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Tambay's Epic 'Django Unchained' Review - Kill The Noise (Nothing Is Silent)

Reviews
by Tambay A. Obenson
December 12, 2012 3:03 PM
39 Comments
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Warning: This is long. As you can see at the bottom, it's broken up into 4 pages, so just click to go to the next page to continue reading.

And by "Kill The Noise," I'm referring to all the chatter (both "for" and "against") that began over a year ago, starting with my summer 2011 review/critique of the script, to actress/filmmaker and Quentin Tarantino confidant, Rie Rasmussen's hyperbolic statements in the fall of last year, suggesting that the film would be nothing short of revolutionary, to the pre-release marketing for the film that really began in the spring, at the Cannes Film Festival, when we started to hear/read plugs for the film from its key cast and crew, collectively painting a picture of a mind-blowing, earth shattering, gruesome, heartwrenching, brutally honest slave narrative, that would, by the way, also be really entertaining and fun! Plugs (each met with similarly-spirited criticism) that carried into the summer and fall of this year, with the film's release date looming.

The conversation happening in the press seemed to promise the can't-miss movie event of the year.

However, now having seen the film, I'd once again say, quoting Public Enemy, don't believe the hype; kill the noise! It's not as grand, and imposing as the champions of the film have said; but neither is it as damning and exploitative as those who are against it want to believe.

I'm going to dive right into it, splitting my thoughts into 3 sections: The Good, The Bad, and then (no, not The Ugly) my Closing Statements. It's a lot to read (my reviews tend to be lengthy, as long-time readers of this site will already know), so get comfy.

THE GOOD

- Thankfully, it's quite different from the script I reviewed in summer 2011; several of the concerns I expressed in that review didn't end up on screen. Maybe it means that Jamie Foxx, Kerry Washington, Samuel L. Jackson or Reginald Hudlin (obviously, I'm naming the key black folks who were involved in the making of the film) got in Quentin Tarantino's (QT's) ear and voiced similar concerns that some of us had expressed with regards to certain depictions of the film's key black characters. In fact, I actually recall reports on this site that said QT was rewritting and reworking scenes, sometimes on the fly; and most recently, in an interview Courtney posted last week, with Howard Stern, QT revealed that he and Jamie Foxx worked together to redo parts of the ending. But, as I stated in my script review last year, and as many already know, what's in the script isn't necessarily what will end up on the screen. The script is like the first draft; the shooting is the second draft; and the editing is the third draft. So you can rest a bit easy, those who are concerned about any of the following items with regards to the film itself:

First, the concern that the relationship between Christoph Waltz's Dr. King Schulz and Jamie Foxx's Django was more of the usual teacher/student, master/apprentice relationship that we've come to expect. The reality is that it's instead very much a partnership between the two men, and, thankfully, Django is very much his own man from the beginning of that relationship - driven and determined, with one goal, and one goal only, driving his every action - to rescue his wife Broomhilda von Shaft. In effect, they use each other to accomplish their individual goals, and form a bond in the process.

Second concern many had - there's no what I'd called unnecessarily gratuitous or exploitative nudity, or scenes of sexual violence against Kerry Washington’s Broomhilda (or any other women in the movie, really); actually there's very minimal nudity, which took me a bit by surprise. Some might say that it's not representative of the period and circumtances in which the film takes place; but the common argument against that was the comparison to the lead female character in Inglorious Basterds who wasn't depicted in any scenes or moments we'd identify as dehumanizing, or undignifying, as a Jewish woman living in Nazi-occupied France. Some hoped that QT would afford Broomhilda a similar kind of "dignity," if you will, in Django as he did Shoshanna in Basterds. And he does, for the most part. But I have a lot more to say about Kerry Washington as Broomhilda when I get to "The Bad" section, later in this review. However, you’d be glad to know that Django Unchained isn't quite Mandinga (not Mandingo, but Mandinga, which came a year after Mandingo) - a movie that I'd say is pure exploitation, with its lengthy nude sex scenes between slaves and their masters; practically soft-core slave/master porn really. And if you've seen that film, you’ll know what I mean. But Django Unchained is most certainly not that.

