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When Quentin Tarantino announced in 2007, shortly after the critical and commercial disaster of his ambitious double feature Grindhouse, that he intended to direct a spaghetti western this seemed like an obvious choice for such a stylistic and retro filmmaker, having previously dabbled in blaxploitation, kung fu flicks and the lesser known carsploitation. ‘I want to do movies that deal with America’s horrible past with slavery and stuff but do them like spaghetti westerns, not like big issue movies,’ he revealed to the Telegraph. ‘I want to do them like they’re genre films but they deal with everything that America has never dealt with because it’s ashamed of it and other countries don’t really deal with because they don’t feel they have the right to.’
Following the release of Inglourious Basterds, his Second World War picture that followed the sadistic SS Colonel Landa’s hunt for Jewish refugees and the allied forces that fought against his tyranny, Tarantino turned his attention to slavery shortly before the American Civil War in the mid-eighteenth century. Taking his inspiration from such Italian filmmakers as Sergio Leone and Sergio Corbucci, both of whom had forged a successful career in the spaghetti western genre in the 1960s, he developed a story in which a young African American is rescued from slavery by a bounty hunter and makes his way across the country to release his wife from the grips of a dangerous plantation owner.
Django Unchained, released through the Weinstein Company in December 2012, would follow the journey of Django Freeman, a young slave who is taken into the employment of former dentist King Schultz who, now making a living as a bounty hunter, requires the services of the slave in order to identify a group of criminals he has been hired to apprehend. Once their mission is complete Schultz agrees to assist Freeman is the liberation of his wife Broomhilda, who has since become the property of plantation owner Calvin Candie.
Despite his claims there was still those who were critical of his approach to the subject matter, with the most vocal being fellow filmmaker Spike Lee, best known for his acclaimed biopic of civil rights activist Malcolm X. ‘American slavery was not a Sergio Leone spaghetti western,’ he announced via Twitter. It was a holocaust. My ancestors are slaves. Stolen from Africa. I will honour them.’ Lee would later earn accolades for his 2018 film BlacKkKlansman, in which he depicted an event in the 1970s when an African American police officer infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan.
Django Unchained would be split into two halves; one of which would follow Django and his employer as they travel across the Texan frontier before the introduction of Candie and his servant Stephen. While Leonardo DiCaprio’s Candie is often considered the antagonist of the film the true villain is revealed to be Stephen; while Candie is despicable and sadistic he is the product of a family that have inherited the plantation from their ancestors, whereas Stephen – an African America – treats the black slaves with contempt. This becomes most evident with the demise of the two characters, as Candie dies instantly from a single gunshot, whereas Stephen is shot in the leg and slowly watches as the fuse burns down on the dynamite before the Candyland house is blown to pieces.
Stylistically, Django Unchained owes a considerable debt to the spaghetti westerns of the 1960s, a genre of cowboy movies produced by Italian filmmakers that often revelled in graphic violence while their American counterparts would shy away from bloodletting. The most obvious influence was Corbucci’s Django, in which Frank Nero starred as the eponymous drifter who arrives in a small town dragging a coffin behind him and soon falls foul of the local criminals, resulting in the stranger being left for dead and seeking revenge. With Django Freeman sold into slavery following the death of Schultz, he finally manages to break free and hunts down Stephen and the gang to exact bloody vengeance against those who murdered his friend.
Django Unchained may have followed many of the tropes of what one would expect from a Quentin Tarantino film but the inclusion of slavery as a narrative would cause much debate in the media. ‘The best way to illustrate this form of white privilege is to imagine Django Unchained being released as a production from an African American writer and director,’ posed an article by Salon. ‘Under those circumstances, in the media and among white audiences, the film most likely would be perceived not merely as a mass-audience entertainment product with some underlying social commentary by a single director but as a niche political film allegedly from a whole community with an axe to grind.’
Released in the United States on Christmas Day 2012 Django Unchained would become Tarantino’s highest-grossing movie, even surpassing the likes of Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill, while also earning numerous awards that would include BAFTAs, Golden Globes and Academy Awards. ‘Like Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchained is crazily entertaining, brazenly irresponsible and also ethically serious in a way that is entirely consistent with its playfulness,’ declared the New York Times in its review of the picture. ‘When you wipe away the blood and the anarchic humor, what you see in Django Unchained is moral disgust with slavery, instinctive sympathy for the underdog and an affirmation (in the relationship between Django and Schultz) of what used to be called brotherhood.’
Tarantino would return to the western genre three years later with The Hateful Eight which, despite its environment, would ostensibly be a retelling of his debut Reservoir Dogs, in which a group of strangers are trapped together and instantly begin to suspect each other of betrayal. But Django Unchained would remain the superior of the two, both for its willingness to explore serious issues such as slavery but also for its execution. While the filmmaker has since adapted The Hateful Eight into a mini-series for Netflix, despite his prior criticism of the online streaming service, he has also revealed that he has cut a longer version of Django Unchained, which would extend the running time from approximately two hours and forty-five minutes to three hours and fifteen.
‘[There’s] the idea that now you can make a movie and the movie is the movie and the movie has all the limitations that the movie has that a novel doesn’t have, that’s the way it is,’ explains Tarantino in a new interview with/Film. ‘But the idea that after that…you could have a fuller version come out, after the fact, that’s kind of exciting. That’s kind of interesting. Now, in the case of Kill Bill the Whole Bloody Affair, Kill Bill is the one movie I’ve made where everything I shot is in the movie because we had two movies.’ Tarantino has delivered a director’s cut once before, with his contribution to Grindhouse – Death Proof – later being released as a standalone film and its running time extended by almost half an hour, similar to that of the proposed new cut of his 2012 western.
‘But for instance, take Django [Unchained], I’ve actually cut a director’s cut of Django,’ he continues. ‘That’s about like three hours and fifteen minutes, or three hours and twenty minutes, something like that. That’s one I wouldn’t do as a miniseries because it would just be better [as a movie]. I thought about that idea but that would just work better as one movie. Just a longer one as far as I was concerned. So I’ve actually done that. We’re just kind of waiting some time after Once Upon A Time in Hollywood and we’ll release that eventually.’