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The Best Writing About 'Django Unchained' So Far

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by Matt Singer
January 3, 2013 10:03 AM
2 Comments
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"Django Unchained."
"Django Unchained."

Maybe I was too worn out by its bloated runtime, or worn down by its outrageously excessive violence, but "Django Unchained" left me feeling more exhausted than stimulated. Overall, I enjoyed the film to a point -- and then the film proceeded past that point by a good forty minutes. 

I think it's safe to say that I've gotten more stimulation, intellectually anyway, from the conversation around "Django" than from the film itself. And while I've found some of the more extreme reactions nearly as tiresome as "Django," I've also read very smart articles on both sides of the debate -- those who found Tarantino's depiction of a vengeful slave meting out (very) bloody justice in the antebellum South brilliant or progressive, and those who thought Tarantino crossed a line, either in his depiction of violence or his deployment of racial epithets. I've even read one insightful piece on the issue of "crossing the line" -- on where exactly that line should be drawn and how Tarantino has repeatedly leapt over it with gleeful and perhaps reckless abandon.

Before we all get weary of the conversation, I decided to collect some of the best writing on "Django Unchained" published to date. If you've produced your own analysis, or you've read one you found particularly instructive, I encourage you to leave it in the comments section below. So far, these are my favorites:

The Best "Django Unchained" Writing So Far

Jason Bellamy on Tarantino's history of "crossing the line:"

"The list of filmmakers who have line-crossing in their auteurist veins is longer than a typical Tarantino monologue. Oliver Stone, Michael Haneke, Lars von Trier and QT's good buddy Spike Lee, just to name four off the top of my head, have made careers out of attacking our delicate sensibilities -- and even our not so delicate ones. What's unusual about Tarantino is the way in which he crosses the line: with the calculating indiscriminateness of someone who has spent so much time on the other side of the line that he seems to forget where he last saw it. If guys like Stone, Haneke, von Trier and Lee are akin to graffiti artists who zero in on a target and make their mark, Tarantino is more like a guy who leaves muddy footprints on your living room carpet because he decided long ago that refusing to take off his boots at the door was part of his identity."

Steven Boone on Quentin Tarantino and "the many Spike Lees:"

"Both Spike and Quentin have a Sam Fuller tendency to go all-caps, tabloid large when staging bits of provocation that would be juicy all on their own. But let's just lay it on the table: Tarantino is the better filmmaker, by many miles. His ability to organize screen time and space is more assured and rhythmic than Spike's generally antsy, grab-bag approach. Certain sublime stretches of 'Do the Right Thing,' 'Clockers,' '25th Hour' and his lovely documentaries notwithstanding, it's hard to imagine Spike sitting still for the carefully timed and detonated jokes built around Django's initiation into the bounty-hunting business. Both filmmakers are terrible actors who have trouble getting out of their own way, but Tarantino, more often than Spike, redeems his indulgences with scene-making that simply rewards close, patient attention. Both filmmakers quote the films and pop culture totems that inspire them; Tarantino just tends to do it more elegantly and purposefully."

Steven Boone and Odie Henderson's "Black Man Talk" about "Django:"

"I read the ending of 'Django Unchained' the same way I read the last shot of 'Taxi Driver' (another film referenced here, not just for the gun-up-the-sleeve contraption), as a possible delusion of the doomed protagonist. Everything that happens after Django's final killing spree has the quality of a revenge dream. I almost expected him to wake up still hanging upside down in the barn, the way Mr. Tuttle found himself still bound in a torture chamber after his escape fantasy in the movie 'Brazil.' The plantation explosion happens so Looney Tunes-style close to Django, and Broomhilda's reaction is that of a winning game show contestant, not a 19th Century slave who has spent her life being raped and tortured. It's a demented kind of happiness... whatever Tarantino's feeling about this ending, it chilled my blood worse than anything in Ken Burns's 'The Central Park Five.'"

Jelani Cobb on "Django"'s historical accuracy:

"Is this how Americans actually perceive slavery? More often than not, the answer to that question is answered in the affirmative. It is precisely because of the extant mythology of black subservience that these scenes pack such a cathartic payload. The film’s defenders are quick to point out that 'Django' is not about history. But that’s almost like arguing that fiction is not reality -- it isn’t, but the entire appeal of the former is its capacity to shed light on how we understand the latter. In my sixteen years of teaching African-American history, one sadly common theme has been the number of black students who shy away from courses dealing with slavery out of shame that slaves never fought back."

