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Road to the Oscars: Django Unchained

Written by: Big Ross, CC2K Staff Writer


As part of CC2K’s continuing coverage of Oscar nominees, Big Ross reviews Django Unchained, and explains why it won’t win Best Picture.

Let’s just make one thing clear from the get-go. Django Unchained will NOT win Best Picture. Elsewhere I predicted that Les Miserables would win, or maybe Lincoln. After recently seeing Argo, and considering that it’s been a juggernaut at all of the major awards shows so far, I tend to think it may ride this wave to an Oscar win for Best Picture, especially given that Ben Affleck isn’t even nominated for Best Director, and the Academy could see this as their only opportunity to justifiably honor him for this film. Not that the Academy wouldn’t be contrarian simply to be contrarian, but they won’t do anything so bold as picking Django Unchained. The best that Quentin Tarantino can hope for is a win for Best Screenplay, which I suppose would be fitting given that writing has always been considered QT’s greatest strength. To explain why it won’t win, we need to talk about the film itself. Let’s do that, shall we?

Django Unchained is a love story, a quest story, and a revenge story all set against the backdrop of a pre-Civil War America where slavery is legal and Africans are viewed as a subhuman race treated as property. Enter Dr. Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a dentist-turned-bounty hunter looking to collect a bounty on the Brittle brothers. The problem is that he has no idea what they look like, but a certain slave does, a slave named Django (“the ‘d’ is silent”) (Jamie Foxx). Schultz buys Django and makes a deal with him. If Django can positively identify the Brittle brothers, Schultz will kill them and give Django his freedom and a share of the bounty. After collecting the bounty Schultz keeps his word, but makes Django another offer – to partner with him as bounty hunters until they can collect enough money for Django to buy his long-lost wife, a slave named Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) whom Django married in secret and attempted to run away with only to be caught and separated on the the selling block.

It is Django’s telling of his love with Broomhilda, and Schultz’s own telling of the German legend of Broomhlda (Schultz is himself German) that convinces Schultz to accompany and assist Django in his quest to find and reunite with his wife. Toward this end the two discover that Broomhilda was bought by a rather horrible plantation owner named Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), a francophile who dabbles in mandingo fighting. Schultz and Django reckon that due to Candie’s rather eccentric personality, they cannot simply make an offer for Broomhilda, rather they plan an elaborate ruse to pose as a well-to-do European businessman wanting to get into the mandingo fighting circuit and his slave-turned-slaver/expert on mandingo fighting.

The ruse works, and the two accompany Candie to his plantation where they make contact with Broomhilda and inform her of the plan. All is proceeding well until Candie’s slave and head of house Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson) suspects something is amiss with Schultz and Django. He finally convinces Candie of the same, who confronts the do-gooders with these accusations, and arranges for the sale of Broomhilda at a price much in his favor. But just when it seems Schultz, Django, and Broomhilda will escape with little more than their lives, Schultz’s pride is their undoing. As an enlightened European who abhors slavery, he refuses to shake the hand of Candie to seal their bargain, something Candie insists upon. Instead Schultz shoots Candie, an act that erupts into a bloodbath that leaves Schultz dead and Django and Broomhilda again in chains. Stephen informs Django that he is to be sold to a mine where he will be worked to death, while Broomhilda will remain on the plantation to serve as a sex slave. En route to the mine Django escapes, returns to Candie’s plantation, rescues Broomhilda, and enacts a final righteous revenge upon the remaining members of Candie’s family and inner circle – including Stephen – before he and Broomhilda ride off into the night.

Of course, that synopsis doesn’t do justice to the amount of violence, blood, and profanity that QT flavors his epic western with like so many fine herbs & spices in his signature style. Nor does it speak to the long running time, nearly three hours that seems to be requisite for a film to be called “epic”.And while Django Unchained is indeed epic, and a film I greatly enjoyed, it won’t win Best Picture, nor would it win Best Film QT Ever Made. So what’s wrong with it?