A third concern, as I recall, had to do with whether this was just an exploitation movie that essentially trivializes an absolutely devastating American historical institution, whose effects are still being felt centuries later. I'd say that there two sides to this - and since I'm focusing on "The Good" at this time, I'll just say that it's not purely exploitation cinema (even though there's clearly some blaxploitation influence). If I may use this example to illustrate my thoughts on this... I remember Spike Lee and Denzel Washington sharing their realization of the weight of the task at hand, when they set out to make Malcolm X in the 90s - telling themselves and each other that they simply could not “fuck it up,” because of the subject matter, as well as their recognition of/reverence for the man whose story they were telling, the era he lived in, what his struggle and accomplishments meant, the struggle itself, and more; and also understanding what it all meant to black America. After I watched Django, I asked myself that question of QT; as a white man with white man's privilege - even though he's also extremely well-informed and aware - was it evident in Django that he had a similar kind of reverence for the subject matter, the gravity and weight of it all, and its contributions to the black American experience today, and black people all over the world generally? As a white man with privilege, did he have his own, "I can't fuck this up" moment, because of the story he sets out to tell in the film, and the institution he depicts? I don't know. I wasn't there. I’m not in his head (although some might even question whether, as a white man, it's his burden to bear). All I can do is go based on what I saw in the film, and interviews QT has given up until now. And I can say that I didn't cringe at anything that would be described as exploitative, or trivialized, or mocking of the significance of the experience - well, except for the film's villains, who were all so absurd and grotesque - essentially parodies, I felt. But more on the film’s villains when I get to "The Bad" section of this review. But in terms of QT’s reverence to the subject matter, and realizing its weight, I should remind you, lest we forget, that the goal here really is not necessarily to inform, or incite, but rather to entertain. And I'd say that for most who see it, it probably will do just that - entertain. In fact, despite all the pre-release talk from the cast and crew, selling the film as some gut-wrenching, intense, realistic story about slavery, as I noted in my intro, it's not quite that - not to me anyway! If you were concerned about depictions of the kind of violence associated with slavery, there's actually so very little of that, which might be a disappointment, if that's something you were looking forward to. There's actually very little of what I'd call *real* violence in the film - specifically, the kind of violence that was common against slaves. The film is about 2 1/2-hours long, and it's at its most violent in the last 20 or so minutes, but, again, it's not violence experienced by slaves. Not to spoil it, but in short, there are a series of shoot-outs - sequences that might even prove to be somewhat anticlimactic for some of you, who would prefer the kind of revenge that was less, shall we say, convenient, less finesse, and instead all id.

Fourth - other criticisms/concerns many of you had include the fact that a white filmmaker gets to tell this particular story; to that I can only say, get over it! Quentin Tarantino is one of a few directors in Hollywood who gets to play in whatever sandbox he likes, because, well, he's Quentin Tarantino. He certainly has his share of critics, but, in general, audiences and critics alike, tend to love his work - enough of them anyway, which is why he’s able to play as much as he’s allowed to within the golden gates of Hollywood. Instead of being angry or frustrated with him and his privilege, we should instead be looking to those black folks in Hollywood with the power and influence to ensure that black filmmakers get to tell stories about those especially crucial parts of our experience, past and present; the same kind of motivation that inspired Spike Lee to make Malcolm X in the 1990s (partly to do so before a white filmmaker did it) - a film that Warner Bros. financed in the majority, but Spike sought the funding of Hollywood's black elite to help finish.

And finally, addressing a fifth and last common concern. If it's not already clear, it's most certainly not Nat Turner's revolt; and yes, there is a white character in Dr. King Schulz (Christoph Waltz's character) who assists Django on his quest to find and rescue his bride; so it's not strictly Django's story. But as I noted above, theirs is an equal partnership, which eventually sees Jamie’s Django assert himself and take over the driver’s seat (even as a slave amongst white slave owners and slave drivers). And he does so with very few words, but lots of action, compared to his loquacious partner, Dr. King Schulz. Speaking of Spaghetti Western influences here, you could say that Jamie Foxx's Django is Tarantino's "Man With No Name," as Clint Eastwood was to Sergio Leone in his "Dollars Trilogy" of films. Not only is the "D" silent, but also Django himself, like Blondie (Eastwood) is also mostly silent; quiet but observant, and quick to act. Although it could also have been a function of the fact that he's a slave as part of a bounty hunting duo in the antebellum south, and a chatty Negro amongst white people, especially one as “cheeky” as Django, likely won’t be tolerated.

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39 Comments

  • Serene | September 15, 2013 8:11 PMReply

    I agree with what was said in other comments, that the scenes of slaves forced to fight each other and being ripped apart by dogs were horrifyingly unrestrained. I saw this film in the theater and was extremely uncomfortable during these drawn out scenes. I think that choice was intentional. One of the few times a QT movie is intentionally uncomfortable during violence rather than making violence seem badass. I am usually not in favor of excessive violence, but for this choice I give QT kudos.

