Django Unchained

Django Unchained Study Guide

Django Unchained is the highest-grossing film of Quentin Tarantino's career—an explosive, nearly three-hour Western epic that forces audiences to confront the brutal legacy of American slavery in a way rarely, if ever, glimpsed in Hollywood cinema. Tarantino conceived of the idea for the film while writing a book about the "Spaghetti Westerns" of Sergio Corbucci, an Italian director active in the 1960s. Corbucci's films were partly a response to the fascist violence that flourished in Italy during and after World War II, which he critiqued through the lens of the Western film genre, rife with gunslinging outlaws and widespread corruption.

While studying the "horrible" and "surreal" approach that Corbucci used to represent Italian fascism in the "Wild West," Tarantino began devising a film that would use a similar strategy to deal with the white supremacy of the Deep South. Calling his film a "Southern" (as opposed to a "Western"), Tarantino told The Daily Telegraph that he wanted to write "movies that deal with America's horrible past with slavery and stuff but do them like Spaghetti Westerns, not like big issue movies. I want to do them like they're genre films." Tarantino's work was notably one of two marquee films to deal with American slavery over the 2012-2013 period, the other being Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave.

Like Kill Bill, Jackie Brown, and Pulp Fiction before it, Django Unchained is influenced not only by Spaghetti Westerns, but also by other lowbrow and exploitative genres like Blaxploitation, ultra-violent revenge flicks, and the martial arts film. Sergio Corbucci's 1966 film Django is the most obvious influence on Tarantino's work, which uses the same theme song as Corbucci's film over its opening credits, the same blocky red font in its promotional materials, and the same name for its titular character. Franco Nero, the star of Django, makes a cameo appearance in Django Unchained as an Italian friend of Calvin Candie, named Amerigo Vessepi.

The 1975 film Mandingo, directed by Richard Fleischer, is another big influence on Django Unchained, specifically its "Mandingo fighting" sub-plot. Tarantino has famously averred that Mandingo is one of only two big-budget exploitation films ever produced in Hollywood, the other being Paul Verhoeven's Showgirls (1995). Tarantino integrates and repurposes Mandingo's plot, about a slave trained to fight other slaves, into the latter half of his film, where Schultz and Django pose as a pair of Mandingo fighting purveyors to endear themselves to craven plantation owner Calvin Candie. The title of Tarantino's film derives from the 1959 Italian epic-fantasy Hercules Unchained.

The film was a box-office smash, earning over $400 million worldwide, and received highly positive critical reception, summed up in The New York Times by A. O. Scott as "crazily entertaining, brazenly irresponsible, and also ethically serious in a way that is entirely consistent with its playfulness." The film was not without its detractors, such as Spike Lee, who called it "disrespectful," and Roxane Gay, who called it, "brilliant but mostly infuriating." Christoph Waltz won his second Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, having previously won the same award for his role as Hans Landa in Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds.