Red Rivers


When Django met Django.

DJANGO UNCHAINED is worth seeing, depending on your tastes — it’s problematic as hell and flawed purely in structural, character and stylistic ways quite apart from its historical, political and ethical problems. I wasn’t as offended by it as I expected to be, but was a lot more bored. But there are a lot of good points — in fairness, I’m going to alternate between plus and minus and we’ll see how they stack up in my take on it by the time I’m finished. Right now I’ve just seen it and I don’t know where I’ll wind up.


+ The first half has a lot of good western virtues, with scenic vistas, old-timey dialogue and grizzled character thesps.

– The second half feels inert, drawn-out and misshapen, with two climaxes where logically one good one would be better.

+ Christoph Waltz is great fun to watch, and the various baddies are often hissably impressive.

– Jamie Foxx is a kind of supporting player in his own film, and Kerry Washington has the definition of a thankless role — she has literally no scenes where she’s not being tortured or terrorized, or else standing mutely by as a fantasy of the hero. What should be the love scene is cut short when she faints (after being pointlessly terrorized by Waltz, supposedly at Django’s behest).

+ There’s some amusing black comedy violence and satisfying revenge-fantasy mayhem.

– The shoot-out at Candieland struck me as gross. I wasn’t nauseated by the limb-lopping, blood-gouting sword-fights of KILL BILL, but for some reason (greater sadistic focus on suffering victims, maybe, plus more sploshy sound), this was icky.

+ Samuel L. Jackson is great (only in JACKIE BROWN, oddly enough, is he not great). In depicting a “house nigger” character as villain, Tarantino has boldly gone into territory rarely dealt with by movies. The character type is familiar in contemporary African-American discourse but rarely dramatized in Hollywood movies.

– I didn’t see his character as the ultimate villain deserving of the cruelest death at the end. As nasty as Stephen is, he’s a product of his setting and has manipulated his way into the best spot available to him. Though he manipulates his master and has a measure of real power, he’s still vulnerable and disposable, and hasn’t had the opportunities to educate himself that Calvin Candie had. By elevating Stephen above Candie in the film’s structure, QT runs the risk of blurring who was responsible for slavery.

+ The movie has more of a character arc than any other QT movie — both Django and Dr King Schultz change and improve as the film goes on.

– Django’s improvement is shown in his increased self-respect, and his learning to read, and eventually make his own plans. But mainly in his ability to kill without mercy — and this is shown without apparent irony and with no hint of nuance.

+ The proto-Klan scene is wickedly funny in a way that hasn’t been seen since BLAZING SADDLES.

Everything Anne Billson says.


+ Tackling race at all, in terms outside those considered safe and respectable (ie Spielberg’s LINCOLN), takes nerve. Tarantino is plunging into a despised sub-genre that’s, if you’ll excuse the expression, beyond the pale, but which has yielded interesting work — Fleischer’s MANDINGO, Meyer’s BLACK SNAKE.

– Yoking together fantasy spaghetti western violence, which is removed from reality by several stages, with the historical iniquities of slavery, using “realism” as justification for portraying monstrous acts of cruelty, seems to me to be attempting the impossible. By its very historical revisionism, INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS stood exposed as wish-fulfillment, since hopefully we all know Hitler didn’t die in a cinema at the hands of American advance troops. DJANGO doesn’t have that level of Bokononist undercutting.

– And the problem is exacerbated by having DiCaprio state that black people are inherently submissive, since they have had ample opportunities to kill their masters. The obvious counter-argument is that they didn’t kill their white overlords because they didn’t want to be tortured and lynched. Few death camp inmates mutinied in WWII, because the individual desire to stay alive is too strong. Of course, we’re not meant to take DiCaprio’s arguments at face value, given his loathsome character. But Django echoes the sentiment at the end of the film, saying that Candie was right to call him a one-in-ten-thousand exception.

