There’s a good reason why nobody ever wanted to be an Indian whenever we played Cowboys and Indians as kids. That’s because the white man was invariably the hero of the Westerns which we’d seen, while the red man had always been presented as a wild savage dismissed by the dehumanizing declaration that, “The only good Injun is a dead Injun.”
True, a few films, such as Apaches (1973), The Sons of Great Bear (1966) and Chingachgook: The Great Snake (1967), portrayed Native Americans as the good guys and the European settlers as the bad guys. But those productions were few and far between.
Hollywood has also promoted a set of stereotypes when it comes to the depiction of black-white race relations during slavery, with classics like The Birth of the Nation (1915) and Gone with the Wind (1939) setting the tone. Consequently, most movies have by-and-large suggested that docile African Americans were well treated by kindly masters, as long as they remained submissive and knew their place.
However, Quentin Tarantino has put a fresh spin on the genre, similar to what he did in the World War II movie Inglourious Basterds (2009). In Django Unchained, the writer/director rattles the cinematic cage in an irreverent adventure that turns conventional thinking on its head.
Set in the South in 1858, the picture is visually reminiscent of the Spaghetti Westerns popularized in the 60s by Italian director Sergio Leone, replete with big sky panoramas and cartoonish villains who are the embodiment of evil. But, in this movie instead of fighting cattle rustlers, it’s racists who are being slowly tortured or executed.
The movie stars Jamie Foxx in the title role as a slave who was liberated by a German dentist who became a bounty hunter (Christoph Waltz). Dr. Schultz altruistically takes Django on as an apprentice, and teaches him how to ride a horse and handle a gun.
As a bounty hunter who tracks down outlaws who are “Wanted Dead-or-Alive,” the freed slave has many opportunities to exact revenge upon the people who were responsible for torturing him in his former life. The ones who gave him the scars on his back, or the “R” for “Runaway” branded on his cheek, or separated him from his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). The action gets pretty gruesome, as is par for the course for any Tarantino movie.
Excellent (****). Rated R for profanity, nudity, ethnic slurs, and graphic violence. Running time: 165 minutes. Distributor: The Weinstein Company