  • Nadia | December 31, 2012 8:57 AMReply

    I finally saw it last night and I think this part of your review sums the whole thing up: "And above all else - if there's one thing that you should take away from all this, despite the backdrop on which this story unfolds - it's still very much a QT movie. His name and everything his name conjures up in your heads when it's mentioned, trumps the fact that it's a slave narrative. He's an "entertainment" filmmaker - obviously a smart, informed one too. But he's not out to affect change in the world, or inspire/incite action against, or for a specific cause, or force you to re-examine the path you've chosen to take in your life. He wants you to walk out of the theater after sitting through 2 1/2 hours of his movies, saying, "fuck yes, that was an awesome fucking kick-ass movie, alright!"" That pretty much sums it up. People can't get worked up about this movie because it's not that kinda movie. You've got to be dense if you're going to see this thinking it's going to be something all heavy and serious about slavery, especially since it's directed by Tarantino. If you've seen his past films, you should know what you're in for. Either you roll with it or you don't. But don't get all pissed off if you're seeing it expecting one kind of movie but get something totally different.

  • akroc | December 30, 2012 8:29 PMReply

    So a scene in which a slave gets ripped apart by dogs. And a scene when one slave is forced to bash another one in the head with a hammer after pushing his eyes in is restrained?

  • Stan | December 27, 2012 12:30 AMReply

    Restrained depiction of violence against slaves? Showing a slave getting ripped apart alive by attack dogs is restrained? I usually love Tarantino's films, but scenes like that seem out of place in his usual world of comic violence. They belong in more serious and reverent depictions of slavery's horrors. I am not offended by this film, I was just left feeling uncomfortable. The best analogy I can think of is Inglourious Basterds with some gas chamber scenes thrown in there. Anyways, thanks for the thoughtful review, and I am finding everyone's opinions very interesting. At least this film is sparking a lot of debate.

  • bashe | December 26, 2012 11:19 PMReply

    I can't---for the life of me---figure out why anyone would complain about the length of a review, any review. There's no such thing as required reading on-line, is there? Anyway, I really appreciated this in-depth response to the film. I agreed with some of your points/stances, some I didn't (I thought Sam Jackson was mesmerizing, and brought his character to life in a layered, multi-faceted, deeply disturbing performance---I completely agreed with what Wesley Morris said about Jackson's performance in the Boston Globe), but I deeply appreciate your stretching out on this film the way you did. Thank you.

  • DLG | December 25, 2012 12:19 PMReply

    Thanks - this is the most objective take/review that I have read including the one by Skip Gates. Not being a big Tarantino fan I won't be seeing the flick until it comes out on DVD and I can get from the library. From what I can gather DU is pretty much a pulp movie like Tarzan (Django) and Jane (Brunhilde)

  • Alex | December 24, 2012 8:31 AMReply

    "..but it's also not quite successful as this mish-mash send-up of previous popular genres, in my humble opinion"

    Humble? I just read 4 pages of anything but!
    This essay was definitely worth a read - you referenced far too many other films you wanted it to be like and it's plain to see you had no intention of ever liking this film from the beginning - thats cool - maybe, like me sometimes, you play the devils advocate or just do not like to go with grain. That is a wonderful stance to have. However all your essay made me want to do was see the movie. It's like everyone, including yourself, expected more than what we know Tarantino can offer. Revenge flicks that turn the conventional on its head : What if a white, blonde bride took on 88 crazy yakuza's ; what if a bunch of girls take on a psychotic stunt man?; A Jewish woman, duping a Nazi coupe in a french cinema with a black guy as her lover?; hey what if a black slave just decided to go on the war path and get his wife back?... but its set in the wild west.
    Old concepts using misplaced vehicles as the hook. Don't believe the hype? it's tarantino, there is always hype. Just most people (black people) were getting ahead of themselves because of the subject matter. Understandable - it's a subject matter, like the Holocaust that when broached can breach a lines of disrespect and ignorance. However it's a Tarantino flick - nothing more or less. I know exactly what I'm going to be getting; humour, cynicism and a whole lot of air kisses to films of old because that man loves to pay homage to his influences.

  • THE FIRST | December 23, 2012 8:25 PMReply

    I wished you would've condensed this into a 1500- word essay.

