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Slavery gets a shoot 'em up makeover

NO MAN’S SLAVE: Jamie Foxx stars as Django

SPIKE LEE slammed it, Quentin Tarantino (the film's director) defended it, but after watching Django Unchained for myself, I just didn't know how to call it.

Ordinarily, I'd love the idea of the black man playing the hero; rising up against his racist oppressors to find fulfillment. And essentially, this film is just that. 

But while Django Unchained is a fictional tale, it's set in the 1800s in the American South, with the all too real atrocities of slavery serving as the backdrop. Oh, and it's also a Western. 

As such, Tarantino's tale of a former slave teaming up with a German bounty hunter to become a horse-riding, gun-toting, tough guy – who talks back to white folks and even finds himself at the other end of the whip, lashing the white slave masters who once whipped his wife – is pretty hard to believe. 

At the start of the film, Django (Jamie Foxx) is a slave. But his fate soon takes a dramatic change when Dr Shultz (Christoph Waltz), a German-born former dentist turned bounty hunter, rides into town to accost Django's owners. 

Shultz is on the trail of the murderous Brittle brothers – Django's one-time owners – and only Django can lead Shultz to his bounty. In need of Django's help, Shultz purchases him from his owners and promises to free him if he helps him find the Brittle brothers.

After a successful hunt, the pair's partnership should end there. But that would have made for a very short film. (Incidentally, the movie is two hours, 40 minutes long). So instead, Schultz offers Django the chance to continue travelling with him as a full-time bounty hunter. Inevitably, Django accepts and under Schultz's guidance, he becomes a pro with a pistol – and so a dynamic duo is created.

With this unlikely friendship formed, Django soon reveals to Schultz that his ultimate mission is to find his beloved wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), who he became separated from when the couple were cruelly sold to different owners. 


SLAVES TO CANDIE: Samuel L. Jackson and Kerry Washington

Schultz is moved by Django's tale, particularly when he learns that Broomhilda is able to speak the language of his homeland, having been taught it by her German owners. And so, the pair embarked on a new quest: to find and free Broomhilda. 

The search leads them to Candieland; the notorious plantation owned by Calvin Candie (convincingly portrayed by Leonardo DiCaprio). Here, we meet Candie's loyal and trusted house slave, Stephen – played brilliantly, but surprisingly, by Samuel L. Jackson. 

Best known for playing badass characters like henchman Jules in Pulp Fiction and super cool police detective John Shaft in the hit blaxploitation flick Shaft, it's quite a shock that Jackson would choose to play an 'Uncle Tom'. 

It's stomach-churning how Stephen sucks up to his boss and takes pride in ordering around the lower-ranking slaves; freely calling them 'n*****s', despite possessing the same black skin as those he rules over. Still, it must be said Jackson's portrayal is chilling. 

Without giving away the entire film, Django and Schultz's encounter with Candie culminates in a bloody and brutal shoot-out – and herein lies my main issue.

Sharing the concern of Spike Lee – who took to Twitter to condemn the film, saying "American slavery was not a Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western. It was a holocaust." – I too felt uneasy about a slavery tale being depicted as a shoot 'em up Western. Of course, it's common for film directors to take inspiration from real life events and use their creative licence to produce works of fiction, in any genre. But with the issue at hand being slavery, I couldn't help but wonder if it was in bad taste to dramatise it in this way. 


DANGEROUS DUO: Dr Shultz played by Christoph Waltz and Jamie Foxx

It felt, at times, as though the film made light of this horrific episode in America's history, by aligning it with dramatic gunfire action, like something straight out of the Wild West. 

And despite Tarantino's attempt to justify the violence in his film – "However bad things get in the movie, a lot worse s*** actually happened [during slavery]," the director recently stated – I still felt uncomfortable with this dramatisation of the slave trade. 

It did occur to me whether I was being unnecessarily indignant; using my 'right' as a black person to be offended by this take on slavery, because it's not the heart-wrenching tale of human injustice usually associated with this abhorrent chapter in American history. And with parts of the film even providing moments of comedy, that indignant part of me felt it was wrong for a slavery-inspired movie to provide moments to laugh at. After all, slavery is no laughing matter. 

And yet, I admit, I did chuckle a couple of times, most notably during a scene where a group of idiotic Ku Klux Klan members halted one of their racist missions to discuss the impracticality of their infamous white hoods. With the horse-riding group admitting they couldn't see where they were going whilst wearing them, they tried unsuccessfully to make the eye holes bigger, then argued amongst themselves about whether or not they should wear them, before one Klan member rode off in anger, insisting his fellow members were ungrateful as his wife had spent all day making the head-gear for them.

The sheer stupidity of the men was truly laughable – and I did laugh. 

Then there's the issue of our hero Django (pronounced 'Jango' – "The 'D' is silent," our protagonist states on more than one occasion.) Though it seems implausible that a black man and a white man would work together as business partners during slavery, or that a slave, albeit a freed slave, would dare to unleash Django's level of cocky swagger in front of white folks, it was refreshing to see a slave depicted as something other than a downtrodden simpleton. On the contrary, Django is bold and strong. 

Upon gaining freedom and quickly learning the business of bounty hunting; he is able to exact revenge on his former owners; and, like a true valiant hero, rides into town on a horse (thankfully, Tarantino stopped short of making it a fairytale-like white horse) to rescue his damsel in distress. Yes, it's wildly unrealistic, but when a black man gets to play the hero, doesn't that compensate for a lack of historical accuracy? 

Honestly, I remain unsure. Part of me feels that filmmakers depicting slavery should always treat it seriously and accurately. (I mean what's next, slavery-inspired rom-coms?) But another part of me wonders if it's more inspiring to see our ancestors portrayed not as submissive sub-humans, but as victors. 

As such, Django Unchained has left me perplexed - an inspiring work of fiction or a tasteless depiction of a horrific chapter of history? For me, the jury's still out. 

Django Unchained is in cinemas today (Jan 18) through Sony Pictures. Tell us what you think of the film. Email: davina.hamilton@gvmedia.co.uk

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