5 Baseless Criticisms Of Django Unchained

Django Unchained 5 Baseless Criticisms Of Django Unchained

When you’re dealing with Quentin Tarantino, controversy sort of comes with the territory. All of his films have been met with a healthy dose of outrage and various pleas for the sake of the children and all that is holy etc. etc. Pulp Fiction glorified gangsters. Jackie Brown was racist. Kill Bill was indulgently violent. Inglourious Basterds enabled Holocaust denial. These are often used as conversation stoppers, ad hominem charges against a very vocal and visible and outspoken target that serve to justify a general dismissal of a body of work that is both undeniably alluring and formally difficult. That is to say, Tarantino’s movies are cool and complicated. His most recent film, Django Unchained, is no different.

It’s a movie that has garnered loads of award season attention and accolades for its writing and acting, most notably the performance by Christoph Waltz, although its ensemble of Jamie Foxx, Leonardo DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson, not to mention the completely overlooked Kerry Washington, is one of the strongest of the past year. At the same time, especially in the wake of recent gun violence in the United States, this American movie has become the subject of intense scrutiny. To Tarantino’s credit, he has faced all these criticisms head-on. To his detriment, he is not terribly enjoyable to listen to for an extended period of time.

He has actually given rather intelligent and straightforward responses to many of the simplistic responses to Django Unchained, but alas, he has yet to organize them in enumerated list form. So if I may, here are the appropriate responses—some paraphrases of Mr. Tarantino’s statements as well as some embellishment and addendums by yours truly—to the same old tired laundry list of complaints people are making about this brilliant tribute to and deconstruction of the spaghetti western genre.

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1: It is racist.

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People uncomfortable with the N-word may not wish to watch this movie. Then again, they may also not wish to read Huckleberry Finn, and in both cases they’re voluntary missing out on some pretty great artistic depictions of pre-Civil War America. I’m uncomfortable using the actual word in this list because I suspect it would decrease site traffic significantly, but also because seeing it still makes me cringe a little, and I want to keep it funny for the time being.

Its use in Django should induce cringes. The objection that it’s overused is actually a stated preference for misrepresenting the brutality of the treatment of African Americans in the time period portrayed. That would be a far more offensive artistic choice for a director to make. It’s interesting the way Dr. King Schultz, and by extension Christoph Waltz himself, forms the word, as though his own use of it disgusts him, but he does so for the sake of the role he’s playing. When the villains use the word, it emphasizes their villainy. It makes us intensely desire the kind of justice they are eventually served. A person who uses the word maliciously is rightly perceived by the audience as a bad guy.

There’s also the matter of the portrayal of the Ku Klux Klan. This is a hilarious farce of a scene meant as a response to the horribly racist Birth of a Nation scenes featuring the riders of the KKK as heroes. Depicting them here as nincompoops arguing over the bags on their heads is the comedic equivalent of shooting Hitler in the face. It’s a kind of racial justice Tarantino serves up cinematically to the ghost of D.W. Griffith.

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2: It is excessively violent.

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There’s no denying that Django Unchained is a tremendously violent movie. There’s no avoiding the gruesome depictions of the brutality waged upon slaves. To say that these scenes are excessively violent, or more violent than necessary, is to minimize the actual brutalization that would have occurred in that time and place, which was far more abundant and brutal by all accounts. The violence of the slave owners, in particular the DiCaprio character, Calvin Candie, is difficult to watch. It should be difficult. It’s meant to make us cringe and get angry and want retribution. There’s a reason Django shouts “D’Artagnan” when he fires his first shots in the film’s explosive conclusion. The mandingo fight scenes, especially horrifying to witness, make Candie a character beyond mercy; the only thing to make up for the violence he has dished out is to punish him with violence in turn.

It changes when Django turns the violence against the villains (also when Schultz shoots the bad guys in the opening scene); the visualization of the assaults now becomes cartoonish. It’s not meant to be taken as any sort of literal revenge, no more than killing Hitler was meant to be literal. It’s deliberately cartoon-like violence to express the fantasy desire of a former slave shooting up a plantation housing the most heinous villains in all the South. This is not meant to be real life justice; it’s cinematic justice, returning whips with whips, bullets with bullets, flipping the balance of power for a few fleeting moments on a movie screen. There is a way of being expressive through artistic violence, and Tarantino masters this in a way no other American director is capable of today.

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3: It is unrealistic.

