‘Django Unchained’ like a darker ‘Blazing Saddles’

By Christopher K. Conner

I went into Django Unchained with some preconceptions. Being written and directed by Quentin Tarantino, a measure of gore and offensive language is to be expected. Then there is Jamie Foxx, who plays the lead role. From the clips I saw in previews and on advertisements, Foxx as Django looked like a poor job of casting. Turns out I was half right.

Django is a slave in 1858. He’s being moved in chains cross country with several other slaves recently purchased in Mississippi. Along the way, their route is interrupted by a traveling dentist named Dr. King Shultz who is looking to purchase Django. The well-speaking, German accented Shultz (Christoph Waltz) raises the ire of the slavers by talking to Django and is forced to shoot one of the men and the horse of the other in self defense.

Finally confirming that Django can identify three men, known as the Brittle brothers, Shultz unlocks Django and buys him from the surviving slaver. After retrieving a bill of sale for Django from the wounded slaver, Shultz pays for the horse and coat of the dead slaver and leads Django away after suggesting that the remaining slaves can either make their way back to town for help, or use the opportunity to escape.

Shultz explains that, while he was a dentist, he’s lately been working as a bounty hunter. He needs Django to identify three men he is after. In return he’ll pay Django and give him his freedom. Django shows a certain talent for bounty hunting, and with some practice, he is a very good shot.

It doesn’t take long for Shultz and Django to find and kill the three men working on a plantation owned by “Big Daddy” Bennett (Don Johnson). In the meantime, Django explains that he and his wife were separated by their owner for getting married and trying to run away. Shultz offers to help Django find his wife if they wait until the end of winter to head to Mississippi to find out who bought her.

Agreeing to the arrangement, Django and Shultz spend the winter collecting bounties and build up a stash of money. In Mississippi, they find out that Django’s wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), was sold to plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). The Candie plantation, known as Candie Land, is one of the largest plantations and Candie is vastly wealthy.

Shultz knows that Candie will refuse an offer to buy a single damaged slave, but because Candie is known to own “mandingos” or fighting slaves, Shultz hatches a plan.

Shultz will pose as a wealthy man looking to invest in a mandingo to take back to Europe. Django will pose as an experienced mandingo slaver providing council to Shultz.

On the way to Candie Land, Shultz is disturbed by Candie sentencing a runaway mandingo to be torn apart by dogs. Candie uses the event to test Django, who he believes to be a rare example of an exceptional black man based on his phrenological studies.

At Candie Land, Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson) takes an immediate dislike to Django because he is riding a horse as an equal to his master and the other white men. Stephen does most of Candie’s thinking for him and eventually sees through Shultz’s plan. The two are forced at gunpoint to pay the $12000 they had promised to pay for a mandingo for the much less expensive slave Broomhilda.

Not willing to just let Shultz and Django leave, Candie insists that the deal is not complete until Shultz and he shake hands on it. Shultz is still seething over the fate of the mandingo he saw torn apart, refuses. It can best be said that chaos ensues.

What Tarantino has created with “Django Unchained” is a something like a modern “Blazing Saddles” with weaker comedic character actors. “Django” is much darker, and much more violent, but there are certain similarities between “Big Daddy’s” bungling hooded revenge posse, and the equally bungling KKK in “Blazing Saddles”. What Tarantino did was cross the lines that Mel Brooks approached, but never quite stepped over and doing so had to work harder for what comedy he could find.

I admit, though, that by the end of the film I was completely convinced that Jamie Foxx was the right actor for the part. I had expected to miss the kind of imposing presence afforded by an actor more in the Bill Duke mold, but Foxx won me over. Foxx wore the character of Django well.

Tarantino fans will enjoy Django, and may even consider it the best movie they saw in 2012. There is a lot to take in, though and some of the film made me feel uncomfortable, not too different from how I felt watching “Reservoir Dogs” or “Pulp Fiction”, but maybe a bit easier to get through because of my exposure to those films.  

As a whole I liked “Django Unchained”, and the experience was worth being a little disturbed by the material.

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