What you can say about Quentin Tarantino that hasn’t already been said in spades? He’s been called a genius. An idiot. A master. A destroyer of independent film. A visionary. And the “century’s biggest racist.”
Tarantino, in his affably rudimentary manner, analyzes himself best: “Possibly I just grew up watching a lot of movies. I'm attracted to this genre and that genre, this type of story, and that type of story. As I watch movies I make some version of it in my head that isn't quite what I'm seeing -- taking the things I like and mixing them with stuff I've never seen before."
The problem for some cinephiles is that much of what Tarantino sincerely adores and often emulates is pure celluloid crapola, films to digest with plenty of cheap beer and cold pizza on hand. This addiction is a sort of heterosexual camp. Where gays of a certain age went bonkers over Maria Montez and the female prison drama Caged (1950), Tarantino salivates over spaghetti westerns, grade C actioners, and happily forgotten directors such as William Whitney.
Susan Sontag defined camp as “a vision of the world in terms of style -- but a particular style. It is the love of the exaggerated.” And no one really inflates and conflates issues nowadays with the zeal of Tarantino, except possibly Spike Lee, and the two aren’t buddies by any means. Now with the release of Django Unchained, they will be even less likely to party.
Lee has criticized the Knoxville, Tennessee-born director vehemently in the past for his “racist’ language and for his take on the black community: “I will say it again and again. I have a definite problem with Quentin Tarantino’s excessive use of the n-word. And let the record show that I never said that he cannot use that word. I’ve used that word in many of my films - but I think something is wrong with him. You look at Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs and even that thing with Christian Slater, True Romance. It’s just the n-word, the n-word, the n-word. He says he grew up on Blaxploitation films and that they were his favorite films but he has to realize that those films do not speak to the breadth of the entire African-American experience.”
Clearly, Tarantino has not taken this chastisement seriously, nor has he been creatively stymied by his peer’s analysis. There’s more usage of the n-word in Django than there’s racist imagery in Birth of a Nation -- and Mr. Inglourious Basterds has once again explored America’s racist past with the grace of a March Hare wielding a sledge hammer.
Occurring two years before the Civil War, this often tongue-in-cheek, over-the-top, grisly entertainment is the antithesis of Spielberg’s take on Lincoln, a rather distinguished president who once wrote, “Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves.”
Django (Jamie Foxx), the eponymous hero here, would totally agree, although his means of achieving racial equality are far less wordy than Abe’s. Not having the benefit of a Tony Kushner screenplay, he relies on dynamite and crotch-shooting.
But before the bullets fly, Tarentino’s action-dramedy has an opening mirroring that of Les Miserables, a group of prisoners shuffling along to an inauspicious future, but with a less memorable orchestration. Suddenly, a German-born bounty hunter posing as a dentist, Dr. King Schultz (Christopher Waltz), rides into the scene, desiring to purchase Django because this slave is the only fellow who can identify the three criminal brothers Schultz is seeking.
The two team up and a deal is struck: after the nasty siblings are caught and killed, Django will become a free man with $75 in his pocket. This quickly transpires, and Django is freed. So what’s next? When asked, the newly liberated soul replies he’ll seek his wife Broomhilda, from whom he was separated after both tried to escape from a plantation. Schultz, who feels a bond with the former slave at his side, decides to go along for the ride.
What follows are more bounty huntings, after which Leonardo DiCaprio pops up playing the mean-spirited overseer who owns Broomhilda, along with Samuel Jackson as his sidekick Stephen, a vicious Uncle Tom if there ever was one. Will there be a happy ending? Of course, but only after some slaves are torn apart by dogs or hammered to death or kept underground for days in dark, dank holes. Imagine Texas Chainsaw Massacre meets Blazing Saddles meets Driving Miss Daisy. Yes, there’s a hilarious Ku Klux Klan fiasco and a somber threat-of-castration scene. And what about those hints of incest plus shootouts galore staged with the verve of a Dancing with the Stars finale?
The end result is a goofily unhinged, consistently engrossing, facetious look at one of the darkest moments in American history through the eyes of someone who’s spent too much time in the cinema watching inconsequential flicks and not enough time in the library reading the classics. Spike Lee, let the rants begin. - Brandon Judell
Mr. Judell is currently teaching "The Arts in New York City," "American Jewish Theater," and "Theater of the Sixties" at The City College of New York and is Coordinator of The Simon H. Rifkind Center. He has written on film for The Village Voice, indieWire.com, The New York Daily News, Soho Style, and The Advocate, and is anthologized in Cynthia Fuchs's Spike Lee Interviews (University Press of Mississippi) and John Preston's A Member of the Family (Dutton). He is also a member of the performance/writing group FlashPoint.