Django is by no means Tarantino's best - far from it in fact. However, by the very nature of what the film is about, it may wind up being one of the most important things he's ever done.
Films about slavery are few and far between. In my lifetime, I've seen one - Amazing Grace from 2006. Wikipedia lists twelve (three of those are set for release in 2012 or 2013). A scant few compared with many hundreds - if not thousands - of films that have been made about the greatest crime against humanity in the twentieth century; holocaust films.
After the holocaust came a swell of films about the holocaust; providing an outlet for the widespread feelings of anger, horror, repentance and regret. They came from all sorts of countries, but German cinema especially was shaped by a generation of Germans looking back on their past. Likewise, in the wake of the Vietnam war, there were a flood of films that depicted the horrors that unfolded there, and called into question America's longstanding pride in superiority in warfare. The scars of the Vietnam war are still there, but it has been 'dealt with' on a cultural level. These films helped entire nations move on from the mistakes they've made; they are a result of and a part of the healing process. It's a trend that has gone on for centuries, and we see it now in today's trend of movies about wars in the Middle East.
But America hasn't finished dealing with its past yet. Django Unchained is an important movie because it is an American film about American slavery before the civil war. The practice is arguably more inhuman than the holocaust; treating entire people groups as animals to be commanded, traded, and bred. It was widespread around the world, and lasted far longer than the holocaust or any other genocide (for a solid rundown on the context of slavery, click here). And as I said before, there is relatively little in American popular culture that reflects on precisely what transpired across those decades.
So I'll get this out of the way really quick: Django Unchained is something of a letdown. Director Quentin Tarantino is known for big, bold characters, pulpy story line, quirky dialogue and brutal violence. Django Unchained delivers all of these elements, but without some of the polish of his previous films. It's not as revolutionary as Pulp Fiction, and it's not as tightly executed as Inglorious Basterds. So in some ways, it's a disappointment. But the film is still pretty solid, and because of the fact that it deals with slavery, it serves as a crucial point of discussions, and comparisons.
Of all Tarantino's work, Inglorious Basterds is probably the most apt comparison. Like Django, Basterds is a historical revenge fantasy centered around a particularly brutal point in human history (an aforementioned holocaust film). Indeed, Christoph Waltz plays much the same character in that film as in this one - only this time he uses his lethal cunning for good. The stakes are lowered too; the actions of the Basterds and other characters in that film resulted in nothing less than the premature halting of the most destructive war in history. In this film, Django is fighting for his wife and his life. Historically significant events such as the civil war are omitted, and we are left with a recreation of a dismal time to live in, and something of a fantasy of how we wish that time might have gone.
Why is this? Why not alter history to the point of a wide-spread role reversal? Couldn't Django have incited a black uprising, taken control of the south, and joined the union, averting the Civil War entirely? I can't say for sure, but I can suggest a few things. As I said before, holocaust films have been done to death. It was probably an easy stretch in Tarantino's mind to make his holocaust film the one that kills Hitler. On the other hand, slavery has not been dealt with properly. Tarantino is breaking new ground here, so he must break it gently. Baby steps.
(The following paragraphs contain SPOILERS)
There are a plethora of westerns to which Tarantino pays homage. The whole look and feel and setting of the piece takes after the 'spaghetti westerns' of Sergio Leone, with their drawn-out face-offs and hyper-stylized violence. Tarantino uses that kind of glorified violence in everything he does, but there was something particular I noticed about it in this film. Violence is only exaggerated and glorified when white man is the victim; in the climactic shootout for example (one of the bloodiest I've ever seen). We see flashbacks of Django's slavery days when he was whipped, but the actual whipping takes place offscreen, as do many brutal acts towards the slaves involving dogs and hammers. While toning the violence down in terms of gratuity, Tarantino is dialing up the significance of it. When one slave is forced to kill another in combat, we don't see anything, but we feel it profusely. He takes the attitude of the time; that the well being of blacks is insignificant compared with the well being of whites, and turns it on its head.
There are a few exceptions to this; one is the execution of Stephen (played by Samuel L. Jackson) at the end of the film. It's a relatively long showdown, in which Django exerts his new found power over Stephen in a brutal fashion. It's fun though, because after only a couple of scenes with this character, we peer into the depths of his soul, and see the joy he takes in evil. His death is a satisfying act of justice, and depicted in the same style as all the other white characters. As a traitor to his own kind, Steven is as bad as, or worse than, the likes of Calvin Candie.
Another is the execution of Calvin's sister, Lara. Lara is not depicted as an evil character - indeed, she is sharper than most of the men in the film. Her death is quick, clean, and a little bit comical. This might be due to the fact that women were also underprivileged in this time. Lara is the only white woman we see, and Calvin treats her like a princess, but apart from a few insightful observations (that are important to the plot), she's really just a doll on a stand to be admired. The real blame for just about everything that went on at that time rests squarely on the shoulders of white men.
Reaching back deeper into American film history, compare this to Birth of a Nation a seminal film, but also an infamous one for its depiction of African-American peoples in the period just after the civil war. In some ways they are similar; once liberated blacks begin wreaking havoc on the established white order. In Birth of a Nation this comes in the form of blacks taking over the parliament, acting detestably, and terrorizing the innocent white folk. In Django, the innocent black man shoots all the detestable white men. It took a hundred years, but the tables are finally turned.
Then there's Django's direct reference to the Klu Klux Klan - both the historical entity and the one depicted in Birth of a Nation. The Klan comes charging over the hill to triumphant music, torches blazing. They jeer and stamp, and surround the trailer where they believe our protagonists to be (directly mirroring the earlier film). In the middle of this scene, we flash back to a few minutes earlier. As the Klan is preparing to ride, one of them whinges that he can't see through the mask. The result is a hilarious argument over whether the masks are worth the effort. It's quite a brilliant scene (although some have observed, out of place with the rest of the film), and one that I think most would agree needed to be in any film that responds so directly to Birth of a Nation.
I am in no way an authority on this issue. I'm a well-off white man. I'm not even American - I'm about as removed from the issue of African-American slavery as I could possibly be. The character I identified most with was King Shultz, the German-American, especially in the scene when he watches a slave torn apart by the dogs. In order to achieve freedom for Django's wife, he and Django must maintain character, and turn a blind eye to the cruelty. Schultz can't, and ultimately this leads to his death. Only Django can rescue his own wife, because only he can look the issue in the eye, overcome his knee-jerk emotional reactions, in order to achieve true freedom. This is not a discussion for Germans or Australians to take part in. We can do our best to help, we can talk, we can grieve, whatever we want. But slavery is an issue that white Americans and black Americans need to work through for themselves, together. I hope this film is not alone in seeking to do so.
There's a lot I haven't talked about. I haven't talked about how the use of modern rap music that plays over Django's entrances evokes the future of the people of this time. I haven't mentioned 'Blaxploitation' films, mainly because I don't know anything about them. I haven't talked about the hero's journey and its mythic qualities. I haven't mentioned that Quentin Tarantino blows himself up in this movie. It's a long, meaty movie with themes and references pouring out of it's ears. It will probably get in a little hot water for the excesses of its content, but look past that. This is an important movie.