Anthony Stokes on how 12 Years a Slave succeeded where Django Unchained failed…
As I was walking out of 12 Years a Slave I noticed a majority of the audience stayed back and watched the credits. Apart from during a Marvel movie I’ve only seen this happen a few times – Black Swan, The Social Network and Fruitvale Station. To me it means that a movie has impacted an audience so emotionally they need a moment to collect themselves, in the case of Fruitvale or Black Swan, or a movie is so well made you want to just sit and appreciate every person that contributed to this wonderful experience, The Social Network for example. 12 Years a Slave seemed to have accomplished both, being equally emotionally devastating and also an incredibly well-made film. This is the sort of thing I would show film students as an example of how to make a movie due to it being great on every technical level. The crack of the whip sounded like gunshots and even a simple close up shot of a ferry took my breath away by how gorgeous it was. This is what the medium was created for.
Another slave movie came out last year which everybody seemed to fall head over heels in love with. Django Unchained, one of my most anticipated movies of last year, which managed to disappoint in some ways, but still ended up on my Blu-ray shelf. I have a strange love/hate relationship with Django Unchained, much like I do with its director Quentin Tarantino. Do I think he’s talented? Yes, his dialogue and his ability to work with actors is rarely challenged. Do I think he’s god’s gift to cinema? No. And that also sums up how I feel about Django. I’ve always said Tarantino is able to take popcorn movies which function as high art. This for me was more of a popcorn movie. And as a popcorn movie it’s pretty fun, with some funny lines, good action, etc. As a thought provoking story about the cruelty of slavery it falls right onto its face.
First off let’s talk about what both movies are about. Django Unchained is a buddy spaghetti western with a message. That message being “slavery was bad”. That good ol’ Tarantino, always pushing boundaries and so avant-garde. Unfair jab aside, when you get down to it Django Unchained isn’t about slavery. Slavery is just a backdrop for Tarantino to do what he does best. Remake his entire career and put it into one movie. And once again, as a fun buddy western that borderlines on a comedy it works. Then again, should a movie about slavery be fun? Should there be physical comedy in a slave movie?
12 Years a Slave doesn’t really have a message, it’s more of a procedural look into what it was like to be a slave. There’s no lofty message or underlying themes. Steve McQueen has no agenda with this movie. He simply wanted to tell this tragic story about a man whose freedom was robbed from him for 12 years. And by objectively showing what happened it makes it that much colder, and there’s no allegories to shove down the viewer’s throat, freeing up more time for character development.
If we do a direct comparison between Solomon Northup and Django Freeman immediately Northup stands out as the better character, and the better performance. And Jamie Foxx is not to blame. Tarantino writes Django as not very proactive, and offers Jamie Foxx virtually nothing to do, letting the more charismatic Christopher Waltz suck up all the scenery. And like most Tarantino characters Django is a pretty static character – the only change in him coming from better gunplay skills. Chiwetel Ejiofor gives a better performance because he’s actually allowed to act and is more vulnerable. The camera hangs on his face so long as we see the humanity and hope slowly crawl away from him. Even Northup’s motivation is better; in Django, Broomhilda is given no personality or anything to make her stand out. Giving her more personality would’ve made her suffering more tragic, but instead she’s just a damsel in distress. Put her next to Patsy, a slave owned by Edwin Epps played by Michael Fassbender, and she seems even more stiff and bland. Patsy actually has personality so we relate to her better as an audience and her beatings feel that much more painful.
When Leonardo DiCaprio didn’t get a nomination this year for Best Supporting Actor I wasn’t surprised, mainly because the character of Calvin Candie wasn’t written very well. He had great dialogue that was delivered extremely well by Leo, but overall the character is pretty weak. He’s not smart, he’s not threatening, and when you get down to it he’s not even that bad of a slave owner. He seems to treat his slaves like human beings, at least from what’s shown. Granted, he makes Mandingo fighters brawl to the death and doesn’t stop a slave from being ripped apart by dogs, but other then that his slaves seem to be doing all right (well that’s relative of course, because they’re still slaves). Candie even offers his Mandingo fighter a beer for winning his fight. Even when he discovers Django and Schultz’s scheme, he was still being pretty reasonable. He doesn’t seem to dismiss Django until he starts to get confrontational with him. And his story arc after an hour of build up with monologues, gesturing, and scenery chewing, simply fizzles out. His characterization is very murky especially in the context of slavery days. If this character existed in modern times he’d be despicable, but since we already assume this is how slave owners are it seems kind of redundant.
Michael Fassbender as Edwin Epps does a much better job, because unlike Calvin Candie, Fassbender is threatening in the role. Primarily because he has better material to work with and that Epps is psychotic. Even by slave owner standards this guy is crazy. Other slave owners refer to him as “the nigger breaker”. And he’s not a cartoon character either, his actions are cruel and inhumane but they seem realistic. He doesn’t excessively use the n-word every other word to be scary. And although he doesn’t show an crumb of kindness he has moments of being calm or rational – very brief moments that are often more scary then when he’s going off. To give an example, he keeps a log of how many pounds of cotton each slave picks a day, and if you make lower then the last day then you get a beating. This works for me because it works within real world mechanics and it’s an effective system as opposed to just randomly beating a slave which would seem manipulative.
The big decider for me was the use of the “n-word”. Now, it works better in 12 Years a Slave for me and not for the reason you might think. I might be the only person in the film commentary industry who doesn’t give Tarantino a pass to say the n-word… as many times as he wants. In Pulp Fiction when he used it I thought it was funny and non-gratitious and even in Jackie Brown in the context of the story it fit. But in Death Proof I felt like that’s when he went overboard. He took a mile off the inch every one gave him. Django Unchained is even worse. You can feel Tarantino getting giddy about being able to use the word repeatedily without consequence. Once again, I have no problem with him using it when necessary, but it felt like every other word at points. And people say “only Tarantino could get away with this” and I disagree. He’s the only filmmaker who shouldn’t be allowed to use it so much because of his previous history of having a fetish for writing it in his movies. At the point where the word “nigger” started to become a punchline or used for comedic purposes is when it really turned me off. When 12 Years a Slave uses the “n-word” it stands out and you feel it. It has emotional weight.
I would argue also that Django Unchained is wildly uneven and bounces back and forth between moments of cruelty and slapstick broad humor so much that it’s jarring. With a matter as serious as slavery you should have more respect. Inglourious Basterds didn’t having overly broad comedy or stop to have a message about how bad the Holocaust was. Its scenes of brutality were integrated into the story seamlessly. We know the Holocaust was bad there’s no reason to have a scene pointing this out at length. Also, while making fun of Hitler it also showed Nazis in a decent light, not painting them all with one brush. That’s not really the case with Django Unchained. I could do either obvious physcial humor or grotesque scenes of violence, but not both in such close proximity to each other.
Ultimately Django Unchained doesn’t take itself seriously so neither will I. There wasn’t an ounce of emotional poignancy or even any empathy really. I feel like had you taken Tarantino’s name off this project and put a different filmmaker’s name on, it wouldn’t have half the accolades it does now. And if it were directed by Spike Lee, it wouldn’t even have seen theatres. 12 Years a Slave has emotional weight to spare and will leave you emotionally devastated. Which is what a movie about something as cruel as slavery should do. In no context should you walk out of a movie about slavery and refer to it as ” fun” or “funny”. So if you want a goofy movie about slavery written by a guy going through arrested development then Django it is. 12 Years a Slave is the real deal and I suggest every fan of film rush out and see it as soon as possible.
Anthony Stokes is a blogger and independent filmmaker.