Charles in “Ray,” Staff Sgt. Sykes in “Jarhead,” Ricardo Tubbs in “Miami Vice,” and Nick Rice in “Law Abiding Citizen” to name just a few. Now he can add a Western hero named Django to the impressive list.
In the production notes Foxx admits he was hooked as soon as he read the script.
“It was the most incredible script I’ve read in all of my life. I thought, ‘Who has the guts, and the knowledge to tell it like it really is?’ I thought that the way he’s telling the story — as true and as honest — if it rips your flesh off, so be it. That’s what was exciting about the process.”
It certainly doesn’t take a psychic to deduce that “Django Unchained” gets a 10 to the highest power. It grabbed me unlike any other film I have seen this year, and it simply reaffirmed my belief in the genius of Tarantino. In the production notes, Washington paid tribute to the director by explaining what sets him apart from many others.
“He is not afraid of violence, and darkness, and the dark side of the soul. I think that you need someone who isn’t afraid of those areas to be able to tell a story that takes place in this time. Because it is fundamentally a love story, you also need someone who believes in the goodness of human beings, and believes in love, and believes in beauty to be able to hold onto the love story in the space of all that evil and darkness and greed. I think it’s amazing that he’s able to hold both of those spaces.”
Amen, Kerry. Amen.