By Alexander Wood
Wind-swept plains are framed by outcroppings of sculpted rock as the screen is filled with the march of slave traders and their captives. Classic Tarantino music fills the screen, adding a vintage feel to the film, a sure indicator of the beautiful carnage, razor sharp dialogue and the no-holds-bar historical tale that is to follow. Not every filmmaker can successfully push the boundaries of filmmaking while rewriting elements of history to favor a disenfranchised slave; thankfully, Tarantino is able to do so.
The film’s visual esthetic is a fitting addition to the director’s body of work, incorporating the stunning use of classic framing that makes the viewer feel at home in the vibrant westerns of the days of old. However, this is not a classic western, as Tarantino’s film explodes into a bloody epic-narrative that defies viewer’s expectations. There is nothing subtle about how the film deals with the horrors of slavery—it enters this dialogue with full force, weaving humour and horror together to create a narrative that you won’t forget.
Tarantino often uses intimate close-ups, focusing on the visceral details of a particular moment to connect with the viewer. The scene where Dr. King Schultz (Chistoph Waltz) is pouring Django (Jamie Foxx) and himself a drink, focuses on intimate actions of setting up the glasses and pouring, which is a prime example of intimacy created through detail. This particular moment is mirrored by a scene in ‘Inglorious Basterds’, where Col. Hans Landa is feeding Shosanna Dreyfus (Melanie Laurent) dessert in a Parisian café. Scenes like this set the tone for the audience by denoting the visceral film watching experience that is to follow; one which is marinated in blood and humour.
At points in the film Django is adorned in bright blue attire, visually setting him apart from the environment and elevating the idea of ‘colour’. Watching as a bright blue cowboy rides onto a plantation, rap music playing in the background, it is evident that the film is blurring the lines between time periods, presenting the modern alongside the historic. By using this technique, Tarantino is able to revision history and place a dynamic black hero into the forefront of an era ripe with slavery. This re-visioning is also seen in ‘Inglorious Basterds’, where Hitler dies before the end of the Second World War. By rewriting history anything becomes possible, allowing a strong black protagonist to seek reparations from his captors prior to the abolishment of slavery.
Accompanying this disruption of history is the gratuitous use of controversial language, which in the past has been used to insight hate, but in more modern terms, it has been reclaimed by many groups and artists. The n-word is used to such excess in the film that it becomes normalised, which is a fitting portrayal for the time period. Additionally, by using this vernacular to such excess it levels the word, disrupting some of the power it holds. In rap music, which is featured numerous times in the film, the used of the n-word can be linked with the process of reclaiming a language which was predominantly use by white oppressors. By taking the language and using it, it acts to disrupt the oppressive power of the word, reclaiming and redefining it. Considering Tarantino’s use of rap music and gratuitous use of the n-word, he is clearly pointing a spotlight on a unique period of history that still influences modern society.
With this use of heavy rhetoric, Tarantino also links humour with the disruption of racism and all that comes with it. In one scene, a gang of hooded men, who are future clan members, discuss the quality of eye holes in their white hoods. This argument continues on screen for a few minutes, driving home the absurdity of such a dialogue, while linking it with those who are about to commit a hate crime. The scene is hilarious, and Tarantino wants the audience to laugh at the insane elements of western collective history. The leveling humour however, is replaced by the use of violence that reminds the viewer that although the film is funny; it is also steeped in the horrors of the past.
Tarantino is known for hyper-violence and includes scenes that are so gruesome that they are almost a caricature of reality. This use of violence can be seen in ‘Kill Bill’ and ‘Inglorious Basterds’, and is a staple of Tarantino’s filmmaking. In the final scene of the film, Lara Lee Candie-Fitzwilly (Laura Cayouette) is blown into another room in the most dramatic of fashion, informing the director’s unique style of capturing violence that won’t alienate most viewers. That being said, there are scenes in the film that push the comfort level of the audience, particularly the flashback of a man being attacked by dogs. The level of violence in the initial scene, prior to the flashback, is not as graphic as it is in the mind Dr. King Schultz who did nothing to end it. The use of this technique calls into question the vividness of remembering the violence of slavery—having done little to stop it. Tarantino is extremely intelligent in his use of filmic technique as it mirrors the western experience of slavery; watching the events transpire without stopping them.
The quality of the filmmaking stands alone by integrating scrolling side screen shots, slow-motion sequences and the use of typography. Although many people have criticised the film for being exploitive, there are too many references to critical arguments in relation to slavery and post-colonial theory for the film to be a one dimensional and profiteering take on slavery.
Tarantino has entered into a controversial subject matter, as he often does, and manages to create a film that is entertaining and simultaneously challenges the viewer. Blending horror, humour and history is no easy task, yet Tarantino enters this territory with a visceral sensitivity that allows him to retain his unique style while bringing important questions to the table. The film is a historic, satiric, and violent perspective of an unforgettable time in human history; one which few other filmmakers have the wherewithal to tackle.