– A heroic bloodshed spaghetti western revenger’s comedy cannot do justice to the story of slavery — it can’t even pretend to try and fail to do justice to it — if it ends on a triumphal note and suggests that the slaves could have won, or that a single slave could have won. As in INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, movie violence meets real historical evil and wins. It’s a fanboy jack-off fantasy constructed on a mound of corpses.

35 Responses to “Red Rivers”

  1. Among films which dealt with slavery, I recently saw Raoul Walsh’s BAND OF ANGELS, which has Clark Gable as an ex-human trafficker who’s implied to be Sidney Poitier’s father. Rather bold stuff, especially the climactic monologue where he talks of the evil he was part of. Really strong stuff for the old days. I haven’t seen Mandingo but I believe its equally powerful. Then Merchant-Ivory’s underrated Jefferson in Paris is a really critical look at Enlightenment hypocrisy.

    I haven’t seen Django, but the idea of dealing with ugliness by way of “revenge fantasy” especially when said fantasy is enjoyed by a guy outside persecuted minority and made for mass consumption, seems well dubious. I felt the same way about IB.

    What’s weird about Tarantino’s yoking of spaghetti westerns to deal with slavery is that Leone’s films didn’t deal with that at all, they generally avoided issues of Native American genocide, frontier expansion and racism and slavery. The films which dealt with that, in their own limited, inadequate but consistent way was American Westerns, especially Ford’s and it’s indicative of his having-your-cake-and-eating-it mentality.

  2. BAND OF ANGELS is a near-masterpiece and a bold exploration of race relations, an issue that most Civil War movies simply sidestep. (GONE WITH THE WIND and RAINTREE COUNTY, both of which I love, never truly engage with slavery at all.)

    In BAND OF ANGELS, Yvonne de Carlo goes from mistress to slave in the first 10 minutes of the movie, when it’s revealed that she has mixed blood. It spells our how cruel and arbitrary and unforgiving the racial system was – and, in many places, still is. It would make a great double bill with the marvellous MANDINGO!

  3. OK, Band of Angels is now high on my list. It was mentioned earlier in the light of Walsh’s involvement with Birth of a Nation. Dealing with the Civil War without discussing slavery is a classic Hollywood absurdity.

    Tarantino’s invention of the wholly fictitious sport of “Mandingo fighting” is a good example of his irresponsibility. No doubt many viewers will come out believing that really happened. His argument that the reality was as bad and as bizarre as anything he could invent just begs the question, “Why invent?”

    As Anne Billson points out, Tarantino seems uncomfortable dealing with the sexual aspect of slavery. It’s odd that he loves sexploitation movies and WIP films etc but his cinema really avoids sex. Maybe he’s working up to doing for the feminist struggle whatever it is that he thinks his previous films have done for the issues they “tackle”.

  4. I do have a sly suspicion that Tarantino named his leading lady Broomhilda because he thought that was the correct spelling (it doesn’t make sense otherwise). But that’s a minor point.

  5. I’ll be circumspect because I have friends who work with Tarantino – but your estimation of this film is spot on, his recent responses to questions about the relation of violence and media too crude to recount… And the man can’t spell at all, which is probably more a reflection of his self education as a video store clerk than anything else. All that said, his colleagues, say he’s a sweet guy. That’s my disclaimer and I’m stickin’ to it ;)

  6. Yeah, I don’t think he’s evil. I just don’t see why he insists on drafting in historical iniquities to shore up his black-comic bloodbaths, though. If he regards violence in movies as simply a form of entertainment, establishing some kind of boundary between his movies and real historical tragedies would be a good strategy.

    And I think he might be dyslexic: he wrote Jane Hamsher a mash note commenting on her “leggs,” which seems too extreme for simple ignorance. So I shouldn’t tease about that.

