Spike Lee, commenting on Quentin Tarantino’s most recent film, has correctly stated that slavery was not a Sergio Leone spaghetti western. Nonetheless, if it were, it would be Django Unchained–which is a massively entertaining if morally dubious film. Westerns have almost totally overlooked the reality of slavery, but Tarantino’s film pulls it from the edge of our myths and makes it a central element of story and character. Of course, this creates a multitude of questions involving cultural appropriation, along with issues of permissions of its creator and audience. On the most basic level, the thing we’re left asking is How do I feel about being entertained by this thing, and should it have even been made in the first place?
If you’re looking for a serious exploration of the complexities and horrors of slavery, don’t go see a movie staring Jamie Foxx and co-starring a few hundred exploding blood squibs. (You’d have better luck watching a 3D science fiction adventure teeming with naked blue aliens in hopes of gleaning a better grasp of colonialism.) Django Unchained is a violent revenge movie in the purest sense, a fantasy of empowerment after degradation. Does this fictionalization of history trivialize it? Perhaps. But there is no escaping our forbearers in art or in life, despite our best attempts, and the very fact that Tarantino has made an American popcorn movie that simultaneously embraces and indicts our history makes it more interesting than most. Many Westerns have been irreverant, if not explicitly racist, in their imagining of the past. Django Unchained is a counterpoint. How we chose to interpret it depends on our individual sensibilities.
Tarantino seems to have settled into tales of vengeance–this one is his fifth in a row–and he makes them stylish, exciting, bloody, cinematically referential, and a tad overlong. They sport tongue-in-cheek humor uncomfortably juxtaposed with brutality–which is sometimes quite funny. This time around, there are no intertwining stories or chronological somersaults. This is an operatic, mythic quest. (Of course, the script is aware of this and comments on it. Django is on a quest to save his princess, a real life Siegfried on a quest to save his Brunhilde–named “Broomhilda” in this case.) It’s a gunslinger movie that gives us something to talk about, and whether you find it offensive or not, it’s still more interesting than the scores of slick, anonymous, soulless action films roaring their way through multiplexes year round.