Quentin Tarantino's 'Django Unchained' is entertaining, but the same old schtick
Instead of trying to buy Hildi outright, which might be too obvious, they pretend to be in the market for a mandingo fighter. Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), the plantation owner, is a sniggling little tyrant, but he’s taken in by the ruse until Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), who runs the household, sniffs it out. In a crew of mostly bad guys, Stephen is probably the worst of the worst. This is perhaps the most politically incorrect role a black man has ever played since “The Birth of a Nation” – and, come to think of it, white actors played black actors in that movie.
Tarantino wants to merge the high-style bloodshed of the spaghetti westerns with the racial payback of the blaxploitation movies. (Django’s name is a homage to a spaghetti western icon and Hildi’s full name is Broomhilda von Shaft.) There’s a strong dose of fantasy wish-fulfillment here, just as there was in “Inglourious Basterds,” in which Jewish soldiers end up incinerating Hitler and his henchmen. In “Django Unchained,” Django’s righteousness is a license to kill those who enchained him.
I took offense at “Inglourious Basterds” for using the horrors of the Holocaust as the pretext for yet another of Tarantino’s pulp fantasias. I felt then that he should stick to making movies about movies; the real world uglifies his play-act agenda. In “Django Unchained,” he’s not trying to rewrite a horrific history so much as he’s trying to capitalize on it. It’s a new-style blaxploitation movie by a director who is still in thrall to the old-style stuff.
But there was a not-always-fine line in films like “Shaft” and “Super Fly” between glorifying black action heroes and, with their parade of studs, pimps and pushers, perpetuating racial stereotypes. In “Django Unchained,” something similar is at work: Tarantino may be championing a black hero, but he also presents him as an inchoate suprahuman force of nature; the plantation scenes of mandingo slaves wrestling to the death have an atavistic feel.