'Django Unchained': Why Spike Lee Refuses to See It, More Reviews UPDATED

Reviews
by Anne Thompson
December 26, 2012 7:16 PM
6 Comments
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Quentin Tarantino's "Django Unchained," which opened Christmas Day, played well at the DGA screening I attended, as well as the subsequent L.A  Academy screening. Audiences are flocking to see it (we'll do the box office numbers on Thursday) and critics love it (89% on Rotten Tomatoes, 80% on MetaCritic). Of course they do--per usual, Tarantino offers up a meaty dish to be savored and interpreted, crammed with movie references and rich performances from a wide range of great character actors. (My review here; Philadelphia critic Carrie Rickey and I debate the movie along with other holiday openers here.)

Definitely check out the "Django" thread at Spike Lee's twitter page: @spikelee. I love the way he engages with his fans, answering questions and throwing out provocations. His take on "Django Unchained" is much as I suspected it would be. He's uncomfortable with the idea of telling a slavery story within the spaghetti western genre. And filmmaker Ava DuVernay wrote me an explanation of why Lee and some others are reluctant to check out the movie themselves (he's not telling anyone not to go see it): the subject matter is just too uncomfortable. I still think Lee has a stronger argument if he actually sees the movie. I'm eager to get his reaction, and I'm not the only one. In some ways Tarantino makes the dicey and horrific subject matter easier to handle via the genre. He's providing a distancing device. A realm of safety. But he also backs off some of the emotion that way.

UPDATE: Historian Henry Louis Gates had no trouble taking Tarantino seriously on "Django." Check out their probing The Root podcast, which digs into what's real and what's exaggerated, the use of violence, the n-word, and Foxx's discomfort with playing a slave. Tarantino also expresses his hatred for western master John Ford, partly because he was willing to play a klansman in "Birth of a Nation." Here's the podcast and the transcript: parts one, two and three.

Here's a review sampling:

Dana Stevens, Slate

Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino’s blaxploitation spaghetti western about a freed slave turned bounty hunter, provoked a lot of contradictory feelings in me, including some that don’t usually come in pairs: Hilarity and boredom. Aesthetic delight and physical nausea. Fist-pumping righteousness and vague moral unease.
Of course, provoking intense feelings is what Tarantino’s cinema is all about.

A. O. Scott, The New York Times

The plot is, by Mr. Tarantino’s standards, fairly linear, without the baroque chronology of “Pulp Fiction” or the parallel story lines of “Inglourious Basterds.” But the movie does take its time, and it wanders over a wide expanse of geographic and thematic territory.

In addition to Mr. Tarantino’s trademark dialogue-heavy, suspense-filled set pieces, there are moments of pure silliness, like a gathering of hooded night riders (led by Don Johnson), and a late escapade (featuring Mr. Tarantino speaking in an Australian accent) that perhaps owes more to Bugs Bunny than to any other cultural archetype.

Of course, the realm of the archetypal is where popular culture lives, and Mr. Tarantino does not hesitate to train his revisionist energies on some deep and ancient national legends. Like many westerns, “Django Unchained” latches onto a simple, stark picture of good and evil, and takes homicidal vengeance as the highest — if not the only — form of justice.

David Edelstein, New York Magazine

Django Unchained doesn’t merely hit its marks; it blows them to bloody chunks. It’s manna for mayhem mavens. The cast is hip, but you knew that already — hipsterism is automatically conferred on actors in QT pictures. And though the plot turns are predictable, every scene is apt to wander off into an alley of irrelevance in which comic surprises await — among them a protracted griping session featuring Klansmen who can’t see out their eyeholes. Parts of the film are maniacally funny. Of course, no matter how hard you laugh at Tarantino’s audacity, you have a feeling he’s laughing louder. For all its pleasures, Django Unchained feels too easy, too dead-center in Tarantino’s comfort zone. He’s not challenging himself in any way that matters. He has become his own Yes Man.

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6 Comments

  • sergio | December 27, 2012 5:39 PMReply

    Remember when there used to be a time when you couldn't wait for a new Spike Lee film (or "joint" as he likes to call them) He was the cutting edge director. What would he come up with next? Jungle Fever? Do the Right Thing? Mo' Better Blues? Malcolm X? Well that was 20 years ago. And who gets the sort of vibe today whenever they have new film coming out? Tarantino. Are we seeing some jealousy for the most part here? Spike had a great opportunity recently to make a truly great film about black history and that was called Miracle at St. Anna....YIKES!

  • Brian | December 27, 2012 1:42 PMReply

    I saw this with a large black audience on Christmas Day and they were very attuned to what was going on throughout the film and gave it a very enthusiastic reaction. I imagine, though, that there were very few in this crowd who'd be following Spike Lee on Twitter. Also, Black scholar Henry Louis Gates interviewed Tarantino on The Root website and it's full of great insights--but it's full of spoilers so you might want to wait till you've seen the movie.

  • Brian | December 27, 2012 3:53 PM

    P.S. Anne links to the Gates podcast and all three parts of the interview in her "Hackford Grills Tarantino" entry.

  • Hillary Louise Johnson | December 26, 2012 10:59 PMReply

    It saddens me that Spike Lee would go on the record as refusing to see the movie. For a filmmaker to choose publicly, for ethical reasons, not to see a movie he will inevitably be asked about amounts to choosing to have an uninformed opinion. That's not an ethical position, in terms of art.

  • MDL | December 26, 2012 9:06 PMReply

    I though Django Unchained was good fun. I have no problem with QT's revisionist fantasy history. In Inglourious Basterds he took it to the Nazi's and here he does the same to plantation owners. I'm not sure why that is controversial in the least bit. He is killing the bad guys. And he does it with cinematic style and a good soundtrack. I'm pretty sure most people understand that. He in no way set out to make a heartfelt drama. It seems you and Carrie wanted that, which is a tad odd considering that was not Tarantino's intentions.

  • Tim | December 27, 2012 10:34 AM

    I think the problem is the moral simplicity. "killing the bad guys." it wasn't all that long ago that slavery ended in America (many elements of it didn't end until the civil rights era) and the current state of our society has been highly shaped by the legacy of that institution. a lot of the people who are paying to see this movie continue to benefit, in varying degrees, from that legacy. people always like to think of themselves as being on the just and victorious side of history, but the truth is a lot more complicated and uncomfortable. I think part of Spike's problem is that Tarantino's film doesn't seem to acknowledge that. I won't know whether I agree with him until I see the film, but I'm certainly hesitant and suspicious.

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