Still chewing this one over, and I suspect it’ll take a second viewing before it starts to come into focus. It obviously plays as a variant on Inglourious Basterds, but I miss that film’s ferocious set pieces and, especially, its strong central female character. But what Django Unchained does even better than Basterds is show up the essential timidity of contemporary Hollywood filmmaking. Django is singular in large part because nobody else is making bigtime narratives that deal with the history of race relations in America. I like Lincoln a lot, but it’s telling that when Spielberg turns his attention to roughly the same period in history, he comes up with Congress: The Motion Picture. And I’d love to see Spike Lee make a Django answer film, but I doubt he could get the funding.
The genius of Clint Eastwood is evident in the fact that nobody else could get away with this. Gran Torino is by most measures a pathetically undercooked melodrama, relying on stock characters, trite dialogue, and a lot of awkward performances by untrained amateurs and unseasoned pros. The backdrop of tradition-rich Hmong families struggling to adapt to the American midwest without losing both their culture and their souls is the kind of social conflict that could drive any generic indie picture, and Eastwood himself plays the kind of character whose arc can be described in a half-dozen words: crotchety coot gets heart of gold. Eastwood doesn’t even turn in an especially adept performance from a technical standpoint, although I guess he never really does. He hasn’t much range. Despite that, he’s one of the greatest stars in contemporary cinema — a laconic, iconic presence who’s come to represent both artisanal and populist impulses in American film, to simultaneously articulate conservative and liberal ideals, to split the difference between the gruff misanthrope and the sensitive man of letters. That’s how, even when he’s thrown a slow, wonky pitch like Gran Torino, he manages to pretty well knock the ball out into the bleachers just the same. The guy heading into the theater to clean up cups and popcorn bags nodded at me as I left and muttered, “Clint was robbed by the Academy, right?” That’s star power.
ELVIS MITCHELL: I Think I Love My Wife is very political. It’s a movie about the black middle class.
CHRIS ROCK: There’s an isolation that the black middle class goes through. I remember watching Lost in Translation and going, “That’s how I feel in America.” Nothing captures the black experience more than Lost in Translation. It’s one of the blackest movies I’ve ever seen, flat out.
Excerpted from “Chris Rock,” by Elvis Mitchell, Interview, April, 2007