  7. haven’t seen the movie yet, but I probably will be doing so tomorrow — David, I’m so curious to hear more re: Jackson in Jackie Brown… have you written on the film? (I guess I should just search the archives!)… it’s the only Tarantino film I love, and I’d like to get your take on it

  8. Tom Charity Says:

    re the ending… I don’t think a contemporary audience (black or otherwise) is likely to read this in Candie’s terms, but to enjoy it as the empowering revenge of the underdog fantasy it is. There’s an obvious affinity with blaxploitation cinema here, and while black representation in Hwood movies is infinitely greater now than then, there’s still a subversive kick to this gloriously theatrical rebellious gesture.

  9. Re Jackie Brown — I like it a fair bit, but felt Sam Jackson was a throwback to Pulp Fiction, and stuck out as a poorly integrated stylistic element.

    I can’t guarantee how anyone else will read the ending. To me, it seems to get into problematic terrain. An action movie with a triumphal ending is inevitably going to make violent action seem like the solution to every problem. By suggesting that violent uprising was a potential solution leading to anywhere but the gallows, it plays into the same argument made by Candie earlier, that those who failed to rise up were inherently subservient. This could have largely been avoided if Candie hadn’t made that speech, if the ending had been more muted, or if Django hadn’t quoted Candie at the end. It seems like a serious miscalculation, that particular line.

  10. I was the one who mentioned BAND OF ANGELS in the previous thread. DJANGO UNCHAINED was only the second Tarantino field I’ve seen (the other was JACKIE BROWN), and I guess I liked it better than you did, although it still left me fairly cold. I liked it as a riposte to BIRTH OF A NATION and GONE WITH THE WIND that puts a freed slave (and the evils of slavery) at the center of the story. On the other hand, I totally agree that Kerry Washington’s role was embarrassing, and that making Stephen the last villain standing is highly problematic.

  11. Tom Charity Says:

    Yeah, to refine my point a little, I don’t believe the scene plays or should be understood as historical revisionism (ie, “violent uprising was [past tense] a potential solution”). I would further tentatively suggest that the ironic, tongue in cheek stylization of the film’s last few minutes (the “second climax” is much more comicbook than the intense drama leading up to it ) places it firmly in the realm of fantasy. In a way, perhaps we unconsciously understand that the film’s “true” ending is Django back in chains at the mine, and everything that follows is literally escapism. Does the violent revenge fantasy encourage violence, revolution, or does it just offer some vicarious relief?

  12. Randy, thanks — I hope to see Band of Angels very soon.

    It seems a bit late in the day to be attacking Birth of a Nation, a film that got a free ride for too long but is generally recognized today for the inflammatory piece of racist bullshit it is, whatever the cinematic skills involved. Gone with the Wind is a better target, and one that could benefit from a more frontal assault.

    Blazing Saddles strikes me as superior satire and superior fantasy, and Django Unchained doesn’t have anything like its courage or its pedigree. And that movie was made while the films it attacked still had considerable currency.

    Tarantino’s stylistic choices only make sense if his film is a kind of fantasy from beginning to end. And I’m happy to take it as such, but he keeps dragging reality into it, and you can’t escape meaning even if your intention is pure escapism.

    Just watched Charles Burnett’s documentary Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property, which demonstrates that the truth is a lot more interesting than anything QT has dreamed up.

  13. I would certainly agree that there are a lot more stories to be told about slaves and freedmen that would be more interesting than DJANGO UNCHAINED. However, I think you underestimate how much the Lost Cause, white supremacist mythology still holds sway in the U.S. today and how effective a populist work like DU can be at shifting the popular imagination. But by all means, let’s have more and better movies on these subjects. As I was watching CLOUD ATLAS i was trying to imagine the Wachowskis making a Nat Turner movie — heroic terrorist rebellion against a repressive society! — and it wasn’t easy to do. Easier to see them making a John Brown movie, actually, especially because you could fit some explosions into it.

