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Quentin Tarantino's films revisited: Django Unchained (2012)


In anticipation of Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, released on 14th August, we're revisiting all of his previous films.

Following our recap of Inglourious Basterds, we're taking a closer look at his blistering slave revenge movie, Django Unchained.


What’s the story of Django Unchained?

In pre-Civil War America, slave Django (Jamie Foxx) has been separated from his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). However, an unexpected benefactor emerges in the form of German dentist cum assassin Dr King Schultz (Christoph Waltz).

He liberates Django from bondage under the condition that he will help Schultz execute the slavers known as the Brittle Brothers – along the way, he teaches Django about what it means to kill a man, and what it means to take revenge.

Eventually, Django and Schultz manage to locate Broomhilda on the plantation known as Candyland, owned by the repulsive Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). They decide to pose as slavers in order to win Candie’s trust and get her freed from captivity… but things don’t exactly go according to plan.

How did Django Unchained get made?

Following the misfire of 2007’s Death Proof, writer-director Quentin Tarantino returned to top form with 2009’s Inglourious Basterds. A revisionist World War II thriller in which an Allied hit squad succeeds in executing Adolf Hitler, the movie would come to exert a strong influence on Tarantino’s later oeuvre.

In particular, it was the first of his films to demonstrate the dramatic – and controversial – potential of re-writing history for the purposes of a cathartic revenge fantasy, Tarantino melding his characteristic B-movie exploitation impulses with the sobering spectre of real-life events.

Not that Tarantino was backwards in coming forwards in gleefully re-writing the past to his own ends – Basterds was typically brash, violent and far from subtle, although critics by and large enjoyed it, and audiences lapped up the film’s cheekiness to the tune of $321 million worldwide. It also won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Christoph Waltz, beginning the fruitful partnership with Tarantino that would continue with Django Unchained.

If people were initially uncertain about the director levelling his sights at the Holocaust, the prospect of him putting a twist on the shadow of the American slave trade was no less queasy. Characteristically, Tarantino wasn’t interested in a straight history lesson, instead filtering the horrors of American history through his cinematic frames of reference, chiefly the 1966 Italian Western movie from which his film takes its name. (Original star Franco Nero gets a participation credit and a sly walk-on cameo.)

Indeed, it’s fascinating that Django and Steve McQueen’s lauded 12 Years a Slave were released within a year of each other – there couldn’t be a more pronounced, fascinating contrast between two films tackling the same confrontational subject matter.

Tarantino’s cinematic language unashamedly embraces the stylistics of the Spaghetti Western, which becomes immediately noticeable in the opening credits with the crash-zooms co-ordinated to the sound of whip cracks.

Even more significantly, it was the first of his films since 1997’s Jackie Brown to embrace the legacy of 1970s Blaxploitation cinema, molding its slavery narrative around a story of black empowerment in which Jamie Foxx’s central character rises from victimised slave into a stylish, six-shooting emblem of vengeance.

There’s no denying that Tarantino’s approach is stirring – like Inglourious Basterds, it delivers audience-pleasing gratification, a classic ‘what if’ scenario in which a persecuted slave gets his own back on those who wronged him, chiefly embodied in this case by DiCaprio’s revolting plantation owner. But is it all juvenile, or a sharp, witty way of using cinematic language to expose a thorny period in American history?

That, of course, is subject to personal opinion – like all of Tarantino’s movies, it refuses to go down easily, particularly when many aspects of the movie, particularly the repeated racist language, seem aggressively designed to needle an audience at the apparent expense of a wider meaning. (Of course, given the context of the movie, and the often disgusting characters with which it’s dealing, one could say the use of language makes dramatic sense.)

Tarantino first devised the concept, which he described not so much as a Western but a ‘Southern’, back in 2007. He told the Telegraph that he wanted to "do movies that deal with America's horrible past with slavery and stuff but do them like Spaghetti Westerns, not like big issue movies. I want to do them like they're genre films, but they deal with everything that America has never dealt with because it's ashamed of it, and other countries don't really deal with because they don't feel they have the right to".

