What can I tell you that you haven’t already heard (or read) about Django Unchained? I can go on about the stellar performances. Tell you that Leonardo DiCaprio has never been this engaged, this completely magnetic. That he wholly embodies the vile, opportunistic, greedy son of a bitch Calvin Candie. That the power play between him and Jamie Foxx is damned delightful to witness. I could gush endlessly over Christoph Waltz’s portrayal of a German immigrant making a living as a bounty hunter in America, a man who abhors slavery and the inhumane treatment of blacks in a time wherein they are considered only slightly more valuable than cattle. I could point out that the bond formed between Waltz’s Schultz and Foxx’s Django comes about with a perfectly paced and natural grace, that it enfolds without ever crossing over into needlessly sentimental, keeping it from falling into the kind of trap that would cheapen their friendship and blur the focus of the story itself. Which would lead me, of course, into a diatribe of Quentin Tarantino’s skill as a writer and director, going on and on about his uncanny ability to weave together plot points and details that might sound ridiculous and certainly unbelievable if left to the devices of anyone else but in his hands, come together so naturally, you never even pause to question them for they seem more than plausible – they’re right. I could say all of this (and much more) and I would not be lying. But my guess is that none of it is news to you. Not now. So instead, I’ll discuss what I think makes Django more than just entertaining, more than two and a half hours of wicked good fun (which it is, every minute) and elevates it to a film for the ages.
From a glance, it looks and feels like a western. And it is, sort of. In the way that westerns are about those courageous (white) men who braved the wild frontier and risked their lives to tame the land and the savages who inhabited it, Django is similarly themed. Because westerns are less about the west, specifically, and more about the singularly American contemplation of the role of violence in the civilization of a viciously primitive world. Django is that exact contemplation only its frontier doesn’t lie in The West but in The South. And the savages aren’t wild Indians or corrupt lawmakers but slave owners and the hero is a freed slave, a black man rather than the archetypical white, blue-eyed hero. And this is why it is a work of genius.
Django Unchained is the inversion of the western genre. The untamed frontier is a plantation in The South and the savage villain is a white man, a blond-haired, blue-eyed owner of the plantation and all of the slaves who work it. And the man who comes into town to save it from the corrupted bad guy is a black man without money or power or even the right to vote or own land. I guarantee that no one, not one single person who sees this movie will root for Calvin Candie to win out in the end. I challenge even the most racist white person left in America (or the world, for that matter) to watch Django and want anyone other than Django to end victorious. Which is exactly why it’s more than just a delicious revenge fantasy. Putting a black former slave in the role of the dark hero we’ve come to associate with westerns is a stoke of genius that forces us all to recognize our collective history without the safety net of excuses or rationalizations. Because anyone who can watch the cowboys shoot down Indians and feel that such violence was warranted for the sake of establishing civilization in an uncivilized world will now also have to admit that whatever violence helped end the sick institution of slavery was more than necessary. It was justified.