"What you said was, was that 'This is my world, and in my world you gotta get dirty.' So that's what I'm doing, I'm getting dirty."
During what might be the darkest hour of a cold, winter's night, the slave Django (Jamie Foxx) is purchased, at gunpoint, by a German dentist turned Bounty Hunter named Dr. King Shultz (Christoph Waltz). Schultz reveals that he has purposefully sought out Django because the soon to be former slave knows what the Brittle Brothers, a trio of wanted fugitives that Schultz is attempting to track down, look like.
Although Schultz abhors slavery, he is not above using it as leverage to convince Django to help him search out the Brittle Brothers. Not that Django needs all that much convincing to do that. He tells Schultz how the Brittle Brothers, after they learned that Django had married a fellow slave named Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), whipped Django's wife and then broke them apart by selling them to two different slave traders. A disgusted Schultz vows that, after the Brittle Brothers have been eliminated and Django has learned the Bounty Hunter trade, he will help Django find and free the now former slave's beloved wife.
There is one simple reason why Django Unchained is not holding the number one slot on my Best (New) Movies I Saw in 2012 list, I didn't manage to see it until 2013. I know that might seem a bit strange, because there is nothing stopping me from going back, editing the list and making sure that Django Unchained takes its rightful place as the very best movie of that year, which it most certainly is.
But I didn't see it in 2012, I saw it in 2013, and this strict, little OCD part of my brain just keeps screaming that Django Unchained does not, that it can not, count. All I can say about that is, "It's an organizational thing." It's just how my silly brain seems to want to work.
Enough about me, though. What about Django Unchained? Even before the film opened it was stirring up controversy on multiple levels, from various groups. There were the concerns about the "excessive" use of a certain racial slur, the way that the crime against humanity that was (is) slavery is smeared, in all of its unplesant and inhumanity, across the silver screen, and, most comically (for me), there were the grumbles about a film showing how an "uppity negro" becomes empowered by killing a whole lot white people in need of killing. Oh, the horror! Oh, the humanity! Somebody think of the children!
I come from a southern family, more or less. I was born in El Dorado, Arkansas, but raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, and, throughout my childhood, my parents would routinely take my brother and I back to Arkansas, to visit our relatives. This was "way back" in the late seventies and early eighties, and the use of the n-word (a word that I had been taught to think of as being worse than the most vile of profanities) in casual conversation in the South was shocking to me. I don't hear it much used now, in the 21st century, when I go back to visit, but thirty to thirty-five years ago, it was a different age and a much different world.
That is just my long form way of saying the use of the n-word did not seem all that shocking, excessive, or offensive, to me. The usage of the n-word felt both natural and normal, in the context of the film. I also found it to be a nice change of pace from the typical shock use of the n-word today, where it has become a lazy way to identify the Bad Guy to an audience, and make him or her easy to hate. Today, only racist bad people use the n-word. But back then, it was just another word people used. Don't believe me? Go and read Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
In regards to the depictions of slavery in the film. Whether or not there was ever any actual Mandingo Fighting in the Slave Era south is not relevant to the other, far more accurate depictions of (and pseudo-science excuses for) the abject debasement and torture of an entire section of humanity. I am in wholehearted agreement with Tarantino, when he says that it is a subject that is far too often flat out ignored. Whenever the subject is dealt with, it always seems to be kept at a "respectful" emotional and intellectual distance. This distance allows the viewer to view the past as something separate from our Modern Cultural Identity. It can allow the viewer to think that this unpleasant past is not, never has been, nor will it ever be, a shameful stain upon our Modern Cultural Identity.
But it is a shameful stain, and we have ignored it to our collective detriment. I think all of the complaining and judging and racial contempt that was poured upon Quentin Tarantino and his film, long before it had even opened, pretty much proves the point. There is a raw nerve here and the movie would still be controversial and discussion inducing even if Tarantino had uncharacteristically soft pedalled his movie and used the racial slur as cinematic shorthand code for bad guy, toned down the inhumanity of slavery, just a bit, and been a tad more anachronistically culturally diverse with his cast of characters. But Tarantino did not do that. He was uncompromising and unflinching and, because of that, he has crafted an emotionally powerful and thought provoking film that has a ferciously entertaining exploitation movie for window dressing.
For all of its vulgarity and violence, Django Unchained is, at its heart, a beautifully moral film. It is about a man's fight for his freedom, for his love, and for justice. It asks difficult questions, offers thought provoking answers, and contrasts typical moments of cathartic bloodshed (those times where a Bad Guy is dispatched in a manner that gets an audience cheering) with moments of violence that are too painful to watch.
The best description of Django Unchained that I have heard yet is that it is a Black Super Hero Origin Story. It also plays like the first of what might become a series of Django films, and I have no problem with that happening, at all. When Django Unchained ended, I wasn't quite ready to say good-bye to Django and his world. A part me hoped that there would be other Django adventures forthcoming. I don't think that there can be any higher praise for a storyteller than that.