Race to the Finish
By Adam Nayman
Dir. Quentin Tarantino, U.S., The Weinstein Company
Showing up nearly 90 minutes into the monumentally long Django Unchained, Samuel L. Jackson is instantly recognizable, but his appearance is startling nonetheless. Stooped and shuffling with the aid of a cane, his head topped with tufts of white hair, Jackson looks more than his sixty-three years; this may be the first time that this physically commanding star has been explicitly tasked with embodying frailty. And while Jackson’s line readings retain their usual sawed-off ferocity, the role requires that the actor and the character make a show of taking their cues from the people around him. His Stephen is the longest-tenured slave at a sprawling pre–Civil War cotton plantation—senior enough that he’s beloved of his Francophile proprietor Mr. Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), but still obliged to parrot his master’s observations in the company of guests.
The spectacle of an iconically assertive actor placed in a position of official subservience is one thing; the significance of Samuel L. Jackson playing an Uncle Tom in a movie directed by Quentin Tarantino is another. It has been argued that Jackson’s performances in Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown served to sanction his writer-director’s fetishizing of certain stereotypes pertaining to African-American movie characters—and also his co-opting of subcultural postures and attitudes well beyond his real-life experiences (if not, it goes without saying, his VHS collection). When Spike Lee asked, not unreasonably, after the release of Jackie Brown if Tarantino, by liberally peppering his dialogue with racial epithets (as he had in Pulp Fiction) was trying to be an “honorary Black man,” it was Jackson who rushed to Tarantino’s defense, claiming that his friend and collaborator had not transgressed any moral or artistic boundaries. It was an endorsement that many saw as the last word on the “n-word” issue.
Viewers with a far less agile and sophisticated knowledge of film history than Tarantino will intuit that Stephen’s name is an allusion to Stepin Fetchit, the stage and film persona of Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry. Perry was the first African-American actor to receive a screen credit, and accordingly the first to get rich by playing to the prejudices of a mass audience. In Lee’s Bamboozled, he’s invoked (alongside many other silent and early-sound-era performers) as a grotesque specter of racist Hollywood representation—the ghost of minstrelsy past—but writers like Mel Watkins and Champ Clark have complicated the issue by suggesting that there was an element of subversion in Perry’s subservience—that the shiftless, feckless caricature he inhabited in so many movies was not a capitulation to the viewership (or the filmmakers) but a bold form of ethnic masquerade.
This is likely the sort of thing that Tarantino had on his mind when he conceived both the Stephen character and Jackson’s casting in the role—as a way for both of them to answer and confound their critics, and also maybe to drive Spike Lee crazy. Stephen isn’t actually all that close to Stepin Fetchit: he’s older and more combative, and in one of several scenes that demonstrate Tarantino’s newfound facility (previously demonstrated in Inglourious Basterds) for the surreptitious shifts in interpersonal power dynamics, is unmasked as an active manipulator rather than an acted-upon stooge. But he still fits within a cinematic (and literary) tradition of the “House Negro” and thus complicates a movie that, for all its brutality, has a politically correct thrust.
Stephen's polyvalently provocative qualities stand out all the more because the other major characters have mannerisms and motives that are more immediately reconciled with Tarantino’s past work. As a wronged party out for a wholly justified revenge, Django (a surprisingly low-key performance by Jamie Foxx) is kin to Beatrix Kiddo in Kill Bill and Shoshanna in Inglourious Basterds. He’s maybe closer to the latter in that he stands in as an avenging angel for an entire cohort—the Return of the Oppressed. Waltz’s smooth-operating German émigré/lapsed dentist/hired killer Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), meanwhile, is obviously a cousin to Hans Landa—a multilingual prankster who believes himself to have the upper hand in every situation (his M.O. is to shoot first and produce the justification immediately thereafter). Their partnership, formed after Schultz rescues Django from a chain gang (and takes him under his wing) reprises other ebony-and-ivory unions in the Tarantino canon, especially Pulp Fiction’s Jules and Vincent, to whom this affectionately odd couple is a historical antecedent; they’re proto-hitmen, moseying across America picking up bounties on even badder guys.
The film's first hour, which parallels Django's gradual immersion in the role of professional assassin with his repudiation of a slave mentality—visualized via an increasingly flamboyant wardrobe—is filled with the sort of conversational longueurs that define Tarantino's cinema, for better and for worse. There are low points, surely: a scene where a troupe of wild-riding Klansmen argue about the poor manufacture of their white hoods is both atonally dumb and thuddingly obvious in its metaphorical intent (the idiots literally can't see what they're doing). And Tarantino’s filmic annotations are starting to feel increasingly compartmentalized from his true aims. Using the theme song of Sergio Corbucci's original Django! (1966) is fine (it's a catchy ditty), but Franco Nero’s cameo is disappointingly perfunctory, as are the ostentatious midfilm intertitles that feel like the director reminding himself to be “playful” (see also Jackson's voiceover intrusions in Basterds). But underneath the loose talk and frivolous digressions, there are intimations of a deeper intertextual structure. Astonished to learn that Django’s forcibly estranged wife is named Broomhilda—a Basterdized spelling of Brunhilde—Schultz offers his new friend a Cliff's Notes version of the Volsunga Saga immortalized in Wagner’s Ring Cycle, which Django takes as a hint as to his own destiny.