It’s too long. QT suffers from lack of an editor, or rather, from a particular editor. Sally Menke edited all of QT’s films up to and including Inglorious Basterds. I’ve heard that she died unexpectedly in 2010, and Fred Raskin was brought on board to edit Django Unchained. Not to disparage Raskin, but Django Unchained is a bloated film that doesn’t need to be as long as it is, and would be improved by a strong editor who could trim it down to a leaner film. It also suffers narratively from a number of decisions QT makes that raise questions/issues such as:

Wouldn’t it be easier for Schultz to find the Brittle brothers by some other means than by tracking down Django? Certainly there are other, easier to find people who know the Brittle brothers and would be willing to finger them.

Why are the Brittle brothers dispatched so easily and early in the film? This story engine (the thing that brings Schultz and Django together) could have kept churning throughout the film if the Brittle brothers, or at least one of them, were in the employ of Candie.

Why is the elaborate ruse necessary, when Schultz and Django clearly have amassed enough money to make Candie an offer for Broomhilda that would catch his interest? Schultz could easily justify his interest in Broomhilda, and his willingness to pay an outlandish sum for her, by her fluency in German (not to mention her beauty).

For that matter, even though the ruse is discovered and revealed, they would get away with it, if not for the pang of conscience (or pride, or whatever it is) that afflicts Schultz and prevents him from shaking Candie’s hand, which made the resulting bloodbath seem artificial and unnecessary.

There is one other issue raised by this movie that can spark a bit of controversy. During the dinner scene, after Stephen convinces Candie of his visitors’ misrepresentation and somewhat treacherous intentions, Candie seeks to educate them on the nature of the black man before confronting them. The ensuing speech, and DiCaprio’s performance, is harrowing, unnerving, and in a very visceral way, absolutely horrifying. During the speech Candie wonders alooud why the slaves have never revolted, never risen up and fought back against their oppressors, despite outnumbering their enslavers. He proceeds to talk about phrenology and what amounts to a load of pseudo-science mumbo jumbo, but the controversy really stems from that question. CC2K’s own Tony Lazlo initiated a fascinating discussion of this film, and this scene in particular over on FB shortly after the film came out. In the interest of privacy I won’t link directly to that exchange, but here is a quote courtesy of Tony Lazlo that I find of note:

“…of course it’s OK to ask why Jewish folks and slaves didn’t revolt, but I don’t think QT’s message in DU was interrogative; it was declarative. He wasn’t asking why they didn’t revolt; he was saying they *should have* revolted, which is a very different thing to do. That’s what I find so troubling…Here’s why it troubles me: I think it’s morally wrong to mount that argument, because it tacitly lays blame on the wronged peoples for what happened to them.”

There were energetic and well-written arguments against the notion that QT was making that point in the film, and at the time I tended to agree with them, and yet more recently in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting amidst the gun “debate” that followed I saw an exchange on CNN that was widely condemned, panned, and mocked: I won’t show it here, but I want to highlight the statement that was made, so that you can examine the sheer stupidity in printed form:

“I think Martin Luther King would agree with me, if he were alive today, that if African Americans had been given the right to keep and bear arms from day 1 of the country’s founding, perhaps slavery might not have been a chapter in our history.”
        -Larry Ward, Gun Appreciation Day Chairman

I bring this up because, as I considered it, I came to a realization. In terms of moral outrage, there’s really no difference between what this mouth-breathing embarrassment to the human race said and what QT vocalized through the character of Calvin Candie. Certainly, the statement by Mr. Ward is more asinine and ludicrous by several orders of magnitude than QT’s musings, but the effect is the same. They both deflect blame from where it rightly belongs, firmly on the shoulders of whites who enslaved blacks. Whether QT actually believes that blacks should have revolted or is merely speaking from and through the point of view of a slave-owner from that time in history is something that can still be debated. Perhaps QT should not be admonished but admired for being brave enough to make a disturbing film that accurately portrays how slaves were viewed and treated. Of course, such a film is not likely to be honored by the Academy, but then again, there are plenty of great films that never were. Django Unchained may not be great, but it’s definitely worth your time.