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If you’re watching a movie like Django Unchained and you’re focusing most closely on the narrative logic and historical detail, you’re watching it wrong. Like, you’re going to miss a lot of great stuff. And at the same time, you’re still not going to find many valid gripes to cling to. Some complain that the scheme to retrieve Broomhilda from Candieland was unnecessarily elaborate and that a simpler plan would have worked. But that would not have been consistent with the character of Dr. King Schultz, who has a flare for the dramatic—like remember that time he killed a sheriff in front of his entire town? Django is of the same mind when it comes to these sorts of demonstrations, if you consider the first outfit he chose to wear upon learning he could choose his own clothes.

Others object to the inclusion of mandingo fights, the horrific form of entertainment Candieland is famous for, pitting slave against slave in a fight to the death. While there is apparently little historical evidence for such practices, it doesn’t seem like a tremendous stretch of the mind to consider the possibility of this type of cruel subjugation in this time period. Once again, there are much more disturbing methods of inflicting punishment the movie does not depict.

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4: It is poorly edited.

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Another point some critics are making hay out of is the presence of a new editor on Django Unchained. The passing of long-time collaborator Sally Menke meant Tarantino had to work with a new editor for this film, Fred Raskin. This possible slight change in rhythm and cutting led a few to the conclusion that Django was poorly paced, disjointed, all over the place. I don’t buy this. Was Pulp Fiction not “all over the place”? Isn’t this one of its charms? I found the use of a relatively consistent single narrative refreshing for this movie, maybe a first for Tarantino, but that disinterest in continuity remained in his preference for jumping around from time to time and place to place even in the Antebellum South. It made for a particularly strong rhythm and tone in the KKK sequence.

In perhaps the greatest montage sequence Tarantino has even produced, the “Freedom” sequence depicting Django and Broomhilda’s attempted escape, there’s no question about the skill of the editing. It’s placed at the exact right time in the film’s duration, and the different lighting effect mixed with the music and the pace of it captures the urgency and emotional extremity of Django’s situation that immediately hooks us into his story and motivation. It turns the film from a straightforward Western revenge tale into a romance. I’m not sure if anything since the “Married Life” sequence from Up has provided such an amazing hook so tightly.

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5: Quentin Tarantino’s acting is atrocious.

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Ok, this one is a legitimate gripe. The provocative “baseless” label can be set aside for the moment. This is one scene in the movie where everyone I talk to agrees it just doesn’t belong. More specifically, he doesn’t belong. He’s trying to pull off some weird Australian accent and his face just looks like he’s so happy to be on camera yet desperately trying not to show it, and no one believes him in this part. It takes everyone out of the movie and redirects their focus onto Quentin’s weird face. And how bad his acting is. I mean seriously. This is the one major criticism of Django Unchained that I will grant without hesitation. It’s the one big misstep.

All considered though, that’s a small objection compared to the others that have been made, largely by people who don’t seem to care what Tarantino is reaching for with Django. While not everyone will be on board with his style—and I wasn’t actually much of a fan until Basterds opened my eyes—there’s much to appreciate here from a racial standpoint. Yes, there are movies like Lincoln that deal with the issue of slavery on a peripheral level, but very few even attempt to tell the stories of these plantations, let alone attempt a fresh genre-mixing take on an era steeped in grave portrayals. Django Unchained offers some welcome variety to a period of time, providing levity but also an appropriate amount of anger and a yearning for justice to be rained upon the perpetrators of the biggest stain on America’s moral reputation in history. It’s easy to become bogged down in intellectualizing deeper meanings and effects of violence and racial depictions, but much more worthwhile to try and understand Quentin Tarantino’s feelings about victims in the face of the most egregious injustices, expressed in a language all his own.

Do you have issues with Django Unchained? Do you have issues with people who have issues with it? Have your say in the comments section below.

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  • Ethan

    I do agree with the terrible acting by Tarantino. I hate when he shows up in his movies because it is always so bad. Just another way to stroke his massive ego. He is so full of himself.

  • Brad

    I have no gripes with the film other than Tarantino butchering the Australian accent, as an Aussie it similtaniously made me a little pissed off that Americans can’t get that right like ever, but it also humoured me and I saw it as another comedic part of the film. I will say thank god for the brilliant John Jarrett in that scene as the only actual Australian actor in it, he’s always great…Django Unchained was brilliant in my opinion and I look forward to seeing it again once it’s released on Blu-ray.

    • Joe

      They can get it kind of right, but then only when they’re trying to do an English accent

  • Sarah

    oh my god somebody call the wahhhmbulance.
    I was with you until you #5. I have come to expect Tarantino to show up in a movie that he is proud of. He makes movies he wants to see, and who doesn’t want to see themselves on the big screen in a blockbuster like this? It is a tiny scene he is in, and you get to see the bad actor explode…so why complain when so many are so critical already?