Tarantino also cited snowbound 1968 Western The Great Silence, starring Klaus Kinski, as a reference point, reasoning that Django’s central snowy set-piece was intended as an homage. Notorious 1975 exploitation movie Mandingo was also a factor, being the story of a slave owner who trains one of his captives to become a bare-knuckle fighter. This becomes particularly apparent in the scenes where the title character and Schultz must pretend that are essentially shopping for black slaves, two of whom are seen gruesomely fighting to the death in Candie’s introductory scene. (Tarantino's liberal use of the word 'mandingo' is also, in his own words, directly drawn from the 1975 movie.)

Tarantino completed the script in 2011, although many characters were subsequently excised throughout the production. These included figures set to be played by Sacha Baron Cohen, Kurt Russell and Kevin Costner – given the finished movie eventually sprawled to 165 minutes (Tarantino’s lengthiest to date), it’s hard to imagine where he would have found room for them in the first place. Russell’s role of Ace Woody was eventually amalgamated with the character of Billy Crash, played by Walton Goggins.

The part of the titular Django was originally offered to Will Smith, who turned it down. (In an interview some years after the film’s release, he claimed the part of Django wasn’t really the lead, and instead the script conceded too much of the scene-stealing material to Waltz’s character.) The role instead went to Jamie Foxx, who formed a memorable partnership with the typically devious and sly Waltz, a delight in the role of the ruthless yet strangely moralistic Schultz.

The role of the monstrous Calvin Candie allowed Leonardo DiCaprio, in his first collaboration with Tarantino, to sink his teeth into a rare villainous character. DiCaprio in fact suggested the addition of the phrenology scene, in which a black slave’s skull is chillingly dismantled, and cut his hand open for real during the tense dinner table confrontation between Candie, Django and Schultz.

The show is undeniably stolen by Tarantino favourite Samuel L. Jackson, who is an alarming force of nature as Candie’s house slave – and, it’s suggested, grand manipulator – Stephen. The character embodies all that is confrontational and provocative about Tarantino’s vision, skewing our interpretation of the stereotyped ‘Uncle Tom’ figure and instead presenting us with a toxic black character who has manipulated the wider machinery of slavery for his own ends.

In sharp contrast to his long-suffering fellow slaves, Stephen talks freely to his alleged master, quaffs cognac in the comfort of the library and, during his introductory scene, signs cheques as Calvin himself, perhaps the most loaded suggestion that he is the real force behind Candyland. The presence of Django as a relatively liberated black man therefore poses a threat for all manner of reasons, both overt and covert. Amid a career dotted with memorable Tarantino performances, this is perhaps Jackson’s finest, and certainly the most thought-provoking.

Principal photography began in November 2011 and lasted until February 2012, shooting in Louisiana and Wyoming. Cinematographer Robert Richardson’s decision to shoot in widescreen 35mm film lends the movie’s locations a lustrous, tactile quality, which often contrasts jarringly with the shocking moments of gore-splattered violence. 

This was also the first movie Tarantino made in the wake of editor Sally Menke's death – Fred Raskin took over to shape this ambitious blend of history, make-believe and exploitation violence.

Real-life historical precedents included Django’s blue suit that he wears early on in the movie, inspired by Thomas Gainsborough’s 1770 painting The Blue Boy, but the defining voice is of course Tarantino’s.

Post-production but pre-release, Tarantino revealed the film’s genesis at Comic-Con 2012: "I was writing a book about Sergio Corbucci when I came up with a way to tell the story. ... I was writing about how his movies have this evil Wild West, a horrible Wild West. It was surreal, it dealt a lot with fascism. So I'm writing this whole piece on this, and I'm thinking: 'I don't really know if Sergio was thinking [this] while he was doing this. But I know I'm thinking it now. And I can do it!'"

What music is on the Django Unchained soundtrack?

Whatever one’s thoughts on Django Unchained as a film, there’s no denying it boasts one of Tarantino’s most eclectic and brilliant soundtracks.

As mentioned, the movie pays deliberate homage to the original Django Unchained, to the extent the film begins with its musical theme by composer Luis Bacalov and vocalist Rocky Roberts. It sets out the stall immediately, suggesting this is a movie whose love of B-movie pulp cinema courses through its veins.

