Watching Django Unchained, it’s easy to imagine that Quentin Tarantino had such a blast making his last picture, the ebullient Holocaust fantasia Inglourious Basterds, that he decided to take his whole blood-spattered historical tent show on the road, this time putting down stakes in antebellum Dixieland. Although not technically a Basterds prequel, Django stems from a similar impulse—to reframe and rewrite American history in boldly absurd strokes and, by doing so, to make us confront the distortions and omissions of so much “fact-based” cinema. In Basterds, however, Tarantino was engaged with an exhaustive canon of World War II movies, from Casablanca to Schindler’s List, while the subject of Django Unchained—slavery in the American South—is one that has been conspicuously absent in Hollywood films in the century since D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation.
Of course, it’s a coincidence that Django Unchained arrives in the same season as Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, the second of two Spielberg films about slavery (after 1997’s Amistad) that never expose audiences to the harsh realities of plantation life? Of course, Spielberg is working in a time-honored tradition: After The Birth of a Nation, with its risible scenes of freed slaves raping and pillaging white Southerners, movies have treated this “peculiar” institution mostly at arm’s length, from the happy slaves of Gone With the Wind and Song of the South to the simian allegories of King Kong and Planet of the Apes. On network TV, special events like Roots and The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman attempted a more honest approach, albeit within the censor-imposed limits of prime time good taste. But only one major-studio film of the modern era, Richard Fleischer’s notorious 1975 Mandingo, dared to meet slavery on its own terms—a grind house bacchanal of sadism, incest, and miscegenation, capped by an unforgettable finale in which the eponymous bare-knuckle fighter is boiled alive by his master in a cauldron. (Critically reviled but a popular success, it is a film Tarantino has spoken of admiringly.)
So the boisterous, outlandish, fiercely intelligent Django Unchained is at once an act of provocation and reparation—not just for slavery, but for Hollywood’s decades of saintly Negroes and sass-talking sidekicks and its relentless whitewashing of history, from Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner to The Help. And it will surely be a harder pill to swallow for some of the audiences who cheered at Inglourious Basterds‘ skull-bashing Jewish avengers, who might here feel the same white panic 1971 moviegoers suffered when confronted with Melvin Van Peebles’s Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, arguably the first black superhero movie.
First seen in chains after being sold at auction, the captured runaway slave Django (Jamie Foxx) finds an unlikely savior in the form of one Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). A German-American dentist-turned-bounty-hunter, Schultz needs Django’s help in identifying three wanted men previously employed by Django’s former owner. The time is 1858, three years before the Civil War, and the abolitionist-minded Schultz promises freedom to Django—and a share of the bounty—in exchange for his aid. When an actor becomes so closely associated with a character as Waltz did with his polyglot Nazi colonel in Inglourious Basterds, it can be a risk for that actor and director to reteam so quickly. But Waltz quickly allays any fears, embodying the role with such exuberant, theatrical flair—amused by the sound of his own voice, smoothing his mustache with a fastidious flick of his fingers—that you can’t imagine any other actor doing it.
There’s joy in Foxx’s playing, too, and in his chemistry with Waltz, as he sheds the scarred skin of Django the slave to take on a series of new, more empowering alter egos. This being a Tarantino film, the theme of dramatic illusion is central. Schultz and Django don’t merely set out on a mission, they first “get into character”—Schultz as a slave trader and Django as his faithful valet—and choose their costumes. Foxx riding to a Tennessee plantation in full Little Lord Fauntleroy regalia ranks among Tarantino’s strongest visual gags. Then, just as Inglourious Basterds found time to discuss Karl May and his Winnetou novels and the history of German filmmaking under the Nazis, Django Unchained pauses for Wagner, as Django reveals that he has a wife, named Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), in need of rescue, and the good German in turn relates the story of Der Ring des Nibelungen. So it’s on to Valhalla—or as it’s called here, Candyland—a sprawling Mississippi plantation named for its owner, Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).
An armchair phrenologist with a foppish burgundy suit and a cigarette holder, his nervous eyes darting incestuously at his widowed sister, Candie is the least premeditated DiCaprio has ever seemed in a movie—Tarantino has a gift for freeing performers from their self-imposed actorly prisons. But the true revelation of Candyland is Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), a 76-year-old house slave who has served generations of Candies, and who has become institutionalized by time, his codependent relationship with his master, and the small margin of power he wields with perverse pleasure over the other slaves. Brilliantly acted by Jackson, Tarantino’s longtime muse, this alternately deplorable and pitiable character is in some ways the true villain of the piece. Stephen, too, is playing a role in a giant theater of the absurd and has no intention of leaving the stage willingly.
In his past two movies, Tarantino has ascended to a new level of filmmaking craftsmanship and narrative sophistication. And yet, probably because he came of age in a video store and has never quite lost the autodidact’s air of bullish authority, some high-minded critics and cultural arbiters can’t bring themselves to take him seriously as an intellectual. That was evident in some of the more knee-jerk evaluations of Inglourious Basterds, and it is already swirling in the air around Django, too. But like all of the best pop art, Tarantino’s film is both seriously entertaining and seriously thoughtful, rattling the cage of race in America on-screen and off, the coveted “freedom papers” that give Django his emancipation standing in for another black man’s long-form birth certificate. So it seems only fitting that when Tarantino’s new western hero rides off toward the horizon, he is silhouetted not by a sunset, but rather a raging ball of Wagnerian fire.