  14. Nat Turner’s story is difficult on a number of levels that might trouble mainstream filmmakers–he may have been insane (or else the black Joan of Arc), he had women and children massacred, and his rebellion does not seem to have achieved any positive results at the time. But he does illustrate that intolerable conditions will produce intolerable responses, as we see in Palestine.

    I guess Dogville may have been an exploration of similar ideas, but Von Trier needed a woman to abuse to make it worthwhile for himself. Also, it was probably smart of him to take a fictional story, as an outsider to the culture.

    America needs more smart black filmmakers with the clout to get interesting films made. So does Britain, badly.

  15. Tom Charity Says:

    You mean Manderlay. There is this to look forward to

  16. Yes, I think that’ll be pretty super.

    I was thinking Dogville as it’s a return-of-the-repressed story that ends in unsupportable revenge. Haven’t seen Manderlay but I imagine it might be similar.

  17. I saw the film at the weekend but I feel well I don’t know how I feel about it. Just … uneasy. I said as it finished that I’d really like to read a black feminist film critic on it. I really liked Anne B’s notes on it.

  18. Very good article.

  19. “Blazing Saddles strikes me as superior satire and superior fantasy, Django Unchained doesn’t have anything like its courage or its pedigree”. Too true. I’ve been waiting for someone to say this. I was going to on another web log but for the knowledge that I’d be shouted down because you know, *Tarantino*. Whatever Django Unchained’s strengths, I would offer Blazing Saddles as unquestionably superior, the farting scenes and the broadness seem to be a barrier to appreciation for some. It’s instructive that reviews at the time and after balked at the format-breaking eruption into Hollywood soundstages and the “real world” as if this was somehow a betrayal (apparently they missed the playful anachronisms throughout – somehow) yet if, say, QT were to do something similar he’d be the recipient of a celebratory circle jerk. Interestingly Blazing Saddles is usually mentioned in relation to the amusing Ku Klux Klan scene but not anything else, as if – despite its comic elements and general pulpiness – we are supposed to take it seriously. Except when we aren’t, an irritating get-out.
    I love the observation that Tarantino “keeps dragging reality into it” while still (over-) indulging his taste for gouting blood and what he and his acolytes condescendingly reassure us is “movie violence”. It isn’t that I loathe DU but it appears that an awful lot of people are treating it and QT with far more awe than they deserve whilst refusing to engage with the work on anything but the terms QT offers. Which isn’t good enough. Especially annoying is the implication from some that if the violence in this picture seems to become questionable to you it’s because you’re a conservative not for any other reason. Although reading all I just wrote I may be spouting gibberish.

  20. No, you’re making perfect sense. I find it interesting that young audiences don’t seem to get offended these days, even when they acknowledge that a film IS offensive or dubious or in bad taste. They can say “I liked it” even when they consider “it” reprehensible.

  21. I also really appreciated the article by Janell Hobson that Tom linked to, and I’ve shared it on Facebook. Great stuff.

  22. Daniel Reifferscheid Says:

    In re: Stephen’s fate, I think it’s important to keep in mind that Tarantino is big on giving his villains charisma. Bill, Hans Landa, Kurt Russel in “Death Proof” are all characters that are supposed to exert some fascination over you, to muddy the waters a bit (this is admitidely more successful with a winning opportunist like Landa than with a homicidal thug like Russel’s character). Candie doesn’t fulfill this role at all – he’s entertaining, sure, but also an utter buffoon who’s obliviously getting played for most of the movie. So it falls to Stephen to be the real main baddie. Which I think is interesting, considering all the talk about QT’s lack of sensitivity; he’ll give you a relateable nazi, but a relateable American white racist is beyond the pale even for him.

  23. Daniel Reifferscheid Says:

    Oh, two things I haven’t seen mentioned so far:

    1- Christopher Waltz as a Reverse Magic Negroe, does this theory make any sense? His whole function in the movie is to help Django out, he has no sexuality to speak of, and he ends up dying as a…well, sacrifice is streching it, but he certainly wouldn’t even have been in the situation if it wasn’t for Django.