Given the prevalence of Western iconography, it’s little surprise that genre master Ennio Morricone features heavily. Two tracks from his 1970 score Two Mules for Sister Sara feature, ‘The Braying Mule’ and ‘Sara’s Theme’. In sharp contrast to Tarantino’s usual approach, Morricone in fact composed an original piece of music called ‘Ancora Qui’, with featured Italian vocalist Elisa. It’s the first such example within a Tarantino movie, and would later pave the way for his Oscar-winning collaboration with Morricone on The Hateful Eight.

While that genre of music occupies the Western-riffing divide of Tarantino’s story, there’s also a harsher, more contemporary edge in the remix of James Brown’s ‘The Payback’, which blends with 2pac’s posthumous ‘Untouchable’. It accompanies Django’s transformation into pistol-toting warrior during the first Candyland shootout.

However, the standout moment has to be the incorporation of composer Jerry Goldsmith’s ‘Nicaragua’ from 1983 political thriller Under Fire. The music is brilliantly synced with the entourage’s arrival at Candyland, the heroic tones accompanying Django’s upending of the established social order (Stephen’s face in this scene is a picture).

The combination of Goldsmith, one of the greatest and most pioneering film composers of all time, with Tarantino is truly a spine-tingling moment, and the director’s vast repertoire of music knowledge, drawing from a host of different sources, is again to be applauded.

What are some memorable quotes from Django Unchained?

Django: "I like the way you die, boy."

Calvin: "Gentlemen, you had my curiosity. But now you have my attention."

Schultz: "Normally, Monsieur Candie, I would say 'Auf Wiedersehen.' But since what 'Auf Wiedersehen' actually means is 'until I see you again' and since I never wish to see you again, to you sir, I say goodbye."

Schultz: "You silver-tongued devil, you!"

Ace Speck: "Last chance, fancy-pants."

Django: "Kill white folks and they pay you for it? What’s not to like?"

Stephen: "Oh yes sir, I... I missed you. Like a, like a hog miss slop. Like a...a baby miss mammy's titty. I miss you like I misses a rock in my shoe."

How was Django Unchained received?

Released in December 2012 in the USA and January 2013 in the UK, Django Unchained proved to be a typically divisive Tarantino offering – and not just with critics.

Even film-makers disagreed, with the ever-combative Spike Lee taking umbrage to Tarantino’s repeated use of racial slurs. Lee tweeted: "American Slavery Was Not A Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western. It Was A Holocaust. My Ancestors Are Slaves. Stolen From Africa. I Will Honour Them." 

However, Training Day director Antoine Fuqua countered by saying, "Tarantino doesn’t have a racist bone in his body." He added: "Besides, I'm good friends with Jamie Foxx and he wouldn't have anything to do with a film that had anything racist to it."

Reactions among critics varied between the effusive and the appalled. In The Los Angeles Times, Betsy Sharkey raved: "In Django, Tarantino is a man unchained, creating his most articulate, intriguing, provoking, appalling, hilarious, exhilarating, scathing and downright entertaining film yet".

By contrast, Sight and Sound's Nick Pinkerton wasn't impressed: "The horror that Django Unchained expresses isn't of slavery, finally, but of a filmmaker attempting historical tragedy while shackled by his own supercilious persona."

Such divisive reactions helped stoke the interest of audiences who simply had to see what all the fuss was about. Ultimately, Django Unchained rose to become Tarantino's most financially successful film to date, with $425 million in the bank.

And the film's success continued at the Oscars, with Tarantino walking away with his first Academy Award (for Best Original Screenplay) since his 1994 masterpiece Pulp Fiction. Waltz won his second Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, further affirming that he and Tarantino made one of the most dynamic partnerships in modern cinema.

It was further proof that few film-makers were capable of blurring the lines between trash and art quite like Tarantino. His eccentric synthesis of pulp cinema and high-minded film-making was capable of producing movies like no other, winning over audiences and critics in the process.

What movie did Tarantino make next?

Tarantino stuck with the legacy of the American Civil War, exploring its race-riven and gory aftermath via the medium of claustrophobic mystery-thriller The Hateful Eight. Stay tuned for our breakdown of the eighth and final movie in our Tarantino countdown.

Click here to book your tickets for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, opening on 14th August, and tweet us @Cineworld with your favourite Tarantino moments.