Bilge Ebiri on why "Django" had to be a spaghetti Western:

"Despite their reputation as a vehicle for cheap thrills and badly dubbed Eastwoodian one-liners, many spaghetti Westerns turned the iconography of the American West inside out and revealed it to be full of lies. Nobody should be surprised that 'Django Unchained,' in its homage to this most subversive of genres, fully adopts its revolutionary spirit and moral outrage."

Keli Goff on "Django"'s "gratuitous" violence:

"I didn't need to see Jewish people tortured in 'Inglorious Basterds' to know I wanted the Nazis to pay. Tarantino seemed to know that too, so we didn't see any Jewish characters tortured. We know some were killed, but their killing was not in any way, shape or form graphic, explicit or prolonged... So my question is why in 'Django Unchained' did Tarantino feel it was necessary to depict black men being pummeled and tortured in such graphic, gory, and yes, gratuitous ways? Yes, slavery was brutal, but when films like 'Roots' depict a slave being maimed it is not done in a voyeuristic way that goes on for several minutes, and that film was not any less effective in conveying the institution's brutality."

Wesley Morris on the film's unique taxonomy:

"Set in 1853, this isn’t a runaway narrative. It’s a run-toward narrative, rigged for shock. Each scene lays a stick of dynamite and lights a fuse that runs down and down and down until the whole thing blows up like the Fourth of July. I’ve never seen anything like this movie, not in one 165-minute sitting, not from a single director, not made with this much conscientious bravado and unrelenting tastelessness -- this much exclamatory kitsch -- on a subject as loaded, gruesome, and dishonorable as American slavery."

Andrew O'Hehir on an "incoherent, three-hour bloodbath:"

"I recognize the moral argument that is hypothetically percolating below 'Django Unchained:' Tarantino is suggesting that white Americans who benefited from a slave economy were guilty of historical crimes whether or not they personally owned slaves, just as he implied in 'Inglourious Basterds' that German soldiers were guilty of atrocities they did not personally commit. But give me a break. In both cases he’s just pretending to raise these so-called questions in order to create the framework for an emotionally arid, ultraviolent action movie whose characters and audience seem to be emotionally stunted adolescent boys. For Tarantino, history is just another movie to strip for parts."

Michelle Orange on American history filtered through Quentin Tarantino's imagination:

"In that 'Dirty Harry'-inflected showdown, Django and Stephen aim at each other the word deployed with discomfiting abandon throughout 'Django Unchained.' Only bullets fly more freely. The United States took to both weapons like few other countries, and if their ubiquity in this potent revision of a very real and implacable stain on American history is difficult to defend, perhaps it is meant to be. We can be more certain that movie history will have sorted out the damage before the national wounds so improbably and hauntingly depicted here have begun to heal."

Alyssa Rosenberg, comparing "Django" and Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln" (SPOILERS):

"Like long-term abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens’ decision, on the floor of the House, to moderate his stated views on the equality of black Americans to win support for the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment in Spielberg’s film, a crucial moment in 'Django Unchained' comes when German bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a newer advocate of equality, is offered an opportunity to avoid violence and advance the cause of equality with social moderation -- except that in this case, he chooses purity, radicalism, [and] violence."

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2 Comments

  • Fr. Dennis Kriz, OSM (Fr. Dennis at the Movies) | January 4, 2013 11:50 AMReply

    Django Unchained is a film that probably a lot of racists (and closet racists...) will not like. Many others, including liberals seeking to be consistent, object to the film's violence. Yet, IMHO "Django Unchained" speaks very bluntly (and very honestly) about the ENORMOUS UNMITIGATED STAIN that the legacy of Slavery has left on the American soul (black and white). If one thinks about it HONESTLY, there really is no "other side" to Slavery. And given its horror, Leonardo di Caprio's character does ask a very brutally honest question: "Why don't [the African slaves] just rise and kill us all?" Indeed, why didn't/don't their descendants do so even now? The Crime of Slavery (and the Crimes that followed during the Jim Crow Era -- Lynchings, etc) certainly "cry out to Heaven." Yet, I don't believe that it is "moral weakness" but rather a mixture pragmatism and _kindness_ on the part of those who've suffered (and continue to suffer) the effects of racism that keeps us all more-or-less at peace and, more to the point, alive. The racist has ceded his/her humanity. The ball is completely in the oppressed / formerly oppressed's court. Thanks be to God that those oppressed by our nation's continued racism continue to _choose_ to be "kind and merciful." http://frdennismoviereviews.blogspot.com/2012/12/django-unchained.html

  • Tony Dayoub | January 3, 2013 12:45 PMReply

    Great pieces, Matt. And many by writers who I already follow. Here's my own piece contra DJANGO UNCHAINED: http://bit.ly/WlcBce

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