About six months before the release of Django Unchained, the actress Kerry Washington and her producer went to New Orleans to present their project at the National Association of Black Journalists' convention, an annual gathering so influential that either the president or vice-president makes sure to attend. They wanted the buy-in of black journalists, no doubt to stem the flow of controversy the movie, in many ways a comedy set against the backdrop of slavery, would attract.
Washington, as skinny as all the tabloids had been reporting, did most of the talking, including many times chastising those among us who were chatting as she addressed the crowd.
What is funny for me to realise, as I think back to that night after watching the film, is that the actress did more talking in that room than she does in the entire movie. Of the reams of writing and constant story updates done on Django Unchained, not much, if any, has been said about Washington's insipid role: she's tortured, she's whipped and she's rescued. She whimpers, she cries, even faints and eventually smiles as they ride off into the sunset. That is the full extent of her contribution. There are more call actors with more character development in two-minute scenes than Washington's Broomhilda, the wife for whom Jamie Foxx's character Django will slay the entire world to rescue from captivity.
In a contemporary take of almost three hours, it is jarring that the leading lady says nearly diddlysquat. This from a director who is now famous for reviving long-forgotten careers? It's a sexist take, and it reminds me of how many times, including in stories of apartheid South Africa, that the personal stories of humiliation, anger and disappointment of women often take secondary status, rendering them lacking in depth. In Django Unchained, Broomhilda's emotional state is of no consequence; all we get to know about her is that she is very frightened. This, for me, is the biggest disappointment of the movie, not just in the film itself, but also in the reviews and commentary.
Fantastic piece of theatre
That said, I confess that I have wanted to watch Django since the first time I saw that trailer in New Orleans. I was seduced by the theme of a vengeful slave – the idea of retribution against oppressors resonated with me as a South African, I guess. And what are movies if not great vehicles to live out fantasies that can never be carried out, especially in this age of forgiveness? Beyond that, Django Unchained is cinematically refreshing.
It moves starkly away from the string of "downtrodden but ultimately benevolent" black characters who still make their way into Hollywood movies. The Secret Life of Bees and The Help, both of which I initially made a point of avoiding, made me queasier than the signature Tarantino shootout scenes is in which so much blood is spilled the characters could skate on it.
Django Unchained is a fantastic piece of theatre. Spike Lee, who has boycotted the film, is likely the only person at the dinner table lost for conversation these days. It is graphic and upfront about the extent of the brutality of slavery. There are many scenes, such as the Mandingo fights, in which black men mutilate each other with their bare hands, that force you to look away. And it is a brilliant send-up of the absurdity of oppression, which South Africans know well.
Most of this is showcased expertly in the scenes led by Dr King Schultz, the character played by Christopher Waltz. Jamie Foxx's Django, unfortunately, has none of the wit or intellect of Schultz, or even Leonardo DiCaprio's slave-owner or Samuel L Jackson's scene-stealing Uncle Tom.
Django Unchained, like the westerns it draws on, is concerned with manhood. Maybe Tarantino borrowed so heavily from the genre that he overlooked his heroine. But this is the man who brought us Jackie Brown! And Tarantino is such a master at obliterating stereotypes, and of postmodern art, that it's hard to forgive him for falling straight into this gender trap.