By Tambay A. Obenson | Shadow and Act December 12, 2012 at 3:03PM
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.
- 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.