So I finally got through reading Quentin Tarantino’s screenplay for Django Unchained. And, well, I'm sorry to say that it’s not at all what a lot of you seem to think, or rather hope it will be, as the title of this post suggests.
Recall when I had Wendell B Harris Jr (Chameleon Street) on the Shadow & Act Livecast a couple of years ago, in 2009, and he relayed a time when he boldly pitched a contemporary lynching retribution film to studio execs, who, not-so-surprisingly weren’t interested? And, in a later post, I made connections between Wendell's idea and another Tarantino movie (which hadn't been released at the time), Inglorious Basterds - the revisionist history movie on how WWII ended, set in Nazi-occupied France. It’s a revenge flick; as Jeffrey Wells put it: “a Jewish payback movie in which all kinds of brutal and sadistic killings of Germans are presented as not only righteous but delicious, because “them Nazis”… are viciously anti-Semitic and deserve it all to hell.”
Revenge in Basterds, unlike Wendell Harris’ lynching retribution idea, does not take place almost a century after the crime. It happens synchronously, in the era it references – essentially one man’s fantasy about what could have been, and not what actually was.
So, it got me thinking… what if Wendell B Harris’ lynching revenge flick followed a similar story strategy? Again, revisionist history, set during the days in which the lynching of black people were de facto commonplace.
Thus, like Tarantino’s Basterds, two story lines converge. Borrowing almost verbatim from the Basterds synopsis, with some obvious alterations made with purpose: One story follows a ragtag group of black men whose mission is to take down as many offending whites as they can get their hands on. They ambush and kill white men responsible for the hangings of blacks (whether members of the KKK, officers of the so-called law, and members of any white supremacist mobs usually found at the center of lynchings), unabashedly desecrating their corpses, always leaving one alive, so that he can tell others. And the second storyline follows a young black woman who seeks to avenge the death of her family at the hands of white supremacists, by sabotaging the premiere of some supremacist group’s latest propaganda film release, by luring all the offending parties and their leaders into her theatre, with the intent to seal them all in, and burn the building down, killing them all. And, given the time the movie will take place, we’ll make the propaganda film in question being shown, D.W. Griffith’s Birth Of A Nation!
The title of Wendell Harris’s version can stay the same – Inglorious Basterds. It still works, right?
Well… sorry, but that’s not quite the kind of film you’re going to see here, with Django Unchained. It’s not Inglorious Basterds with black Basterds, and white supremacists getting their skulls crushed with baseball bats.
To be frank, I’m not so sure why the script is attracting so much acclaim, from those who’ve read it. I don’t think I’ve read one single negative reaction to it yet. So, I suppose mine may attract the wrath of fanboys and girls across the blogosphere.
I, unfortunately, can’t reveal plot details. I can only give you the vaguest idea of what to expect.
Yes, I know it’s essentially a parody of spaghetti westerns, with a little blaxploitation elements thrown into the mix. In fact, you’ll find pieces of films like Drum and Mandingo in it. I believe Tarantino once previously referenced the latter as an influence of sorts.
But I found this to be maybe his most contrived work. It looks and feels too much like a "Tarantino film," if that makes any sense, in terms of the pastiche of stylistic elements and substance that generally characterize his works. In essence, it feels kind of stale to me, despite the subject matter, and not really what I’d call a reinvention, which I was expecting.
As for the story itself… Call it the frivolity of slavery... superficial and gratuitous. It’s exploitation cinema, and, I think it would have worked much better, and been an easier pill to swallow 40 years ago.
Django isn’t quite the hero here – not the way you’re probably expecting. For a good 2/3 of the script, he’s pretty much playing second fiddle to Christoph Waltz’s character who is essentially Django’s mentor, and the man responsible for his freedom, later providing him with the necessary skills Django needs to eventually challenge the plantation owner who holds his wife captive. Waltz is pretty much playing Hans Landa, the same character her portrayed in Inglorious Basterds... the difference being he's on the side of “good” here. But, as I read it, I saw Landa all the way - multi-lingual, professorial, cunning, but efficient and deadly when necessary.
In fact, I’d say that Django doesn’t really, fully, come alive until about the last 25 minutes of this almost 3-hour script/movie. And there are circumstances that accommodate that transition, which I can’t reveal here – circumstances that felt all-too-convenient. Suffice it to say that just as it takes the assist of a white man to set Django free and on course towards saving his damsel in distress, it also takes the assist (however unintentional) of a white man to finally allow Django his moment to really shine, and get out of the white man's shadow. And even those last 20 minutes, aren't very satisfying.
Waltz is pretty much the show for much of the film, with the occasional unintentionally comedic line from Django, as well as flashback sequences to provide back-story.
