It'd be difficult to find a bigger Quentin Tarantino fanboy than I am. It's a little embarrassing, actually; I was one of those nerds posting on alt.fans.tarantino dorkboards the year Justin Bieber was born. (The fact that Google archives Usenet forums from 20 years ago is just cruel.) I think Jackie Brown is brilliant, his segment in Four Rooms is vastly underrated (he's not even that bad of an actor in that!), and I've seen Death Proof 10 times. If you look closely, you can see that my review of Inglourious Basterds has an erection. I'm in the tank for the guy. I confess. So know that I come from a place of love when I say, uh, he knows what he does with this Django Unchained business, right? Because after seeing the trailer, I'm suddenly not so sure.
Yes, the trailer is thrilling in the way all Tarantino trailers are thrilling, in that "FUCK YEAHHH!!!!" fanboy-funny-bone way, flicking that same happy section of everybody's cerebral cortex as does the slow-motion shot of the Dogs in their suits walking to "Little Green Bag" or Samuel L. Jackson's "SAY WHAT AGAIN?" or the showdown at the House of Blue Leaves or that jaw-dropping Michael Fassbender tavern scene. Every shot feels iconic immediately, like Tarantino has tapped into a our collective cultural subconscious and pulled out what we precisely what we wanted to see without our ever knowing it. He is so skilled, so singularly Tarantino, that I think he could make a movie about just about anything.
And I'm sure he feels that way, which is why he would imagine something so audacious as Django Unchained. It's another of Tarantino's revenge movies—a theme I think he enjoys more cinematically than emotionally; I doubt Tarantino personally has ever felt the need to avenge anything, to anybody—but I can't help but feel awkward about this subject matter. It is one thing for Beatrix Kiddo to want to kill Bill for slaughtering her husband and his family on their wedding day. It is quite another to have a slave trying to kill his master, in a movie written and directed by a white guy as if it were any other revenge fantasy.
Slavery is a subject that movies— that America, really—has always preferred to just ignore all together; it's still hot. The only times movies have dared touch it have been through the prism of white guys saving black guys for the sake of the Union, from Glory to Amistad, a particularly galling example. (Thank you, Matthew McConaughey, for being such a savior of the negro.) Back in the '70s, we had Mandingo and Drum, clearly the blaxploitation inspirations for Tarantino ... but that was the '70s, and let's not let kitsch value distract us from the fact that those movies are pretty terrible. (Roger Ebert famously called Mandingo "racist trash.")
There might be an opening for a serious film about slavery, the American stain, but does that mean there's an opening for Don Johnson looking like Colonel Sanders? For a trailer whose major takeaways include, "Hey, good, Leonardo DiCaprio is finally loosening up and having fun"? That's pretty flip, isn't it?
Also pretty flip: The animation at the end of the trailer, which features a slave breaking his bonds and the tagline, "Django is OFF THE CHAIN." YEAHHH!!! scream fanboys the world over.
Quentin Tarantino has been accused, most notably by Spike Lee, of using the n-word too much in his films (though not in the last few) and wanting to be "an honorary black man." I was never offended by the n-word in Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown, but I'm a white dork from a farm town. It's worth noting that when people quote Pulp Fiction, no one just blithely quotes "Dead Nigger Storage" like they probably did 10 years ago. One wonders, even, if Tarantino would write the scene like that again today.
Yet buoyed by the audaciousness and the success of Inglourious Basterds—a film that was initially concerning to Jewish audiences but now is so embraced that it's sold in the gift shop of the U.S. Holocaust Museum—he's moved on to slavery as the next taboo subject to puncture and resolve, in his jokey, rib-nudgy way. Countless black filmmakers have been trying to make stories about slavery for decades ... but it's Tarantino who finally gets the budget.
People got upset when Spike Lee threw his famous fit about Norman Jewison's plans to make The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Do you mean to tell me you think Norman Jewison's version of Malcolm X would have been better than Spike Lee's?
I don't want to be the proverbial floating feces in the proverbial beverage container: I'm as excited to see Django Unchained as everybody else. Deep down, I think he might be able to pull it off. Basterds didn't seem like such a good idea before it came out, either.
But there's the animated bond-breaking, the OFF THE CHAIN! tagline, the signature Tarantino-patter—this time containing phrases like "amongst your inventory is a specimen I'm keen to acquire"—the blood spatter landing on fields of cotton, Jamie Foxx shedding the clothes from his whip-scarred back to the tune of James Brown's "The Payback." I just hope he knows what he's doing. Because a lot of people can ask whether he should be doing it at all.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.