Fans of Django Unchained couldn’t help but be a little disappointed by yesterday’s Academy Award nominations.
While the movie did bring home nods for best picture and screenplay, its director, Quentin Tarantino, was snubbed, as were the two actors who gave arguably the bravest and most memorable performances in the film: Leonardo DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson.
Previous Oscar winner Christoph Waltz was nominated for his performance as the anti-slavery bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz, and while the recognition is definitely deserved (he’s brilliant in the movie), it’s also fair to say that his part is the film’s safest.
Schultz, while imperfect, is a tonic for white liberal guilt in a movie filled with repulsive white characters. His relatively modern worldview is contrasted with the rogue’s gallery of whites Django and the other black characters encounter and it’s possible that his part was simply easier to embrace for the Oscar voters.
On the other hand, DiCaprio, in a move that could have destroyed his status as a popular A-list movie star, delves into the role of an unrepentant slave owner with relish, turning in one of the most unforgettable and vivid performances of the year.
As the pretentious and preening Calvin Candie, DiCaprio reminds us just how far he’s come since his Titanic heartthrob days. He uses the n-word as if it were punctuation and is a fervent believer in the racist pseudo-science of Phrenology.
“He’s the most deplorable human being I’ve ever read in a screenplay in my life,” DiCaprio said during a Today Show interview. “He was rotting from the inside. He was, you know, a young Louis the XIV that had been brought into a world of entitlement and lived his life … essentially owning other people.”
DiCaprio has admitted to being reticent to utter the racial slurs required of the film’s script.
“It was Sam Jackson and Jamie Foxx that said, ‘You really have to go all the way with this man,’” he said.
It is a brave performance, the kind of work that should get the Academy’s attention, and many Oscar prognosticators predicted he’d be nominated — but alas, he came up short. Then again, DiCaprio has a history of being snubbed by the venerable awards show.
The same can be said of Samuel L. Jackson, who despite a remarkable career, in which he’s starred in hundreds of films and become the most profitable actor of all time, has only netted one measly Oscar nomination (for his star-making role in Pulp Fiction).
Jackson has been an extraordinary presence in films both serious and silly, but he has never attempted anything like his role as a self-hating house slave in Django.
Although his screen-time is limited to the film’s denouement, most audiences leave the theater buzzing about his profane and disturbing performance as Stephen, Candie’s most dedicated servant.
In this role Jackson not only gives one of his richest characterization in years, but he also subverts his proud, unapologetic real life persona in an intriguing and provocative way.
“I read the script and thought this was great. I could be as evil as I want to be and be the most hated Negro in cinematic history. I was there!” Jackson said an interview Essence last December.
While Oscars are never officially given because a performer is “due,” we all know they are.
For instance, while Denzel Washington’s performance in Training Day was a classic, even his biggest fan would admit the role he should have won for was 1992′s Malcolm X.
In Jackson’s case, there have been numerous times that he has been wronged by Oscar. Here is a performance that was timely and worthy.
Still, despite strong box office and nearly universal critical acclaim, Django Unchained remains a controversial film and the Oscar voters have historically been an older, more conservative contingent of the Hollywood community.
Before the film even opened it was heavily criticized for its ubiquitous use of the n-word. Since its release it has been called a “spoof” of slavery by talk show host Tavis Smiley and sparked debate about its historical accuracy, commercial tie-ins and violent content.
The Oscars are political, like pretty much everything else, and it stands to reason that Hollywood just didn’t want to reward portrayals of a vicious plantation owner and his most trusted black emissary, no matter how well they were rendered.
Follow Adam Howard on Twitter at @at_howard