Speaking of its blaxploitation influences… regarding the lead female character in this, named Broomhilda, Django’s slave wife, whom he’s separated from, and seeks. She’s the lead female in the film, but her part is limited to really just physicalities. She has the most screen time of any other woman in the film, which is why I call her the lead female character, but, really, there’s no Shosanna in this one, as there was in Inglorious Basterds. The black female “lead” here doesn’t get the same kind of dignified treatment that Tarantino gave Shosanna. Not even close. Yes, I know it’s a different time altogether, but, I’m sure he could have afforded Broomhilda some complexities, and maybe even made her a heroine in her own right.
There are some 4 or 5 scenes in which the she's, shall we say, "exposed"… i.e. naked; and they felt gratuitous to me; 2 in which she's raped by white men. When we first meet her, she's on the auction block and asked to bare her breasts to potential buyers; later, she's chased through a hotel, through hallways, and lobbies, etc, by a slave master, completely naked, after being woken up from sleep, with a whip across her naked body; and still later, she's locked up naked in a steel box as punishment for trying to run away. Yes, I’m sure these are all scenarios that very well likely could have played out at the time; however, Tarantino could have opted to depict her in another light altogether, but instead chose this less flattering, exploitative one. If the intent here is to elicit sympathy for her, and, in turn, ensure that we hate her captors even more, justifying their eventual comeuppance, it certainly doesn't. Not for me anyway, as someone who's already familiar with the atrocities of slavery, and didn't feel like I needed to see a character that's really the female lead in the film, essentially exhibited almost like Saartje Baartman (aka the Hottentot Venus) was. I'm betting Tarantino will likely get a well-endowed black actress to play the part, not-so unlike, as I already made comparisons to, the blaxploitation films of the 70s, the most famous female face (and body) of the era, Pam Grier.
Who exactly will take this particular role, I don’t know. It’s not the most glamorous, nor complex. Although, I’m sure there are a lot of actresses who’d gladly sign up for it.
As for Django, I'd be shocked if Will Smith agrees to do this, as is. I can't see it AT ALL! Not only because the part doesn't suit him; not in the slightest (the character is described as scrawny, first of all); but also because this isn't what I'd really call leading man material. As I already noted, Will Smith would essentially have to play second fiddle to Christoph Waltz for about 2/3rds of the film, and I just can't see him signing up for that.
To make a comparison, this is essentially Will and Tommy Lee Jones in the first Men In Black movie, wherein Tommy Lee scouts and recruits Will, is impressed with his abilities, and brings him into the collective. It's not the strongest comparison, since, in that film, Will’s character is pretty much already his own man (obviously, he’s not a slave in it); but I think you get the point.
What I think a lot of us would prefer, given your reactions to the initial announcement of this project, is something more akin to a story centered on some brute slave, fed up with the oppressive system he’s been subjected to for all his life, seething with rage, who courageously takes it upon himself, in the face of near-insurmountable, even deadly adversity, to restore some humanity and dignity to the life he and his family lead. Sure, like Nat Turner, he most likely would be killed in the end, but, I’d rather have that, than this, essentially, black/white buddy action/comedy movie, in the most basic sense.
Django Unchained feels more regressive than transgressive.
It’s unnecessarily long. Why did this need to be 166 pages? It’s dialogue-heavy, which, as we all know, is Tarantino's forte, after all. He loves a riveting, humorous verbal exchange; the battles of wits. There’s a lot of that here. Though, the script could easily be 66 pages less, and I don't know if you'd lose much, except chunks of dialogue that don't really add a hell of a lot to the narrative, as far as I'm concerned. Maybe reducing the number of times the word “Nigger” is used may actually kill off about 10 pages, because its use here is heavy; and even though it’s representative of the times, will probably make some uncomfortable… just like the now infamous “Dead Nigger Storage” scene in Pulp Fiction, which Tarantino was criticized for – notably by Spike Lee.
To use Hollywood parlance, this is a role more for a "character actor," than the proverbial "leading man," and, again, I just can't see Will Smith taking this role... at least, not without having some input on script changes. If the Men In Black III shooting was postponed twice because Will wasn't happy with the script, well... do the math here. But given that Tarantino's ego is just about as massive, I don't see him altering the script, not for Will; not even for God.
I'm sorry to say that I think a lot of you will be sorely disappointed with this. This isn't the revenge fantasy tale that most seem to be think it is, and want to see. This isn't Inglorious Basterds part 2; no KKK skulls being crushed with baseball bats; this isn't inspired by Nat Turner's revolt nor Toussaint L'Ouverture.
I know Jug has read it, but not sure who else may have. I’d like to hear what those of you who have read it think of Django Unchained. Am I just missing something here? And if so, what? School me…
Lastly, I’ve heard Michael K Williams’ name mentioned by a few folks, and I think he’d be a much better fit here, in terms of the way the character is described and depicted. The folks over at one of our sister sites, The Playlist, posted a thorough writeup, listing their choices for what actors would be best for just about every single major role in the film, and it's worth a read. Find it HERE.
I’ll leave you with this scene from Boardwalk Empire to give you the idea (although I'd say that there's actually more meat and subtlety in the character he portrays in this short 3 1/2 clip than there is in Django):