Take the chains away
JIM Jeffries was deemed ‘The Great White Hope’ before his bid to win the world heavyweight boxing title held by African-American Jack Johnson ended in failure. After Johnson’s victory in July 1910, diners in ‘Negro’ restaurants were guaranteed to get a laugh out of the waitress by ordering coffee ‘as black and strong as Jack Johnson’ and scrambled eggs ‘as beat up as Jim Jeffries’.
Johnson famously refused to get out to bed to see Halley’s Comet, reasoning that in the centuries to come, there’d be lots of comets, ‘but there ain’t gonna be but one Jack Johnson’.
I thought of Johnson – a rare case of black empowerment in a downtrodden era – while watching ‘Django Unchained’. A spaghetti western set in the American South of the pre-Civil War era, the film makes no claim to historical accuracy. As with its cinematic cousin ‘Inglourious Basterds’, Quentin Tarantino has decided not to let the truth get in the way of a good story.
The picture opens ‘somewhere in Texas’ in 1858 with the meeting of Dr King Schultz (Golden Globe winner Christoph Waltz) and the slave Django (Jamie Foxx). Schultz needs the eponymous character’s help in identifying three men he has been contracted to kill.
Django, delighted at the chance to shoot white people for money, agrees to be his partner in bounty-hunting. He then plans to search for his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), a German-speaking slave who lives on the plantation of Calvin Candie (Leonard DiCaprio). There they meet Stephen (Samuel L Jackson), an obsequious Uncle Tom who’s spent his whole life at ‘Candyland’.
Waltz is superb as Schultz, a verbose, quick-on-the-draw former dentist whose belief that all men are created equal stuns other white people. “That’s a nigger on a horse!” exclaims a Texan doctor as the German and the African-American ride into his town together.
Tarantino’s Golden Globe-winning script is as rat-a-tat as you’d expect. Waltz steals the show and gets most of the best lines in the first hour. DiCaprio’s entrance is delayed, but he puts in his best performance in years as a smooth talker with a volcanic temper. Foxx, ostensibly the star, undergoes a rather extreme transformation from slave to John Shaft, and only comes into his own during the over-the-top ending. Told “I count six shots, nigger”, he replies: “I count two guns, nigger!” and then produces them to devastating effect.
The Ku Klux Klan, famously celebrated in DW Griffith’s 1915 movie ‘The Birth of a Nation’, are ridiculed in a manner reminiscent of ‘Blazing Saddles’. “I can’t see f***in’ s*** outta this thing!” one Klansman claims, prompting an argument about the small size of the eye-holes in the hoods made by another member’s wife.
There are laughs too – target practice on snowman, Schultz emptying a spent bullet out of his hat. The fine soundtrack contains some original music, including a song produced by and featuring Foxx.
By the end, there’s more blood than ‘Macbeth’ – much of it spurting out comic-book style, which gets tiresome as the body count mounts. And some scenes are hard to watch (a fight to the death between slaves, a man savaged by dogs).
Watching ‘Django Unchained’ is a punch-the-air exercise in revenge fantasy. The comfortable are afflicted, the powerful shaken and bad guys get their comeuppance. The picture certainly has its faults, won’t win over Tarantino’s detractors, and would have benefited from being half an hour shorter. But it’s the most fun I’ve had at the cinema for quite a while.
Rating 8 out of 10