When I recently read that, because he thought it would make light of his ancestors’ suffering, Spike Lee was making a point of not seeing Quentin Tarantino’s latest film, Django Unchained, I thought he was probably being unreasonable. After all, although I’d had similar reservations about seeing Inglorious Basterds, I’d been pleasantly surprised by how adroitly Tarantino had managed to navigate the potential mine fields lying just under the surface of that film. Inglorious was a homage to several genres (including WWII films, holocaust films, and revenge films), and it was leavened with enough sharp humor and intelligence to make it thoroughly entertaining. The characters were boldly drawn but not quite cartoonish; the suspenseful scenes were genuinely suspenseful; and the genres were respected enough to draw you in. The same could probably be said for almost all of Tarantino’s previous films, but, sadly, not for poor Django.
From the very first scene, with its ridiculous soundtrack, Tarantino loudly announces that rather than paying homage to spaghetti westerns, slavery films, and revenge films (again), Django will be a relentless parody of those genres – a parody that is so self-conscious, it holds you at arm’s length; a parody with humor that is so broad and obvious that it careens wildly but quite narrowly between a pale imitation of a Mel Brooks comedy and a trying-way-too-hard Saturday Night Live sketch. Perhaps even worse, Inglorious at least had a convincing villain in Christoph Waltz’s Nazi character. Here, the main antagonist is merely Leonardo DiCaprio’s plantation-owning Calvin Candie, and you never believe for a moment that our heroes – Jamie Foxx’s Django and Waltz’s dentist-cum-bounty-hunter – are in any real danger from him. The one scene that rises to the level of Inglorious Basterds is a brief tête-a-tête between Candie and his head house-slave Stephen (played, admittedly, with brilliant irony by Samuel L. Jackson), in which it’s made clear who is really the boss of this house. But apart from that scene and a few other scattered moments, Django Unchained has almost nothing of interest – and certainly nothing remotely original – to say.
The weakness of the film lies, I think, at its very core: the script. The actors do the best they can with the roles they must play and the lines they must say; and on a technical level, Tarantino’s direction seems adequate to his limited goal of presenting nothing but a parody, not only only of the genres that concern him, but of his own style. But when an “auteur” director starts parodying his own already-broad style, you can be sure he’s reached the end of his rope (think of Hitchcock’s Family Plot). In a recent interview with Terry Gross – in which she uncharacteristically allowed her own disdain for the film to (faintly) shine through – Tarantino reiterated that Django Unchained may well be his last film. I think he’s a smart enough film critic to realize that if he’d had any doubts before that he’d run out of gas, Django Unchained proves it. Gross almost begged him not to stop making films, because she desperately wanted to see if his sensibility would change (say, by the age of sixty). Ouch.
Spike was right: viewing fictitious representations of 19th-century American slavery is worthwhile only if it teaches you something you didn’t already know, either about that institution or about oneself. But to use such images merely for entertainment or for the purpose of parody (particularly self-parody) only magnifies their obscenity. Attempting to excuse such a project by wrapping it in a revenge fantasy is as unconvincing here as it has been in porn films that salaciously portray rape and then attempt (or pretend) to excuse the use of that imagery by allowing the victim some violent revenge. I think that, at some point in the making of the film, Tarantino knew this himself, but perhaps by then both he and his producers were in too deep to live to die another day.
Late in the film, Tarantino, in a cameo role, literally blows himself up onscreen. That self-referential moment suggests that, at some level of awareness, he knows exactly what Django Unchained should (but probably won’t) mean for his career. However, I’m not only with Spike on this particular film, I’m also with Terry. I hope that Tarantino will keep making movies into his later years. But I also hope that his sensibility will mature.