The equivocation of a freed slave and Siegfried—the most resplendently blonde-haired, blue-eyed hero of Scandinavian lore—is a self-consciously audacious joke, and it's one that Tarantino carries through as Django pursues his own version of the hero's quest. At first, it seems as if the Dragon waiting to be slain is Candie, a slightly overgrown boy emperor (DiCaprio is brilliantly cast) whose vanity knows no bounds. Candie supplements his cotton business by trafficking in mandingo fighting, leading to a supremely uncomfortable sequence in which two massive slaves clutch and claw each other to the death in a lavishly appointed drawing room while their owners nurse cocktails in the corner. This is one of several points in Django Unchained where Tarantino seems to be picking up the thread of Death Proof and trying to stage violence in such a way that it turns into a larger comment on both his own post-exploitation practice and his audience's bloodthirsty expectations. In Death Proof, it was too academic, but here’s it’s successful—a critic would be hard-pressed to mistake this sweaty, desperately protracted sequence for mere sadistic directorial indulgence.
Once again, in this deceptively baggy, ultimately precisely structured movie, the surface effect belies what's going on underneath. The sight of two black men locked in a battle to the death at the behest of a white overseer is a tip-off to script’s true conflict. The expression of hatred on Jackson's face as Django rides up to the inevitably named Candieland transcends the jokey Spaghetti Western posturing—it’s genuinely unnerving. Candie and Schultz are compelling mirror images (the faux-European sophisticate and the actual émigré, both of whom, in the latter’s words, work in businesses that deal flesh for cash), but Django and Stephen are the pair to watch—the empowered, would-be free-man on his high horse and the stooped relic furiously attempting to hold on to his retrograde position. Stephen's machinations in the sequences that follow mark him as the true monster of the piece: recognizing immediately that Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) has eyes for Django, he tries to convince his master that his guests have ulterior motives. And of course, he's correct.
If the best scene in Inglourious Basterds was the cellar-barroom interlude where the characters played a spirited round of twenty questions—a game predicated on false identities overlaid on actual covert activity—Django Unchained offers a worthy follow-up in the Candieland sequence, which is filled with suggestive examples of play-acting. Django is masquerading as a mandingo expert—a “one-eyed Charlie”—and Schultz as his money man when both are in fact only there to retrieve Broomhilda; Django uses his illusory status to verbally abuse white and black men alike; Candie is playing a worldly host who is in fact several fathoms out of his depth; and Stephen, as it turns out, is wearing a grotesquely comfortable second skin as well.
The moment the mask drops and we see the true tactical hierarchy in Candieland is jarring in a way that I'm not sure Tarantino has ever attempted, not least of all because Jackson had so fully inhabited the servile caricature that the sudden (and again, crucially, brief) switch in his tone and manner registers as a seismic event. In a film filled with examples of whites either habitually exploiting blacks—or even in the case of the fundamentally decent but chronically guilt-stricken Schultz, deciding to “take responsibility” for them—Stephen’s calculated and ultimately self-defeating betrayal of a figurative “brother” is truly diabolical and heartbreaking, not to mention a ballsy move for Tarantino, who could have easily gotten away cleaner as a white writer-director without hinging the back half of his movie on a case of Southern Stockholm Syndrome. The question is whether Tarantino really has bigger fish to fry, or if he’s just taking his sweet time shooting them in the barrel. That a persuasive case can be made either way could be seen as a validation of the theory that Tarantino is some sort of idiot savant whose films signify almost in spite of their maker's idiosyncracies or intentions.
Or it could be that the movie is double-edged by design—a suspicion borne out by how conspicuously controlled Django Unchained feels overall. Robert Richardson's camera glides across the various flattened landscapes with purpose, and plunks down to provide widely scaled, conspicuously painterly compositions (and for once, the background action in a Tarantino film feels lively and detailed). Picking up for the late Sally Menke, editor Fred Raskin replicates the precise in-and-out-rhythms she managed in Basterds' dialogue scenes; the cutting never feels rushed, even when we're ping-ponging between multiple perspectives in a dinner-table showdown that employs DiCaprio to deliver one of Tarantino's signature extended soliloquies (complete with a faux Yorick skull). The coiled tension of such scenes would seem to be Tarantino’s new self-styled specialty, but as ever, he’s not as good when it comes to release. The late-in-the-game shoot-outs are strained in their bloody choreography and intended catharsis. A telling line: Schultz’s "I just couldn't resist" before kicking off one excessively gory exchange. Does anyone doubt that here Waltz is speaking for his director?
Basterds blew its wad in that underground shoot-out as well, and in doing so killed off its best character (Michael Fassbender's stiff-upper-lipped British spy). But it still had the elegance of its interlacing plots to lean on. This time, it just feels (even after two attentive viewings) like the film simply keeps going past its climax, locked into a predeterminedly epic trajectory en route to an ending that's thematically appropriate and even visually well-conceived (a shot of Candieland's ruling class trundling down a moonlit, cotton-lined path is lingeringly eerie) but also abrupt and redundant. It’s a victory trot over rhetorical terrain that the movie has long since staked out.