'Django Unchained': Upcoming slavery-themed film offers both risks and rewards for Tarantino

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A Spaghetti Western slavery?

Welcome to the twisted and macabre world of director Quentin Tarantino. Django Unchained, his upcoming movie about a runaway slave who teams up with a German bounty-hunter, was screened at the Cannes Film Festival and is poised to grace the big screen later this year.

In keeping with Tarantino’s inimitable fan boy style, the film — which stars Jamie Foxx, Kerry Washington, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson — promises to deliver the director’s characteristic unholy trinity of relentless blood, sex and controversy. Tarantino has reportedly downplayed the slavery theme for years, and in a recent interview Foxx described the movie as an amalgam of Shaft‘s Blaxploitation lore and Clint Eastwood’s early Westerns.

Early reactions to the Django Unchained trailer have bordered on rapturous, carrying with it the possibility of a much-needed revival for Foxx’s stalled big screen career. But it begs the question of whether movie audiences will be receptive to a violent send-up of an emotionally fraught subject — especially one that gets the Tarantino treatment. As controversies surrounding period-pieces like The Help and Amistad have shown, movies about slavery and civil rights are notoriously sensitive topics, particularly when they are made by film makers who aren’t black themselves.

Given Tarantino’s established history and the brutal realities of the slavery era, anyone looking for cultural sensitivity or political correctness may want to look elsewhere (toward epics like Roots or Glory, perhaps). The cinematic oeuvre of the self-professed lover of Spaghetti Westerns is not for the faint of heart, and Django‘s central premise virtually guarantees someone will take offense to the movie’s depiction of blacks, as well as the dynamics of the slave era.

Still, viewers may find a bright side in the expected gallows humor of Django Unchained. Though drenched in gratuitous sex and violence, Tarantino’s movies have shown a certain genius in their casting of black actors in risky and unsung ways. A key Tarantino strength lies in bringing racial and ethnic balance to his cast of characters, even as he delights in tweaking socio-ethnic stereotypes (done to brilliant effect with Vivica A. Fox in Kill Bill: Volume 1), and pushing the boundaries of good taste, as he did with the character of Marcellus Wallace in Pulp Fiction.

Although Foxx stars in the title role, it’s Samuel L. Jackson’s involvement that is likely to draw the most interest of moviegoers. Django reunites Tarantino with his f-bomb dropping muse, who in the hit Pulp Fiction managed to single-handedly elevate an Old Testament scripture from obscurity to cultural touchstone.

The controversial 1997 vehicle Jackie Brown, which gave Pam Grier her first major leading role since the 1970s, gives a hint of what viewers might expect from Django. The movie helped revitalize Grier’s career, but endured sharp criticism for its profligate use of the n-word (which continues to saturate hip-hop and other aspects of black culture). Jackie Brown deftly weaved a compelling plot with a cast of acting veterans — which Tarantino promises to do with his upcoming western.

In actuality, the advance buzz may put Django more on par with Inglorious Basterds, Tarantino’s 2009 blood-soaked, Oscar winning World War II film. The Nazi-hunting tour-de-force fictionalized a touchy subject — the depredations of a madman dictator and ethnic cleansing in Europe and managed to splash it throughout with humor, adventure and plenty of gore.

Django Unchained comes with both substantial risks but rich rewards for those involved in its making. In light of Tarantino’s history and decidedly coarse tastes, potential moviegoers may want to check their sensitivities at the door when the movie is released. Tarantino has shown he’s less concerned about historical accuracy or cultural live-wires, and more focused on using his artistic license to tell a good story while pushing the envelope.