Reviews Too Late: Freeing the Slaves

by wjw on January 16, 2013

Carrie Vaughn suggested on her blog that someone could do a combined review of Lincoln and Django Unchained.  

Happy to oblige, Carrie.

In brief, Lincoln is a glossy, reverent, beautifully acted dramatization of Lincoln’s attempts to pass the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Django Unchained, on the other hand, is a Tarantino film.

I think that sums it up pretty well, don’t you?

But yah, okay, you want more.  Fine.  Here ya go.

Lincoln is another of Spielberg’s beautifully-constructed historical films, and will (I assume) give Daniel Day-Lewis his third Oscar, as it’s just given him a Golden Globe.  Somehow he walks like a taller, thinner man, shambling, hunched.  His voice is a sweet hick accent that seems perfectly plausible.  And the script presents us with a fairly complete Lincoln: the politician, the husband, the parent, the idealist, the operator, the commander in chief, the cracker-barrel storyteller.

We don’t see the depth of the man’s depression.  (At this point in his life, he would take regular nocturnal trips to the tomb of his son Willie, where he would remove the lid of the sarcophagus and sit for hours watching his son rot.  Now that’s depression.)

Nor is Mary Lincoln presented as quite as crazed as she was in real life.  (On a visit to the front, she burst into a furious attack against Mrs. General Grant for allegedly making a play for her husband.)  But the real-life Mary Lincoln was also a smart political operator, and the movie shows that side of her very well.

Kudos to Tony Kushner’s script for successfully dramatizing something that is normally dull as dishwater: moving a bill through Congress.  And hats off to Tommy Lee Jones, with a surprising star turn as the ranting radical Republican Thaddeus Stevens, which reminds us of the days when Republicans ranted for a good cause.

One of Spielberg’s flaws is that he rarely knows when to end his movies— there’s one big climax after another until the movie dies of exhaustion, when the craftsmanlike decision would be to pick one finish and stick with it.  (I wish he would re-edit and re-release Empire of the Sun, maybe my favorite Spielberg, with this in mind.)  I wish Lincoln ended with Lincoln walking into the light, but instead it goes on through several less successful endings before it finally dies.

Another not-quite-flaw in the film is that while the story is about slavery and the decision to abolish it, no actual slaves appear in the motion picture.  We hear about slavery, but we don’t see it.  The film’s arguments have an abstract quality to them.  Everyone’s in favor of abolishing slavery when the slaves are purely hypothetical and the slaves don’t move next door.

That’s where Django Unchained comes in.  Django punches you in the face with slavery in the very first scene, with a line of scarred, beaten, shackled slaves shuffling across a desert landscape that’s supposed to be Texas.  And the film’s portrait of slavery is unflinching, showing it as brutal, murderous, exploitive, sadistic, violent, and sexually depraved.  And of course the film’s hero is a former slave trying to reunite with his wife, so he automatically has our sympathy.

In fact the film has a lot of heart, something I’ve complained has been missing from Tarantino’s recent epics.  And it has  a degree of moral seriousness unusual in Tarantino films.  But it’s only a degree, because Tarantino’s far more interested in pulp fiction than in politics.  There’s a decided tension between the Tarantino who’s delivering us the horrific facts of slavery, and the Tarantino who wants us to enjoy the sight of intestines exploding under the repeated impact of bullets.

That tension is what makes the movie work, and if Pulp Tarantino wins, that’s only to be expected.  This is Tarantino’s homage to Blaxploitation films, and that’s what he defaults to in the end.

People tend to remember Blaxploitation as films about pimps and hustlers, but in fact Blaxploitation pretty much covered all the genres.  There were cop movies (Cotton Comes to Harlem), horror (Blacula), Westerns (Legend of Nigger Charley), martial arts (The Last Dragon), even sports movies (Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings).  There was a whole sub-genre starring Pam Grier’s breasts, and a very fine sub-genre that was, too.

And of course, Blaxploitation films were produced, written, and directed by white men.  And so is Django Unchained.

(By the way, does anyone remember the title of the movie that featured Nichelle Nichols as a madam?  There was an insanely hilarious scene that tried to break the record for the most motherfuckers per minute of screen time.  They not only broke the record, they shattered it.  I don’t know how they filmed it without everyone on the set falling over in helpless laughter.  I imagine the record still stands.)

Be that as it may, one of the primary Blaxploitation genres was the Get Even With Whitey genre.  And Whitey is clearly up to no good in this movie.  Django’s going to get his woman back if he has to slaughter half the rednecks in Mississippi, and that’s pretty much what he does.

In Tarantino’s films there are always lovely bits of casting.  Christoph Waltz walks off with every scene as Django’s cheerfully homicidal bounty hunter mentor.  Leonardo di Caprio does some highly intelligent scenery-chewing as the evil planter Candie— as an actor he’s always over the top, but never out of control.  And Samuel Jackson, made up as Uncle Ben, is clearly enjoying himself as the most evil Uncle Tom in the history of Uncle Tomdom.

(And by the way, has anyone noticed that since Waltz’s character is named Dr. King Schulz, we find Django freed by Dr. King?)

