Film Review: Django Unchained 1 Comment

Film Review: Django Unchained

The latest film by Quentin Tarantino left me unsettled. Django Unchained (2012) is a slave’s revenge story, a blacksploitation/Spaghetti Western, and supposedly a ‘critique’ of pre-Civil War racism – or perhaps more simply, a portrayal. It’s expertly stylised in set design, costume, photography and soundtrack, and there are some fantastically funny moments (see: the Klansmen bickering over the eye-holes in the pillow sacks over their heads).

One element of the film that caught a lot of attention is the liberal swearing in the script, particularly the use of the word ‘nigger’. It is admittedly quite shocking to hear the n-word used as frequently and as off-handedly as in Django. Tarantino has used the excessiveness of this word to emphasise the violence of this historical era and the reality of black slaves’ lives in this not-so-long-ago time. Through its use we become more distinctly aware of how a word can be used to dehumanise the individual. Similarly, we are reminded of how white men would refer to black men as ‘boy’ to infantalise them and attack their autonomy. On the one hand, the use of ‘nigger’ in Django expertly conveys all the violence of racism, but on the other, I wonder if Tarantino is simply getting away with using a cheap and racist shortcut. 

What unsettled me about the film is its own exploitation of its themes and characters. There are scenes when the camera lingers on the brutality suffered by some of the black characters that seem to go past a critique on slavery to base level torture porn. For instance, in what I will refer to as ‘the dog scene’, the power of the scene comes from the victim’s vulnerability, total hopelessness, and shame. The gore of it is a staple of Tarantino, but the unflinching gaze of the camera, and the onlookers within the scene with whom we have become complicit, is needlessly and grotesquely exploitative because its shock value comes at the expense of the powerless.

Christoph Waltz: Bearded babe.

Christoph Waltz: Bearded babe.

The other scene that stood out was Broomhilda’s (Kerry Washington) release from the ‘hot box’ – a crude metal box in the ground designed to torture a person through extreme heat. Again, the camera lingers over her naked and exposed, shaking body, as she is dragged into a wheelbarrow and taken back to slave-owner Candie’s house. Without even going into the fact that Broomhilda – the only female character of importance – has barely any speaking lines throughout the film, her character is repeatedly victimised and is always in danger of being abused.

It’s curious that Tarantino didn’t explore the intersection of sexism and racism, but then again I’m not sure that this film actually ‘explores’ anything very much. Far too often, Django Unchained benefits from the historical atrocities it depicts, rather than doing anything to deconstruct, comment upon or oppose them.

However, Jamie Foxx plays Django with a great deal of complexity, humour and range considering his character’s patchy evolution. DiCaprio is wonderfully despicable as the slave trader Candie, and Christoph Waltz’s Dr Schultz is charming as the loveable gun-slinging, ex-dentist. 

At two hours and 45 minutes it is far too long, but this probably won’t bother hardcore Tarantino fans. The plot feels accidental or convoluted at times, in what is actually a very straightforward revenge story. You’ve probably heard that Tarantino’s Australian accent is hilariously awful, and yes, I’d have to agree.


Jessica Alice edits poetry for Voiceworks, produces podcasts for Kill Your Darlings, and presents and produces Women on the Line and Spoken Word for 3CR 855AM radio. She tweets @jessica_alice_

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    I see it as a film about willpower and restraint, which it certainly explores. Hence I agree with you that he historical and racist backdrop is probably exploited, but beyond the over-the-top violence I don’t particularly see anything wrong with overuse of a racist term IF that is what would have been said at the time.

    It’s about willpower because Dr Schultz expresses it at all times in order to get what he wants. This is in particular evidence during the bar scene at the start. The bad guys show no restraint, while the good guys (Django and Dr Schultz) show composure at all times. In Django’s case it’s necessary to survive; for Dr Schultz it’s how he earns money. It is also the catalyst of the movie’s ending. When he refuses to shake Candie’s hand he says, “I couldn’t help myself.” This shows how giving in to your desires can have dire consequences. Django on the other hand manages to salvage the situation by taking his time and meticulously enacting revenge.

    Anyway, that’s how I see it. Obviously you can’t ignore the racism, but the notion of willpower is what struck me most about the film.

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