Django Unchained makes a break for gold

Quentin Tarantino releases what could be his ticket to another Academy Award

<i>Django Unchained</i> makes a break for gold
The Weinstein Company

Watching Django Unchained, it's easy to imagine that Quentin Tarantino had such a blast making his last picture, the ebullient Holocaust fantasia Inglourious Basterds, that he decided to take his whole blood-spattered historical tent show on the road, this time putting down stakes in antebellum Dixieland. Although not technically a Basterds prequel, Django stems from a similar impulse — to reframe and rewrite American history in boldly absurd strokes and, by doing so, to make us confront the distortions and omissions of so much "fact-based" cinema.

After The Birth of a Nation, with its risible scenes of freed slaves raping and pillaging white Southerners, movies have treated this institution mostly at arm's length, from Gone With the Wind to Song of the South

to Steven Spielberg's Lincoln. So the outlandish, fiercely intelligent Django Unchained is at once an act of provocation and reparation — not just for slavery but for Hollywood's decades of saintly Negroes and sass-talking sidekicks and its relentless whitewashing of history, from Guess Who's Coming to Dinner to The Help.

Rattling the cage of race in America: Christoph Waltz (left), Jamie Foxx
The Weinstein Company
Rattling the cage of race in America: Christoph Waltz (left), Jamie Foxx

Details

Django Unchained
directed by Quentin Tarantino
area theaters, starts Tuesday

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First seen in chains after being sold at auction, the captured runaway slave Django (Jamie Foxx) finds an unlikely savior in the form of one Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). A German-American dentist turned bounty hunter, Schultz needs Django's help in identifying three wanted men once employed by Django's former owner. The time is 1858, three years before the Civil War, and the abolitionist-minded Schultz promises freedom — and a share of the bounty — to Django in exchange for his aid. Then Django reveals he has a wife named Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) in need of rescue, and the German in turn relates the story of Der Ring des Nibelungen. So it's on to Valhalla — or as it's called here, Candyland — a sprawling Mississippi plantation named for its owner, Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).

An armchair phrenologist in a foppish burgundy suit, his nervous eyes darting incestuously at his widowed sister, Candie is the least premeditated DiCaprio has ever seemed in a movie — Tarantino has a gift for freeing performers from their self-imposed actorly prisons. But the true revelation of Candyland is Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), a 76-year-old house slave who has become institutionalized by time, his codependent relationship with his master, and the small margin of power he wields with perverted pleasure over the other slaves. Brilliantly acted by Jackson, this alternately deplorable and pitiable character is in some way the true villain.

In his past two movies, Tarantino has ascended to a new level of filmmaking craftsmanship and narrative sophistication. Yet high-minded critics and cultural arbiters can't bring themselves to take him seriously as an intellectual. But like the best pop art, Tarantino's film is both seriously entertaining and seriously thoughtful, rattling the cage of race in America on screen and off. So it seems fitting that when Tarantino's new western hero rides off toward the horizon, he is silhouetted not by sunset, but rather a raging ball of Wagnerian fire.

 
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