Set in 1858, the film follows a slave (Jamie Foxx) named Django (named after the popular spaghetti western character and the original actor makes a cameo appearance). Freed from slavery by bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) who needs his help in identifying three fugitives. After helping Schultz identify (and kill) the men, Schultz takes Django on as a partner and together they collect bounties (lots of bounties) across the Old West. Schultz, who despises slavery, decides to help Django rescue his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) from a cruel and charismatic plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). Posing as slavers, the pair trick Candie into believing they want to purchase one of his Mandingo fighters and hope the ridiculous price they pay will put Candie in a good enough mood to sell Broomhilda as well. Candie's house slave, Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), however, suspects their true intentions and, as in most Tarantino films, blood is spilled.
Lots and lots of blood.
Seriously the red paint supply must have been tapped out in California by the time they finished filming.
Frankly I liked the film. It is a modern take on the classic western tropes, with plenty of ridicule of slavery and racism. Waltz put on a stellar performance and one can be forgiven for mistaking him as the main character. He certainly deserved the Golden Globe he received and it will be a travesty if he does not get the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. The film is, as mentioned above, extremely violent and graphic. This doesn't bother me, but my wife did walk out of the theater about 20 minutes in, so make sure whoever you bring into the film can stomach the gore. Also the gratuitous use of the n-word might offend people (but perhaps only after the 136th time you hear it).
Of course no film is perfect and there have been plenty of criticisms (I found Cracked's article on the film to sum them up rather well). Some have complained about pacing, and I agree when it comes to Django's flashbacks/hallucinations of his wife or the Australian slaver scene (sorry Tarantino, you just can't act), but generally I felt Tarantino's choices did not distract too much from the overall narrative. Perhaps my biggest beef with the film was the lead actor, Foxx. Trust me, Foxx gives his best performances in the film when he keeps his mouth shut and does the stoic avenger. When he gets cocky and tries to be funny, it hurt the film.
I would be remiss, however, to not touch upon the history covered by the film. Is Django Unchained an alternate history? No. At best it is historical fiction that takes a lot of liberties with the source material. Lincoln gave a much better picture of race relations in mid-19th century America, despite being far from perfect, so go see that if you want historical accuracy. In Django Unchained, every white person is an evil, sadistic, racist buffoon except for the one German (thank God he won't live long enough to see what happens to his home country in 1933). An early version of the KKK make a cameo, but they are so inept that they can be taken down by two bounty hunters working in the Deep South.
In fact, as Jelani Cobb in The New Yorker, the film even fails history in the way it portrays blacks as being passive servants who wouldn't dare raise a hand against a white man, except Django. The film ignores the history of how the enslaved undermined the slave economy by running away or revolting. And how rare can Django be when compared to the slaves who fought against America for the British in the American Revolution or against the Confederacy in the Civil War? Kimberly Ellis on Salon slams Django Unchained for its portrayal of black resistance and comes up with several other examples of blacks resisting America's "peculiar institution”.
So you can't really argue that the film is a satire of an era because it fails miserably to understand the era. Yet the film could be a satire of western cinema itself as Amanda Marcotte suggests in her review of Django Unchained. Although the film might suck at history, it certainly has to be a more realistic portrayal of history then the white-washing done by Gone With the Wind. At worst the film took a controversial subject (slavery and the Civil War) and made it into a joke. Yes I can see why people will be offended, but as a character from my favorite web comic put it: "[t]he first step toward recovery is to turn your personal tragedy into a weapon for making others horribly uncomfortable." Author and editor Maurice Broaddus seemed to embrace that fact when he called the film an "empowerment vehicle" right after admitting he once fantasized about killing white people after watching Roots.
So suspend your disbelief and go enjoy a good, over-the-top revenge fantasy.
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Matt Mitrovich is the founder and editor of Alternate History Weekly Update, a blogger on Amazing Stories and a volunteer editor for Alt Hist magazine. His fiction can be found at Echelon Press, Jake's Monthly and The Were-Traveler. When not writing he works as an attorney, enjoys life with his beautiful wife Alana and prepares for the inevitable zombie apocalypse. You can follow him on Facebook or Twitter.