Saturday, January 05, 2013

Django Unchained: Tables Turned

“Kill white people and get paid for it? What’s not to like?”
I've just returned from a trip to Jamaica, a country that celebrates slave revolts through such "national heroes" as Sam Sharpe and Paul Bogle. When I saw Quentin Tarantino's new flick Django Unchained in Ocho Rios, just down the road from where Christopher Columbus landed and Marcus Garvey was born, the predominantly black audience was vocal in its support of Jamie Foxx's bloody vengeance during the film's final climax. Jamaica is a country that harbours no illusions when it comes to the blunt violence necessitated by the "shitstem" of slavery. It's also a reality that Tarantino has confronted throughout his career.

"Slave driver the table is turned
Catch a fire, you're gonna get burned" ~ The Wailers
Tarantino makes a lot of people very uncomfortable. He's a persistent nag that won't let anyone off the hook for past injustices, a constant reminder of the debt that continues to plague the culture. That he pulls it off with panache and biting humour is all the more reason to celebrate his work. Enter Django Unchained.

Along with including Jim Croce beside Rick Ross on the soundtrack, the singular achievement of Django Unchained is its recasting of slavery to allow its horror to be realized in a contemporary vernacular that speaks to the present. It's no surprise that most Americans find Spielberg's tidy reminiscences in Lincoln more palatable, but it's Tarantino's rude intrusions that they really need.

The film succeeds in mixing pop humour and Shakespearean drama with schmaltzy clichés like the spaghetti western to create a deliciously novel, riveting tale. Leo DiCaprio embodies a grotesque combination of Macbeth and Daffy Duck as he relishes the ghoulish task of smashing a skull with a hammer, while Samuel Jackson's fevered portrait of the "house boy" is enough to cheer for his untimely demise.

The film resonates with righteous justice and vengeance. Jamie Foxx's portrayal of Django has a tense earnestness that provides the still center for the rest of the action to spiral around. DiCaprio, as plantation owner Calvin Candie, is the warped loon swinging from the chandelier, while bounty hunter Christoph Waltz, the foreign eye offering the Old vs. New World contrast, is removed, literally un-American and ironically civil. In the end, the barbarity of the "New World" bleeds through and stains all, participants and witnesses alike.

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