All that said, the movie goes on too long.  The violent climax happens about two-thirds along, and then the movie just keeps going, with another, less satisfying violent climax happening later.

So if you like Tarantino, this is a Tarantino you’ll like.  Presumably you’re used to the sight of exploding intestines by now.   So you’re not allowed to complain when they explode.

And now, the final compare-and-contrast.

Lincoln frees the slaves.  And Django kills Whitey.

And that’s how it’s supposed to be.


TJIC January 16, 2013 at 12:18 pm

> Django Unchained, on the other hand, is a Tarantino film.


> There was an insanely hilarious scene that tried to break the record for the most motherfuckers per minute of screen time. They not only broke the record, they shattered it

You’re familiar with The Wire’s “Fuck” scene? Not all MF-ers, but a bunch. Worth watching if you haven’t already seen it:

Mastadge January 16, 2013 at 10:15 pm

Was it Truck Turner?

Ken Houghton January 17, 2013 at 3:34 am

Has to be. Someone who has Amazon Instant Video will have to do the, er, research.

Carrie V. January 19, 2013 at 12:39 am

Thank you! I am not disappointed!

(BTW I also *love* Empire of the Sun and think it’s Spielberg’s best film. Wouldn’t change a bit. It’s so startlingly concise compared to his later epics.)

Carl January 21, 2013 at 5:52 pm

I disagree about the last dragon being a “blacksploitation” film. It was a parody of Kung-fu fils starring black people, entirely different.

wjw January 22, 2013 at 2:56 am

But that’s what Blaxploitation films =were=— genre films with black actors. So “Last Dragon” should qualify.

Though it was unusual in having a black man as producer and director, which some people might feel disqulified it.

DensityDuck January 24, 2013 at 6:51 am

“We hear about slavery, but we don’t see it. The film’s arguments have an abstract quality to them. Everyone’s in favor of abolishing slavery when the slaves are purely hypothetical and the slaves don’t move next door.”

Which, in fact, makes it even more a movie about politics, because it’s very seldom that the people in power are actually affected by any of the issues they’re arguing about…although that certainly doesn’t stop them arguing quite strongly about them.

Luke Silburn January 31, 2013 at 11:29 am

“The violent climax happens about two-thirds along, and then the movie just keeps going, with another, less satisfying violent climax happening later.”

I can sympathise with this criticism of Django Unchained from a purely functional, narrative pacing POV but I would argue that the structure of the final third of the film works on a deeper meta-narrative level.

Spoilers ahoy (and potential for story-stucture wankery – you have been warned)!

It seems to me that Tarantino is aiming to do a complete subversion of conventional racial coding with Django Unchained. Thus, Django is the big-H Hero (indeed this is expicitly foreshadowed when Schulz summarises the ‘Siegfried & Brunhilde’ story for Django in the first act), Broomhilda is the fair damsel held in durance vile, Dr Schulz is the Magical Whitey, Stephen (Samuel Jackson’s character) is the =main= villain and Candie is his =sidekick=. Thus all the principal roles are racially inverted.

Following the narrative implications of this, it is =necessary= for Schulz’s plan to fail* (and Schulz to die – giving rise to the first shoot-out) so that (i) Stephen has the opportunity (via the gloating scene in the shed) to reveal himself to Django as the true power behind the throne and (ii) Django can assume full agency and complete his transition into the Hero (by conning the aussie slavers), then return to Candieland in order to confront Stephen and finish the job on his own terms (walking through a literal ring of hell-fire at the end just to drive the point home about him being the Siegfried of the piece).

[*]Schulz’s plan doesn’t actually fail of course – the con might have been blown, but they had the girl, a valid bill of sale and were home free (albeit at a cost of $12,000). Schulz wilfully throws that all away because he can’t bear the idea of Candie getting one over on him.

Where I think Tarantino went wrong is that he made the sub-climactic gunfight a much bigger deal than it needed to be – he should have restrained himself there and then gone to town during the final confrontation. I’m guessing it was a mixture of being unable to resist the opportunity for a splatterfest and him wanting to fake the audience out a bit.


While I have your attention – I thought the Tarantino’s handling of violence was interesting in this film. The ‘comedy’ violence (with the massive spagetti-western blood squibs and lingering, full-focus closeups) was all directed at the empowered, complicit-with-slavery characters; whilst the violence inflicted upon the disempowered black characters was grim and horrifying, with the camera flinching away and more interested in the effect it has on onlookers. All in all there’s some pretty subtle (for Tarantino) stuff going on there.

wjw February 1, 2013 at 9:47 pm

Very good, Luke. I agree with you on all points. It’s not so much that the


action scenes were misplaced as unbalanced. The really big scene was two-thirds in, and the final action scene was just Django gunning people down from ambush, which wasn’t dramatically satisfying.

If I’d had more time and space, I would have made the point about Shulz’s plan myself— they had actually accomplished their mission, just with a little more humiliation than they’d planned. There was no reason to have a huge battle scene there, except that Tarantino wanted one.

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