Jonathan Romney on Django Unchained: It's good, then it's bad. Well, it is Tarantino

3.00

Never mind the Western, or black experience – this tale is all about how white people love to talk

You know you've started a controversy – a proper old-fashioned Straw Dogs-y hoo-hah – when your film is attacked by people who refuse to see it. That's the case with Quentin Tarantino's slavery-themed Western Django Unchained, which Spike Lee has boycotted on the grounds that it's disrespectful to black American history. But the other, more familiar controversy surrounding Django concerns its violence – a subject Tarantino seems to be weary of after all these years. Raise the topic with him, as Krishnan Guru-Murthy did on Channel 4, and you risk "getting your butt shut down" – to use a now-popular Quentinism. Few people – interviewers, producers or editors – have ever managed to shut down Tarantino's verbally effusive butt, and arguably the most excessive element of Django is neither the graphic depiction of slavery's abuses nor the copious bloodshed, but the endless blather.

Django Unchained is set two years before the Civil War, and its gunslinging hero is a freed black slave. But Django is less about American slavery than about the intersection of three movie genres: the spaghetti Western (notably Sergio Corbucci's Django, whose star Franco Nero has a cameo here); Seventies blaxploitation; and a somewhat disreputable cycle depicting slavery in a trashily erotic manner, eg 1975's Mandingo.

Tarantino's story begins with Django (Jamie Foxx), a slave on a chain gang, encountering a German dentist, Dr King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). Schultz is really a bounty hunter who wants Django's help in tracking down two bandits turned plantation overseers. In return, the affable Schultz proposes to school Django in his murderous trade. Cue the shamelessly anachronistic line: "Kill white folks and they pay you for it? What's not to like?"

Typically for Tarantino, Django is less an organic narrative than a series of routines, yoked together by a spurious mythic spin. Django's determination to free his beloved Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) leads Schultz to compare him to the Germanic hero Siegfried (has Tarantino been listening to Wagner, or just reading Hollywood's favorite dog-eared myth manual, The Hero With a Thousand Faces?).

The routines pile up, variously thrilling, beautifully executed and downright larky. Proto-KKK thugs complain that they can't see through their hoods. Django strides into action wearing ludicrous blue livery à la Lord Fauntleroy. A nerve-racking sequence focuses on a horrific slave-on-slave fight laid on to amuse poisonous fop Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio, silkily odious). And Robert Richardson photographs some magnificent scenery, from a rocky red desert to a wintry elk-filled prairie.

What really stops the show is Samuel L Jackson's outrageous turn as Stephen, Candie's ancient butler. It's Tarantino's most provocative move to create this nightmare Uncle Tom, an enthusiastic race traitor, and to play him for comedy. And it's a perverse, unsettling stroke to have this servile stereotype played, doddery whine and all, by the actor who in Pulp Fiction defined the contemporary cinematic icon of the Mean Mutha (another stereotype, but one whose chic tickled black and white viewers alike). It further twists the joke – and, you might argue, makes it acceptable – to reveal Stephen as not really subordinate, but the true power on Candie's estate. Many people will relish the joke – although I wonder how we'd have felt if Tarantino's war story Inglourious Basterds had included, among its comic-strip Nazis, an anti-Semitic Jew. This is not a frivolous comparison, given Tarantino's remark that he's out to depict "the Auschwitzian aspects of the slave trade in America".

Then there's the talk, as fountainous as ever. Tarantino's use of the word "nigger" is exorbitant even for him (Variety counted 109 instances), although given the antebellum setting, historical verisimilitude is on his side. But what's striking throughout is who does all the talking. At the start, Schultz mesmerisingly gabs through a scene leading to his dispatch of Django's oppressors. Then, with 100 rifles pointed at him, Schultz stakes all on his ability to disarm enemies with a silver tongue and the promise of gold (which suggests that he's a film-maker at heart: these two weapons are traditionally as effective in Hollywood as they are in Deadwood).

But while Schultz's rhetoric leads the action, Django himself is part action, part image, precious little language. Tarantino has claimed that he wanted "to give black American males a Western hero" – for which African Americans may well thank him, if they've forgotten roles played in the Seventies by Fred Williamson. But just as it apparently takes a white movie nerd to make a black screen hero these days, so Django himself is the creation of the urbane European who talks him into being.

It's only later that Django uses the linguistic wiles he's learnt. Till then, he's a man without a voice, oddly childlike. Among the film's black characters, only Stephen is granted any real discourse, while Broomhilda is pure apparition, a dream damsel glimmering tenderly at Django in his visions of reunion.

As usual with Tarantino, Django has style and invention aplenty, and as usual, some of it drags, doggedly reluctant to cut to the chase. But like Django in his blue velvet, the movie is a case of Tarantino dressing up in genre clothes, rather than getting inside the skin of the Western, as the Coens brilliantly did in True Grit. As for a righteous drama about avenging the injustices of slavery? More than any real engagement with the black experience, Django is about how white people love to talk, and how, once they start, their butts cannot be shut down.

Arts and Entertainment
Word master: Self holds up a copy of his novel ‘Umbrella’
books
Arts and Entertainment
Hare’s a riddle: Kit Williams with the treasure linked to Masquerade
books
Arts and Entertainment
The man with the golden run: Daniel Craig as James Bond in 'Skyfall'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Waving Seal' by Luke Wilkinson was Highly Commended in the Portraits category

photography
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Art
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard, nicknamed by the press as 'Dirty Diana'

Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
The X Factor 2014 judges: Simon Cowell, Cheryl Cole, Mel B and Louis Walsh

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace was caught by a camera van driving 32mph over the speed limit

TV
Arts and Entertainment
books
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Iain reacts to his GBBO disaster

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Outlaw Pete is based on an eight-minute ballad from Springsteen’s 2009 Working on a Dream album

books
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012

film
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

    US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
    Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
    Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
    Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
    Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

    Neil Lawson Baker interview

    ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering