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Django Unchained, A Western Romance [Movie Review]

Django Unchained is a movie set two years before the Civil War that tells the story of a slave named Django (Jamie Foxx). Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), seeks out Django’s help with identifying and hunting down a group of wanted criminals. In exchange, Schultz promises Django his freedom and the opportunity to save his wife from bondage.

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Django pretends to be a free man to avoid arousing suspicion. The first bit of business is dressing the part and Django is excited by the small but meaningful opportunity to choose his own clothes. He selects a blue suit, white ruffle shirt, and white stockings. (Imagine a cross between the “Seinfeld pirate blouse” and Prince’s shirts v. blouses outfit from The Dave Chappelle Show skit). The duo finds the criminals and engage them in a gun-slinging showdown that leads to a slapstick nighttime Klan-like meeting.

Django and Dr. Schultz pursue more bounties while working on a plan to find and rescue Django’s wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). And therein lies the problem with the movie. Quentin Tarantino handles the bounty hunting parts of the film well. But, he loses his mojo when the story shifts to the rescue of Broomhilda.

During the film’s promotion, Kerry Washington lauded the film as being different because it’s about the rescue of a Black woman. She was right in some ways. This plot device is often used but rarely with regards to Black female characters. Black women are often portrayed as having a super-human ability to cope with and overcome struggles. This diminishes the feelings of Black women and our ability to experience pain. It strips away our humanity by portraying us as beasts of burden who can carry the responsibilities of the world without feeling the weight.

Throughout much of Django Unchained Broomhilda is only seen through a series of flashbacks intended to show why she’s worthy of rescue. Broomhilda is Django’s wife and they’re separated by the injustice of slavery. That’s enough justification for explaining why he’d want to rescue her. Yet, instead of fleshing out the character, we get repetitive scenes of torture. Django Unchained steps outside the norm by not portraying Broomhilda as a superwoman. But, it falls short of by not portraying her as a person either.

Tarantino seems to say to the audience, “I’m going to torture this woman so you don’t forget the reason for this rescue mission. And this movie is about slavery which was bad.” Way to go Captain Obvious. The message’s delivery and imagery are heavy handed and don’t add to the story.

Django and Dr. Shultz, learn that the owner of a large Mississippi plantation has purchased Broomhilda. We first meet the slaver, Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) as he is watching and cheering on the brutality of a Mandingo fight in the surroundings of a fancy club. The setup is a spot-on representation of both Candie and slavery in the South. A false genteel veneer that masks cruelty and inhumanity.

Candie is the obvious villain and DiCaprio received great reviews for his performance. But, I thought Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson) the busybody house slave overshadowed Candie. Stephen was detestable and Jackson played him well.

Stephen would often interrupt conversations to utter bits of nonsense. I hoped that one of the other characters would either karate chop him in the throat or kick away his cane. Annoying? Aggravating? Those terms do not begin to describe Stephen.

He’s like that kid who would tattle about every and anything. But, he’s grown up to be a cold-hearted and miserable old man that nobody visits because he’s such a jerk. Stephen is a character you will love to hate. And he was the bright spot in the last 30 to 45 minutes of the movie as it descended into overdone cartoonish violence.

Tarantino is a well-regarded director but his movies have a tendency to go off the rails. Tarantino’s films are violent, it’s kind of what he’s known for. I don’t have a problem with violence in film or literature as long as it’s relevant to the story. But Tarantino overindulged here and it turned a unique concept into childish fantasies. What could have been a great story ended up taking a back seat to over-the-top violence.

Recommendation

Django Unchained is pretty much a western set during slavery. You’ll enjoy Django Unchained if you like westerns and are into gunfights and bandits. There’s also a bit of romance as Django’s motivation through much of the film is his desire to save his wife.

I had high hopes for Django Unchained. The majority of Django Unchained lived up to expectations but it started falling apart at the end. It would have been a better film if Tarantino had developed the characters and the story instead of relying on gimmicks. But, if you’re a fan of Tarantino’s work or like a lot of special effects you might actually enjoy the ending.

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