Last weekend however, we made time to catch Django Unchained: the first Quentin Tarantino film that I've seen during its theatrical run. Not even Inglourious Basterds got that honor. I first saw that on premium cable and went numb with disbelief during the final scene. As the credits rolled my jaw was still drooping and my reaction went like "Uhhhh... that's not how I remember reading about it..."
After Inglourious Basterds, I was afraid to speculate about his latest movie.
But that's not what we saw in Django Unchained. Instead we watched what in this writer's opinion ranks high among the most historically accurate and unapologetic films ever produced about slavery and the antebellum South.
It's 1858, somewhere in Texas. A convoy of slaves are being walked to market by two brothers. Among the "cargo" is Django (Jamie Foxx, in easily his best role since Ray). During one night of the trip a very odd dentist comes out of the darkness, looking for Django. Seems that he's the only one who can identify on sight the fugitives known as the Brittle Brothers... and there's a big fat reward on each of their heads. So it is that our hero falls in with bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), who proceeds to teach Django the tricks of the trade.
But in exchange for helping Schultz find the Brittles, Django has terms of his own: to locate Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), the wife who he was separated from by their previous owners. It's a long and winding road of tracking down murders and miscreants that leads Django and Schultz to Candyland: the notoriously brutal plantation reigned over by the sadistic Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).
Now there were a few things that weren't right for the period in Django Unchained. The existence of dynamite for one thing (something that Alfred Nobel wouldn't invent until six years later). I also have to question the treatment of the slaves in the very first scene: contrary to widespread belief, harsh treatment of slaves in transport and on the plantations was not something that happened on a regular basis. The disfiguring and sometimes deadly abuse was also not as prevalent as many might think, if for no other reason than because slaves were deemed to be valuable property. If the Speck Brothers had made their slaves walk across Texas in real life, barefoot and barely clothed, some if not most of them would have died from exposure and malnutrition: hardly a thoughtful way to transport one's "products". There is no record of "mandingo fighting" and it would be after the Civil War before anything like the Klan came about.
But then there are the details - some insanely minute - that Tarantino poured into Django Unchained that I have to appreciate, even applaud as a historian. The "bell collars" worn by some slaves was accurate (they were usually placed on slaves with a history of trying to escape), as well as the practice of branding some slaves with an "R" on the cheek if they had run away and been returned. Tarantino often puts a scene of exposition in his films. This time it's Calvin Candie educating Schultz and Django about phrenology: a long-held eugenics theory pertaining to skull size and capacity (even at the time it was being called a pseudoscience... and yet many "civilized" people held it in serious regard as proof of racial superiority).
For all of that however, nothing in Django Unchained is perhaps as startling as Stephen: Candie's servant, played by Samuel L. Jackson. This seems to be the biggest item of controversy about the movie: that black slaves would be that unflinchingly faithful to their masters. To the very land they were property on, even.
Folks, that's not wild fiction at all. That kind of behavior was extremely common, especially among the more wealthy plantations. Slaves like Stephen had such a fierce and unflinching devotion to their masters that it was nigh-on inconceivable to them to be otherwise. Indeed, there are many records about how after the Civil War, many newly-emancipated slaves chose to remain on their former masters' lands as free men and tenant farmers. That wasn't a habit that disappeared overnight after the Confederacy surrendered, but to the best of my knowledge Django Unchained is the very first time that a movie has portrayed slavery's "Stockholm Syndrome" with such uncompromising accuracy.
But this isn't a movie about slavery. This isn't even really a movie about revenge, I thought. Instead, Django Unchained is a story of love and devotion between husband and wife. This is a quest movie: Django not giving up until he finds Broomhilda. Having to endure unspeakable hardship and pain and despair, not relenting until he can at long last be reunited with his wife. This is a love story decorated with guns and explosives... not to mention crime, cruelty and castration.
It's not Homer's The Odyssey. But I will say that with Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino has crafted a uniquely American epic. One that will certainly pass the test of time.
I'm gonna give Django Unchained my highest recommendation. Meaning that if I'm eager to have it on my Blu-ray shelf, it's worth people seeing at least once in the theaters.