    2-That Franco Nero cameo, good lord. If ever there was a moment to point out Tarantino’s worst fanboy impulses.

    And finally, just to take issue with the first comment here: Leone’s movies evaded questions of race, imperalism, etc. but the spaghetti western as a whole most emphatically did not. “Navajo Joe”, “The Price Of Power”, “Keoma”, “Take A Hard Ride”, etc etc etc Of course, most of these movie’s takes are clumsy at best and more often paternalistic (though not, I have to once again point out, as disgustingly paternalistic as Ford got), but they did adress the issues, as much as films made by complete outsiders living on a different continent could be expected to.

  24. Leone’s films do contain Mexican characters — he apparently regarded them as substitutes for Italy and the Italians, with the realtionships between Wallach and Steiger and their tall companions standing for the Italian relationship with America.

    Candie is so evil and dangerous he could easily have occupied the villain role — it’s Tarantino’s choice to sideline him. Interesting, as you say, but I don’t quite know what it proves. The racists in the film are idiots, it’s true (as with Blazing Saddles) and I don’t have a great problem with that. But given when the film is set, I think we can imagine there were bloodthirsty racists who were at least competent enough to pose a threat. Candie’s sister could actually have played that role well.

    Points 1 and 2 are sound. The exchange with Nero is way too heavy-handed, especially since Nero is playing a horrible slave owner.

    Schultz is indeed half character, half plot function (how many of Tarantino’s films start well and disintegrate from the halfway mark?). Deliberately putting Django and Broomhilda in a desperate situation at the end negates his character arc, and isn’t quite convincing in terms of his pride getting the better of him. Who’s that proud?

  25. Whether anything makes any sense is of no concern to QT. He wants cheap thrills NOW.

  26. To Daniel Reifferscheid, I referred to Leone specifically because those were the only spaghetti westerns I knew. Thank you for clarifying that other film-makers, other non-Leone spaghetti westerns did deal with that. I stated that solely out of my own observations of the failings of Leone’s westerns which I generally don’t care for. His final film, Once Upon A Time in America, on the other hand, is a genuine masterpiece and his life’s work and that is far more critical and honest than his westerns ever were.

    My feeling has always been that the classic American westerns, despite all its cultural limitations and personal failings of its directors, had a more consistent engagement with the historical issues than people like Quentin Tarantino with their smarter-than-thou attitude would like to believe. Which is why I found his desire, as an American film-maker, to use the spaghetti westerns, an outsider American fantasy, to look at American history to be essentially duplicitous.

  27. It certainly takes him further from reality.

    As a stylist, Leone is so extreme and consistent that I don’t think anyone has really copied him successfully. Maybe Kusturica, who blends the influence with equally distinctive filmmakers like Fellini and Tarkovsky to make something that works on its own terms. Otherwise, Leone tends to overwhelm and disorient anyone who approaches, as he did with Alex Cox.

    QT has said that his biggest influence here was Corbucci, who isn’t that much of a social critic but does show a more brutal and hopeless world than his contemporaries. (According to Cox, the bleak ending of The Great Silence is “the worst thing ever,” not in terms of being bad, just in terms of nihilistic despair.) So Corbucci would probably not have let Django ride off triumphant, because he would have seen that as utterly false.

  28. I saw The Great Silence today and that is an exceptional film and the ending is terrific. Among White Westerns(snowbound, frigid westerns), it’s the missing link between The Far Country, Track of the Cat, Day of the Outlaw and McCabe and Mrs. Miller.

    Tarantino wrote this article in the NYtimes website which celebrates the ending of Il Grande silenzio.

    And the strange part is that none of Tarantino’s films ever got that far, that direct. He’s a very sunny film-maker, except for Reservoir Dogs where the bleakness is tempered by a kind of tough-guy sentimentality. He had a chance with IB, where the Nazi could have gotten away scott free and everybody else died, but even there he pulled his punches.

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