Django Unchained – Tarrantino’s Ode To The Timeless Black Hero.

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.



Killing Them Softly

‘America I have given you all and now I’m nothing’ – Allen Ginsberg, ‘America’

Beat poet Allen Ginsberg caught on pretty early, to the fact that America was a place that had fast become a superpower, but it’s people weren’t playing along. Andrew Dominik’s new film, ‘Killing Them Softly’, is a gritty, guts ‘n’ all, modern take on the underworld of American crime and the fall of a nation.

Set in an unnamed East coast town – probably Boston due to the strong accent from protagonist Frankie (Scoot McNairy) – the story kicks off with a couple of small-time crooks Frankie and Russell, the latter a sweaty, disgusting junkie that we are immediately supposed to detach ourselves from. They are being set up on a job to stick up a poker game by their contractor, ‘Squirrel’. These games are hosted by Markie Trattman, (Ray Liotta) and one recently got held-up. Unknowingly to the big-time players in attendance, this was Trattman’s doing, he pocketed the money and never got busted. These games are quite a regular occurrence, and a few months down the line, Trattman’s secret is revealed. With Trattman now the immediate suspect, the idea of busting his poker games now becomes wide open for all manner of small-time crooks.

Our two cowardly ‘protagonists’.

KTS is set sometime around the presidential election of 2008, with interlaced billboard shots, tv shows and radio broadcast snippets decorating the film. Yet stylistically this film looks like the 1970’s. Cadillacs, Capris and old beat up bars. The characters sport slimy faces and greased back hair, dirty parkas and leather jackets. Even Brad Pitt’s character ‘Jackie Cogan’ is a gentle, but obviously evil modern-day cowboy. Jackie’s unbuttoned shirt, gold rings, tinted sunglasses and goatee are straight from a time where disco, rock ‘n’ roll and sleaziness would fit right in. This touch may be a nod to the 70’s novel ‘Cogan’s Trade’, upon which this film was based, it might also be a another sentiment of the careless America that does what it wants. Either way, it paints a bleak picture of the greasy, dirty underground life of small-town crooks.

You’ll find yourself getting angry that scenes like this could actually take place. Brilliant manipulative film making.

Dominik mastered diegetic sound perfectly in KTS. In a scene where two cars are meeting each other, one car is parked up, with the radio sounding out an election debate about the economy. As we see and hear this, a second car slowly creeps into the frame, also with the same radio station on. For a few seconds, the sounds play simultaneously, only slightly out of sync, then the first car turns the radio off and the second car continues the broadcast. This has to be seen – and heard – to be appreciated! This unique use of sound is continued throughout the production, including mumbling background conversations being slightly louder than they should be to create a sense of ultimate realism.

Use of unconventional, extended shots makes Killing Them Softly a unique experience.

A hidden gem in this film is James Gandolfini’s role as ‘New York Mickey’, an alcoholic, delusional sex addict who seems intensely afraid and jealous of a vaguely mentioned wife or girlfriend figure. Mickey is another character we love to hate, and just as he embodies the classic male afraid of a woman’s success and empowerment; he equally displays a reflection of America’s downfall due to man’s weakness of greed and power.

Any sympathy for emotionally damaged ‘New York Mickey’ is kept well at bay by his selfish, over-indulgent lifestyle.

This ultra-realist, gritty crime film is a fresh take on the over-cooked gangster genre; just make sure you get the chance to see this one while it’s still in cinemas.

The Lowdown on Lawless.


There are two questions one must ask themselves when watching the summer Blockbuster ‘Lawless’, and they are ‘How many times can Shia Labeouf get punched in the face?’ and ‘How many times can Tom Hardy die and come back to life?’ The answer to both is: a lot.

This Prohibition-era, hill-billy hoe down is a tale of two brothers, (Forrest – Hardy, and Jack – LaBeouf) They are both moonshiners, who sell and export their drink to nearby villages, parties and small-time crooks. What basically happens is that they have a few run ins with criminals and the law, before stuff starts to get serious.

At this point, LaBeouf is being pounded like a ragamuffin, smacked in the face here, throw down some stairs there, all the while being rescued by his big brother Forrest, who proceeds to knock people’s faces off with his trusty knuckleduster.

The attention to detail on clothing, sets and the general realism of the characters is actually pretty damn good. If the story is lacking, the acting will allow you to not dwell too deep into that fact.

As Forrest and Jack plan to expand their business and production of the moonshine, the opposition (a combination unofficial, bent cops and gangsters), begins to get more serious on the pursuit. Charlie Rakes, (Guy Pearce puts in a great performance here), is a perfume wearing, hair slicked-back slime ball, obsessed with the idea of shutting down the brothers’ distillery. He proceeds to beat up Jack (LaBeouf) some more (naturally), and generally creeps his way into the brothers’ village every other day, making threats. He reminds me of when Christoph Waltz played Hans Landa in Inglorious Basterds, just not as good. That’s a compliment to Waltz not a knock to Pearce, the role was played brilliantly.

Charlie: Time to get Even-Stevens on that boy. Again.

Now what I should mention here is the Tom Hardy death phenomenon. Hardy, as Forrest, gets his throat cut open from ear to ear and is left for dead by the crooks, he proceeds to hold together his throat and lay on the floor for about twenty minutes before he is rescued by Bertha (Mia Wasikowska) and taken to the hospital. He sports a pretty massive scar with stitches for about 4 scenes and then it just disappears. He later gets shot about eight times in the body, which he obviously survives, and gets stabbed. On a flash forward to the forties, we see a drunken Forrest fall into an ice-cold lake through a sheet of ice. About time, we think, but no, Forrest survives this as well and shows that his invincibility lasts way into his old age.

It’s definitely worth a watch, just for the shock factor of the gory bits – some I’ve left out – and the realism. What I didn’t mention is that Jason Clarke puts in a good performance as the brother’s friend Howard, a sort of underdog character, who becomes likeable in the end.

For fans of: Boardwalk Empire, Inglorious Basterds, (and at times) The Village