If we’re judging on pure entertainment value, “Django Unchained” deserves to win the Best Picture Academy Award on Sunday. Quentin Tarantino’s bloody throwback to the spaghetti westerns of the 1960s is a classic hero’s journey infused with the filmmaker’s distinct flair for homage, camp and crackling dialogue. Centering on an intractable slave’s vengeance-fueled quest for freedom in the antebellum South, “Unchained” is a thrill ride of a revenge fantasy, the most enjoyable, most energetic, most original movie of this year’s nominees.
But deserving as it might be, “Django” has little chance of taking home the Best Picture statuette. It’s not so much the violence, which is mostly cartoonish, nor is it the film’s depiction of American slavery in a camped-up context -- a motif some viewers found offensive. No, “Django’s” unofficial disqualification boils down to one word, and it starts with an N. As was widely reported upon its release, “Django Unchained” features more than 100 instances of the N-word, a frequency that has been called gratuitous by some critics and downright disrespectful by some prominent African-Americans, including Spike Lee.
Whether you agree or not, such assessments have perpetuated the notion that Tarantino’s movie is embroiled in controversy, and not just your everyday run-of-the-mill controversy, but controversy involving race relations, political correctness, freedom of expression and other contentious issues. As such, the movie is tainted goods, at least as far as Oscar is concerned.
The Academy, all too aware that ratings for Oscar telecasts have been on a steady decline since James Cameron’s “Titanic” took home the top prize in 1998, may not be in much of a boat-rocking mood this year. And in the end, they almost always pick feel-good nominees over their edgier counterparts. Hence “Rocky” won over “Taxi Driver” and “Forrest Gump” over Tarantino’s own “Pulp Fiction.” Clint Eastwood’s “Million Dollar Baby,” which won Best Picture in 2004 despite being strongly criticized by proponents of disability rights, was one of the rare exceptions in recent years when the Academy overlooked a polarizing controversy. However, the Oscar elite are not likely to make a similar judgment in “Django’s” case, particularly as other nominees -- most notably David O. Russell’s “Silver Linings Playbook” -- have been enjoying buzz-worthy momentum. Even Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” which has recently attracted bad press for some of its glaring factual inaccuracies, has a better shot than “Django” at becoming this year’s Best Picture.
And that’s a shame, because while both films aim to address the realities of slavery, Tarantino’s is a far more effective and hard-hitting commentary on America’s greatest sin. For all its camp and crassness, “Django Unchained” is unflinchingly sincere in its judgment that the ownership of a fellow human being is one of the ugliest concepts ever conceived. As the titular hero (played to gallant perfection by Jamie Foxx) transitions from slave to indentured bounty-hunter to free man, so too does his self-identify become more conflicted. Put in a position to order other slaves around, Django perniciously rises to the role of tyrant, only to have his ego kept in check by Christoph Waltz’s King Schultz, perhaps the only white man who has ever showed him kindness. Other scenes involving slaves viciously pounding each other for the amusement of their white owners leave us contemplating the brutality of this perverse institution in a way that “Lincoln” never does.
And then there is the dreaded N-word, which has dominated so much of the conversation. In “Lincoln” the word is uttered once, given supreme power by an actor who says it in such an overtly self-conscious manner that we feel as if Spielberg were trying to remind us how offensive it is. Tarantino, conversely, all but neuters the slur, sprinkling it liberally from the mouths of characters whose maliciousness is underpinned by the ease with which it rolls off their tongues.
To be certain, “Django Unchained” is no masterpiece -- at least not on the level of “Pulp Fiction,” but then few films are. However, in the pool of non-masterpieces that is this year’s Oscar race, it still deserves a fighting chance, and it definitely deserves to be judged in a context broader than one offensive word. Then again, “Words are things," as Maya Angelou once said, and “You must be careful, careful about the words you use.”
Who would have thought she’d have so much in common with Spike Lee?