  • Aquarius | January 4, 2013 3:26 AM

    Touche Alex.

  • fish | December 23, 2012 4:15 PMReply

    great review. One of the best movie criticisms I have seen in a while.

  • Blackman | December 23, 2012 11:44 AMReply

    Brevity DUDE! This is a blog. We are NOT your professors. Learn to keep Shi! simple, direct and PLAIN. I got better shi! to read than a 4 page right up on a movie. Besides, who does this? Roger & Ebert never did.

  • Tambay | December 23, 2012 12:11 PM

    I could give a shit who else does this. This is how I do it. If it's too long for you, don't read it and move on to something that's more your speed. Stop whining!

  • turner | December 22, 2012 5:07 PMReply

    More like a thesis than a review... TMI

  • Aquarius | January 4, 2013 3:30 AM

    You're an excellent writer Tambay, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading your review. However, it was a tad long.

  • yemi toure | December 20, 2012 7:55 PMReply

    Quentin Tarantino has the word "nigger" in "Django Unchained" 110 times. What??? What is his underlying point for using it *that many* times? And if you say, "That's just how it was, back then," how many times will we hear "cracker"?

  • ska-triumph | December 15, 2012 10:58 PMReply

    While I look forward to reading this review, Sergio's take, and all of the insightful, passionate comments, after having seen the film at an AMPAS screening last week, I can at least pass my two cents. It's all Tarantino in tone and taste. Darkly comic, openly explotative, cartoonish violent, testosterone-driven, sociopolitial simple. That being said it's a good slavery-revenge/spaghetti-western mashup flick; a beautifully shot mess in every way but performance; the committed cast chewed up every minute. More insights to come I'm sure... Vigilance.

  • Aquarius | January 4, 2013 3:41 AM

    @YEMI TOURE, Black folks were either referred to as Niggers, or Nigras back then. Why do people continue to harp on QT's usage of this word? It's like when black folks were outraged by the way the maids spoke in The Help, as if black maids in the very deep south didn't actually speak that way. It's unfortunate, but there was a time in this country's history when we were referred to as Nigger wenches and bucks. That's just the truth, however ugly it may be.

  • cruz77 | December 14, 2012 2:16 AMReply

    thanks for a real review. way too many are just, "i love this, so enjoyable" without actually explaining why

  • Lox | December 13, 2012 11:36 AMReply

    So no award nomination for any black character in this film. We are reduced to playing extra in our own story again!! No plan to see it thank you very much.

  • that dude | December 15, 2012 11:15 AM

    What do awards have to do with a movie itself? Some of the greatest black films and black performances of all time have not been recognized by award organizations.

  • SameOl' | December 13, 2012 9:30 AMReply

    This is the same ol' bs served up to try to get Black folks' money. Leave it alone. Golden Globes nominated the movie and qt and all da gud yt folk, but nobody else. Don't fall for it. Tell 'em where they can stick this sh*t!

  • Rye | December 26, 2012 6:50 PM

    Your absolutely right...another ploy to get our money.

  • CANDI | December 13, 2012 9:22 AMReply

    GOLDEN GLOBE NOMS FOR DJANGO
    LEO
    CHRISTOPHER
    QUENTIN

  • Africameleon | December 13, 2012 12:43 AMReply

    Ya'll are a mess.... I gotta job. I can't read all this!!!

  • Monique A. Williams | December 12, 2012 10:02 PMReply

    Great, balanced review. I know QT wasn't trying to make another Goodbye Uncle atom, and I'm interested in seeing how he spun this. More intrigued by the day! Thanks for the lengthy, indepth review, Tambay!

  • JMac | December 12, 2012 8:20 PMReply

    As always thanks for the thorough review. I had no plans to see it and still don't but I like reading balanced reviews on hot button movies. Especially glad that this doesn't have some Mandinga/sex slave exploitation sh%t in it. I accidently came across that movie without knowing what it was, watched 10 minutes then shut it off before it scarred me for life. Considering this film seems weaker on the violence (which would be the only reason many people would want to watch such a film), I have a silent wish that perhaps QT will be "persuaded" to find a better use of his time than churning out more slave movies.

  • Agent K | December 12, 2012 7:36 PMReply

    After hearing Calvinis killed by Schultz, what can be worse for Sam's character? Were his hands chopped off?

  • jacetooon | December 12, 2012 7:28 PMReply

    Man way to spoil Django 1966.

