By now, most of you will have seen Quentin Tarratino’s latest masterpiece, ‘Django Unchained’, you may have even seen it multiple times. I’m not going to talk about how much of a brave, daring film this was to make, or how awesome it was that Tarrantino managed to pull it off in a tasteful, correct way, so let’s just presume that you’ve read the reviews, praised the actors and admired the spaghetti western take on slavery. I’m going to try to shed some new light – hopefully – on this modern classic, in true Dharma Junk style.
The Historical Black Hero through the ages.
The first thing that struck me was Tarrantino’s ‘Black hero’ angle. I honestly wondered how he was going to do this, and was it going to work? At first it was all going a bit ‘Roots’, and although Christopher Waltz was putting in another exceptional performance, I was a bit worried about how the slaves were about to be portrayed. This was Tarrantino though, and so I just sat back in the cinema, and trusted that it would all unfold in the right way; and oh how it did.
It soon became clear that Django was a slave from 1858, who had just been freed, but also, beneath that, he was also the iconic Black hero from every other decade after that point in time. We can’t fault Tarrantino for doing this, in fact, breaking the barriers of reality to bring us a timeless, post-modern hero was one of the most defining points of the film.
From the minute he claimed the hat and jacket of his former slave owner, he had the demeanour of Huey P. Newton of the Black Panther Party.
Complete with his goatee, and later his bright blue outfit, he became a rudimentary version of ‘Shaft’. The way Jamie Foxx carries himself as Django, with his likeable yet arrogant strut and his I’ll-take-what-I-want-because-I-think-I-damn-well-deserve it stare, effectively builds up this idea of an invincible protagonist out to set the record straight. The brash costumes worn by Django and carefree attitude only strengthens this comparison to the Blaxploitation films of the 70’s. Also, who could forget the revenge aspect of the film? We know that Django is about to embark on a violent rampage, and this illuminates his character and highlights him as a superhero, not far from Shaft. In fact, in researching this film in relation to the Blaxploitation films of the 70’s, I did find a quote from Tarrantino in which he said that:
”Broomhilda von Shaft and Django from his movieDjango Unchained are intended as the great-great-great-great grandparents of John Shaft, from the Shaft movie series.”
– Quentin Tarrantino, Comic-con 2012.
The soundtrack to Django Unchained is unrivalled power-music. The silhouette of our protagonist Django is often matched with a gradually building, revolutionary score, which carries our man to his chosen destination of revenge. When the track, ‘Freedom’ plays, we see a montage of Django and Broomhilda sprinting across the fields, escaping imprisonment of the plantation. Cut back to present with a crack of John Briddle’s whip, and in an echo of a ‘Kill Bill’ battle scene warm up, we have our hero set up for action.
I sometimes feel that, on a tangent, you could replace these songs and building moments of tension and revenge, with tracks like Isaac Hayes’ ‘Walk on by’, or Grover Washington Jr’s ‘Inner City Blues’. In fact, this shot of Washington could be a future relation of Django:
A Hero Unchained.
So what does this mean? Well what I think makes Django such a great, believable and effectively ruthless protagonist, is that, as you can see from the examples above, he is based upon so many real Black heroes and icons of modern times. This could’ve been a film about a guy in the 60’s fighting in riots and protesting for equality, set to the sound of Curtis Mayfield, James Brown and Sly and the Family Stone. It could be set in present day even, remember Rick Ross’s ‘100 Black Coffins’ in the scene where Django cockily struts around on horseback? Or the shootout scene in Candyland at the very end?
The truth is that there are many reasons why this film works and why it is yet again, another one of Tarrantino’s masterpieces – The Mandingo fights could’ve come straight out of the blindfolded boxing scene of Ralph Ellison’s classic American novel ‘The Invisible Man’, and the plantations and Black community from Zora Neal Hurston’s ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God’ – but at the backbone of this really strong production, is the timeless Black hero that is Django. From the cowboy boots to the tilted hat, the goatee to the outrageously bright clothes, Django is an underdog hero that is universally recognised and enjoyed in both culture and cinema alike.