Movie Homework: What to Watch Before 'Django Unchained'

Movie Homework: What to Watch Before 'Django Unchained'

Dec 24, 2012

Half of the joy in watching a Quentin Tarantino film is searching every frame for some kind of reference or callback to cinematic history. As distinct as Tarantino's voice is, he's not shy about paying homage to his influnences and he's certainly not afraid to riff on subjects or themes from his favorite movies. In fact, here's the meta-game you can play next time you pop Inglourious Basterds or Pulp Fiction in your Blu-ray player for the nth time: what would you include if you had to build a movie marathon around this film?

You'll definitely be playing this game with his new film, the incredible Django Unchained, but why wait until after the film to pair it with something else? Here are a few suggestions for what to watch at home before you venture to your local cinema. Some of these films feel like direct inspirations for Django Unchained, and others simply make for an interesting combination of style, theme and tone. In any case, you're in for an irreverent double feature or two.

 

Django (1966)

Let's start with the obvious, shall we? When Quentin Tarantino set out to make a World War II epic, he borrowed/stole the title of an obscure, trashy Italian action movie called The Inglorious Bastards. For his Western epic, he borrowed/stole the title of an obscure, trashy Italian spaghetti Western called Django. The film follows the title character, a mysterious gunfighter who stashes his arsenal in a coffin as he embarks on an incredibly violent quest for revenge against the man who killed his wife. Outside of the name and the burning desire to blow the brains out of the men who did them wrong, Jamie Foxx's Django and Django Classic have little in common, but both films feature outrageous violence and a delightfully grim ugliness that is rarely found outside of 1960s and 1970s schlock.

 

The Man with No Name Trilogy (1964-1966)

Although Tarantino's love of trashy Westerns is evident in Django Unchained, the film is also grand, operatic and beautiful, frequently emerging from the grime to become something powerful and surreal, much like Sergio Leone's Man with No Name trilogy. There are few spaghetti Westerns as well known as A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, and for good reason -- Leone's loosely connected series is a masterpiece, with the third film being one of the greatest Westerns ever made. Clint Eastwood's unnamed antihero (who is truly the quintessential Western gunslinger) can clearly be seen in Foxx's quiety ruthless Django and the film's heightened universe doesn't just inform Django Unchained, but all of Tarantino's filmography.

 

Mandingo (1975)

In Django Unchained, Leonardo DiCaprio plays a disgusting plantation owner who has a taste in "mandingo fighting," where two slaves fight to the death for the entertainment of a white (obviously) audience. A Google search for the term "mandingo" won't bring up too many historical facts, but it will bring up the 1975 film Mandingo, a production that Tarantino himself heralded (alongside Showgirls) as one of the very few big-budget, studio-funded exploitation movies. Did slave owners in the 1800s force their slaves to fight to the death for sport? Very possibly and most likely. Was it called "mandingo fighting?" Nah. Tarantino saw it in a trashy movie and slid it right into his own film, where it's treated as historical fact. Irresponsible? A bit, but this is Quentin Tarantino we're talking about. What is his body of work if not irresponsible? Like the original Django, the DNA of Mandingo lurks about in Django Unchained, impossibly mutated but clear as day to those in the know.

 

Blazing Saddles (1974)

Despite its consistently grim subject matter, Django Unchained is frequently hilarious, finding huge laughs in the darkest corners of American history. However, it's far from the first film to tackle the subject of race through humor and it's definitely not the first to do it in the Western genre. Mel Brooks' Blazing Saddles is probably the most widely seen film on this list and for good reason: it's one of the funniest movies ever made. Nearly 40 years after release, it remains a brave and hilarious comedy that's entirely unafraid to treat racists like the human jokes they are.

Django Unchained takes the anger of an entire race of people and gives the audience catharsis through brutal action -- Blazing Saddles does it with laughter. Although it has plenty of broad jokes, there's a simmering anger at the heart of Blazing Saddles that elevates it into one of the most important comedies ever made. It's not surprising that Richard Pryor worked on the screenplay.

 

Boss (1975)

That title is what you'll find on the DVD case, but it's not what you'll see in the opening credits and it's not what you'll see on the IMDb page. The actual title is far more politically incorrect (and the trailer below is very NSFW). There's no way Quentin Tarantino didn't see this movie and there's no way it didn't, in some way, inform Django Unchained. In the broad strokes, the film sounds identical to Blazing Saddles: a small, racist Western town finds itself under the jurisdiction of a black sheriff and chaos ensues.

But we're not talking about comedic chaos (although the film is frequently silly), we're talking about violent gun battles and ugly racial tension. Blaxploitation icon Fred Williamson plays the sheriff and, like Tarantino's Django, he kills an absurd number of white folk. With its black heroes and focus on race, Django Unchained is very much the modern equivalent of a '70s blaxploitation flick and while Tarantino directly references Shaft (just look at Kerry Washington's character's last name), the film slides into place alongside dozens of flicks, from Slaughter to Truck Turner. However, Boss gets the mention here because it's the rare blaxploitation Western... and because it's a ton of fun.

 

Amistad and Lincoln (1997 and 2012)

What do two Oscar-baity Steven Spielberg films have to do with something as wild and unhinged as Django Unchained? Although you won't find two directors more different than Tarantino and Spielberg, both have made films that directly and fearlessly acknowledge how deplorable slavery really was, never flinching in the process. Although frequently a little dry, Amistad depicts the slave trade with horrifying accuracy and attention to detail. Although Django Unchained is a helluva lot more fun, it also goes out of its way to rub your nose in the ugliness of buying and selling other human beings.

Period Hollywood films tend to dance around the subject (remember Mel Gibson's Southern plantation owner who doesn't own slaves in The Patriot?), but Tarantino and Spielberg are fearless filmmakers who don't shy away from what's difficult or upsetting. If you want a really interesting in-theaters double feature, see Spielberg's still-playing Lincoln and Django Unchained back-to-back. Lincoln focuses entirely on 13th Amendment and the abolition of slavery, showcasing how good men fought a great evil through the power of political maneuvering and sheer determination -- Django Unchained focuses on a more, uh, direct war against slavery, complete with six-shooters, dynamite and squibs filled with gallons of blood. Lincoln is the history and Django Unchained is the catharsis. One is justice, one is revenge. They are yin and yang. The fact that they're in theaters at the same time is astonishing.

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