  • Orville | December 12, 2012 7:03 PMReply

    Nice review Tambay, I am disappointed that Kerry Washington's character Broomhilda wasn't a major role in this film. But I disagree with Tambay about Kerry Washington taking the part now. Besides Scandal virtually ALL of Kerry Washington's films she's been in a supporting role.

    It is interesting, that only on television Kerry's gotten the opportunity to be the female lead role.
    Interesting also, you say Tambay that you think it is a step down for Kerry but I think Kerry is actually smart for taking this role. Let's face it, Hollywood is about publicity and Kerry Washington knows being in a Tarantino film is going to get her name in the papers. Although, I will say I agree with Tambay that Scandal is truly Kerry's breakthrough role and not Django Unchained. I am hoping that Hollywood takes notice of Kerry and finally gives her a lead in a Hollywood film I would love to see her in a romantic drama where she is the female lead and the main star of the film.

  • nika | December 22, 2012 5:43 PM

    Agreed, KW has been in supporting roles up until now. A year ago this would have been a role she should have taken, even though the author disagrees. The only reason we think it's a step down now is because of Scandal. Now, I will say KW has been underrated all of this time. Now her name is finally on the radar. Scandal did it and Django will help keep it there even if it's a small role.

  • Michael | December 12, 2012 6:51 PMReply

    Really smart, thoughtful review. I agree with the bulk of your assessment, although I think I enjoyed Christoph Waltz a bit more than you did. He was masterful in setting the tone of the film early on, and has a unique way of individualizing QT's dialogue, when he often seems to write the bulk of his characters with the same voice. I thought Jamie was quite solid, and I was very apprehensive about his ability to pull off the roll. At 165 minutes, it felt about 20-25 minutes too long, but ultimately I enjoyed it much more than Inglorious Basterds.

  • Justin W | December 12, 2012 6:26 PMReply

    After reading this, it seems most of fears about the film have been erased. Thanks for the good read Tambay.

  • Skud Wilkins | December 12, 2012 5:32 PMReply

    ''This is a role that should have gone to an up-and-coming actress looking to break in, and raise industry awareness for herself; not for a seasoned actress like Kerry Washington.'' Heh. Very interesting review, except for this bit. Next time Tarantino should hire you to do the casting.

  • Donella | December 12, 2012 5:32 PMReply

    Well, you've thought long and hard on this, Tambay.

  • Curtis | December 12, 2012 4:28 PMReply

    This movie is gettin rave reviews. Looks like it is living up to the hype. It's rotten tomatoes score is 100% with 19 reviews so far. I will be there opening day. So happy for the cast.

  • Les Grossman | December 12, 2012 4:06 PMReply

    i skipped "The Bad" section.k,thanx,bye!!

  • Tamara | December 12, 2012 4:00 PMReply

    Ah, thanks for your thoughts on the film. With what you posit, it's as if QT brought marshmallows to a clambake. I love your mentions and comparisons/contrasts of the original Django as well as Mandingo and Mandinga (which I did not know existed), Ingloriuos Basterds, as well as the overall blaxploitation flavor attributed to QT's filmmaking aesthetic. What you mention of Leo DiCaprio and his babyface as you put it. I have to say that it took me some years to see through his baby face to the man he is in the character he embodies. Don't worry, you'll get there, too. LOL. I'm on the fence with Broomhilda von Shaft, the name as well as the character/ization, but I look forward to drawing conclusions of my own. Likewise, the overall regarding the depiction of a slavery piece too soft, not soft enough, too hard, too violent, graphic, real, dramatized, romanticized, etc. again thank you for not spoiling but giving enough to continue to pique my interest in this work. I'm a fair-weather QT fan, as well as a fair-weather spaghetti western blaxploitation pulp fan, but Django has been all thanks to S&A on my must-see list since its public announcement upon QTs inception of the work. As I said in Sergio's post, I look forward to QTs other slavery-era ideas for pictures. I'm interested, indeed and that is a good first step up from fair-weather, no? Take care.

  • B | December 12, 2012 3:53 PMReply

    DVD for me... Thanks for a balanced review.

  • Taz | December 12, 2012 3:49 PMReply

    "As an aside, I noticed that his character faced what I thought was a far more gruesome fate than his master, which begs the questions: who's worse - the slave master, or the Uncle Tom?"

    From my point of view of reading comments on this blog and others, the black man is worse because we do not give them any grace, mercy, slack, or a teeny piece of tissue to wipe the crap off their behinds.

    Otherwise, this was a decent review.

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