I have a sneaking suspicion that if I dared Quentin Tarantino to run up on a sleeping grizzly bear and slap him and then to return with a tuft of the bear's hair to prove that he had done it, I would lose. In the screenwriting of DJANGO, Tarantino not only slapped the always dangerous subject of fictionalized slavery in cinema but returned with a gem of a movie to prove that he had succeeded. DJANGO in and of itself is not an original approach to making a movie about a slavery and, in particular, a run away slave. Hollywood and film critics alike cite BIRTH OF A NATION as the starting point when documenting the presence of slavery in cinema. But one need not go back that far. Indeed BIRTH enjoys more of a seminal accomplishment in film period; and rightly so. However the 1958 DEFIANT ONES and the more recent AMC television series HELL ON WHEELS about the construction of the legendary Transcontinental Railroad offer evidence of the similarities in plot developments that (in concert with other films referenced herein) suggest more of a enigmatic slave genre than BIRTH. Tarantino's DJANGO relied upon and advanced these similarities.
A critical look at DJANGO in concert with other slave oriented films informs us that there is a formula for making movie about a slave who is positioned as a “leading character”. He has to be made appealing to a broad audience. Thus take one White man TONY CURTIS (THE DEFIANT ONES), CHRISTOPHER WALTZ (DJANGO), ANSON MOUNT (HELL ON WHEELS) and one Black man SIDNEY POITIER, JAMIE FOXX (COMMON) give then a commonality to make them more equal in footing and finally position them to be in a state of flight (on the run). Other like films may deviate but only slightly. Take BUCK AND THE PREACHER (1972) starring Sydney Poitier and one finds demonstrable the same construction. Admittedly in this movie Harry Belefonte (the preacher) along side Poitier's role as “Buck” (a derogatory term in itself derived from slavery) is not a White man. Nonetheless, Belefonte's behavior, which is erratic and unseemly, becomes the basis for another ingredient in this formula: that of the ever present foreigner.
In DJANGO, Christoper Waltz as Dr.King Shultz is a German dentist who liberates Django from a pair of slave traders. His presence serves as a duality- he is both partner and evil foreigner. At this point the reader familiar with THE DEFIANT ONES may ask who was the foreigner there? Often stereotypes in film leave blanks in plots. These black serve like Rorschach inkblot test. As to the DEFIANT..The viewer knows he is watching a prison break film yet he also takes his social prejudices into the theater with him. Prejudices he wishes to challenge. Prison Break films like some slave documentaries are often didactic. When they are the environment is the foreigner. Curtis “Joker” and Poitier “Noah” constantly bait one another. Their relationship mimics our (AMERICAN) society at that time (1950's). This was also a time approaching the civil rights movement. Thus the film couches sympathy for the criminal's life and the negro simultaneously. In DJANGO, Tarantino's success is that he relies on and yet flips this construction. He gives us a fantasy world. Django and Dr Shultz traverse a southern landscape filled with slave holders and a southern social order that would never tolerate some of antic.
A return to BUCK AND THE PREACHER (directed in part by Sydney Poitier) and we have a comic twist brought by “the Preacher” as he is a thief at heart, albeit a reformed one. Yet this film more dramatic like THE DEFIANT ONES is situated to depict an actual era. The era being the post civil war migration of ex-slave from the south moving westward. Buck is a wagon-master (a Sojourner Truth reference) hired to lead the wagon train of ex-slave into the Oklahoma Territories. They are being pursued by a gang (posse) of bounty hunters lead by Deshay (Cameron Mitchell). Deshay's costumed in confederate uniform is an excellent villain. Yet he is no match for Buck. Django references Buck on many levels. Yet again where Buck and The Preacher remains a classic, Django moved the depiction (with more tolerable comic relief) forward. Comic relief without blatant stereotypes.
In Hell On Wheels Cullen Bohannan (Anson Mount) is a former slave holder. But he is made the cinematic-equal to this gang of Freedmen and Elam (Common) his negro rival. This construction relies the comical twist of fate where a former slave owner who kills white men and becomes like an ex-slave. Elam'S constant axE to grid is that he is an ex-slave. He and the others negro workers (often still depicted as one character) are now subjected to the evils of the railroad owner, Durant (Colin Meaney) and the Irish immigrants they work besides. It is this backdrop (the evil of others) that provide a friendly space for Bohannan and Elam to exist and often work in concert to thwart their commonality. One need only return to the irony of Django and Dr. Schultz relationship.
Thanks to Quentin Tarantino's Django the slave genre has been brought before the American pubic and abroad. Other films are already out and one wonders if the writers of HELL ON WHEELS attributes any of their motivation to the success of DJANGO. This writer recalls words uttered by Spike Lee regarding his film MALCOLM X. Spike realized that a Malcolm X deserved a place in cinema. Hence his desire was to make a film on Malcolm X rather than ”the film” on Malcolm X. Spike has made other negative comments about DJANGO UNCHAINED. While those comments are not the concern here, they do touch on the fact that Quentin Tarantino's is a white guy making a movie about slavery. Readers are advised to see Samuel Jackson's (whose role in Django was pivotal yet beyond the purvey of this post) at Playboy.com.
Suffice to say, the reader s advised to collect all the movies referenced herein. A viewing of them in close proximity to one another may give rise to a darn you have to make of Quentin Tarantino. I myself dare not challenge the man. He seems destined to slap a bear anyway.