It is incredibly hard to make a statement about race in our modern society, much less a movie. By now, everyone has hopefully recovered from the post-Obama election illusion that racism is no longer a thing, and realized that in fact race relations are currently weirder than they’ve ever been. As the late comedian Patrice O’Neal often remarked, it’s almost more frustrating to try to determine if someone’s being subtly or unconsciously racist instead of just dealing with it upfront. So processing artistic statements in this racial funhouse mirror of a society can be difficult. I maintain that The Help was one of the better films nominated for the Best Picture Academy Award this year, but my love for it fell off a bit after several conversations with my friends exposed some “white man’s burden” strains running throughout the movie. Oh yeah, and there’s this poster, too.
Luckily, the trailer for Django Unchained makes it clear that we don’t really have to worry about that with Quentin Tarantino. From the moment Christoph Waltz first unholsters his gun and the music starts with a crash, it’s clear that the audience is in for a roller coaster ride rather than nazel-gazing introspection about race in America. Anything that involves the plantation system is by nature controversial, and it seems like Django Unchained was a little too racy for Will Smith’s blood, but Tarantino is treating the whole thing with the same irreverence that he brought to World War II and Hitler in Inglourious Basterds.
Speaking of which, is Django Unchained just going to be Inglorious Basterds with slavery? There do seem to be a couple of similarities: Christoph Waltz in a prominent role, vengeful bastards violently murdering criminals guilty of history’s greatest crimes (this time, plantation owners and KKK members instead of Nazis). But there are also several differences apparent in just this first trailer. Waltz and star Jamie Foxx seem to share more of a buddy cop dynamic than the Basterds (many of whom only had a few lines before dying). Leo DiCaprio’s villainous plantation owner, despite being the owner of Foxx’s wife and thus the object of his unholy vengeance, shows hints of three-dimensionality (Foxx’s wife certainly doesn’t seem ill-treated in the trailer). In addition, it’s hard to imagine Django Unchained producing anything like Inglourious Basterds’s opening scene, a nerve-wracking 20-minute conversation mostly in French that serves as a showcase of Waltz’s virtuosic talent, and there’s no question that shooting people (Django’s murder method of choice) is significantly less grotesque than scalping them.
We live in a world where Fox News anchors accuse The Muppets movie of being socialist propaganda, so there’s no question that Django Unchained will produce “controversy.” But Tarantino’s focus clearly seems to be on his trademark pop violence and whip smart acting, rather than a broad statement on race in America. Which, by the way, is almost impossible to produce these days.