In 1858 Texas, the Speck brothers, Ace and Dicky, drive a group of black slaves on foot. Among the shackled slaves is Django, sold off and separated from his wife, Broomhilda von Shaft. The Speck brothers are stopped by Dr. King Schultz, a German dentist-turned-bounty hunter from Düsseldorf, who asks to buy one of the slaves. He questions Django about his knowledge of the Brittle brothers, a group of outlaws for whom Dr. Schultz is carrying a warrant. When Ace becomes suspicious, Dr. Schultz, a superior gunslinger, kills Ace with a fast draw, then shoots Dicky's horse, pinning Dicky to the ground and crushing his leg. Dr. Schultz insists on honorably paying Dicky a fair price for Django before leaving him at the mercy of the newly-freed slaves, who kill him and follow the North Star to freedom. As Django can identify the Brittle brothers, Dr. Schultz offers him his freedom in exchange for help tracking them down.
After tracking and killing the Brittles to a plantation in Tennessee owned by the wealthy Spencer Bennett, the liberated Django partners with Dr. Schultz through the winter and becomes his apprentice. Later that evening, the duo are hunted by Spencer Bennett and a large gang of white supremacists (a reference to the early Ku Klux Klan) but Dr. Schultz deceives and kills most of his gang with an explosive in their carriage, and Django kills Bennett himself. Dr. Schultz explains that he feels responsible for Django since Django is the first person he has ever freed, and felt morally obliged to help Django reunite with Broomhilda. Now fully trained, Django collects his first bounty, keeping the handbill for good luck.
In 1859, Django and Dr. Schultz travel to Mississippi, where they learn the identity of Broomhilda's owner: Calvin J. Candie, the charming but cruel owner of the Candyland plantation, where slaves are forced to fight to the death in brutal wrestling matches called "Mandingo fights". Dr. Schultz and Django meet Calvin at his gentleman's club in Greenville and submit their offer to buy one of his best fighters; however, this is a pretense. Their ulterior motive is to purchase Broomhilda. Intrigued, Calvin invites them to his ranch at Candyland.
During the ride to Candyland, they come across a group of Calvin's slave trackers cornering one of Calvin's Mandingo fighters, D'artagnan, who tried to run away due to no longer wanting to fight. Calvin says that because he bought D'artagnan for $500, D'artagnan (who has only fought three times) must fight at least five times. When Django and Dr. Schultz offer to reimburse Calvin and then change their minds, Calvin has his chief tracker, Mr. Stonecipher, unleash several attack dogs that tear D'artagnan to pieces.
After finding Broomhilda and telling her of their plan, Dr. Schultz claims to be charmed by her and offers to buy her as well. During dinner, Calvin's staunchly loyal house slave Stephen becomes suspicious. Deducing that Django and Broomhilda know each other and that the sale of the Mandingo fighter is a ruse, Stephen alerts Calvin, who alters the deal so that Broomhilda will be sold instead of the Mandingo fighter. Dr. Schultz agrees, and the papers for her freedom are drawn up and signed. Calvin smugly insists that the deal be sealed through a handshake, which Dr. Schultz refuses. When Calvin threatens to have his bodyguard Butch Pooch kill Broomhilda, Dr. Schultz, who has finally had enough of Calvin's cruelty and still thinking about D'artagnan's death, kills Calvin by shooting him in the heart with his concealed derringer. As Stephen mourns over his master's death, Butch turns around and kills Dr. Schultz by shooting him with his sawed-off shotgun, and is killed by Django in turn with his own revolver. A shootout begins, and Django shoots down a great number of Calvin's henchmen before surrendering when Broomhilda is taken hostage.
The next morning, Stephen tells Django that Calvin's sister, Lara Lee Candie-Fitzwilly, is in charge now, and he will be sold to a mine and worked to death. En route to the mine, Django proves to his escorts that he is a bounty hunter by showing them his handbill. The escorts release him and give him a revolver, which he immediately uses to kill them before stealing a horse and returning to Candyland with a bag of dynamite. At the plantation, Django kills more of Calvin's henchmen, including Mr. Stonecipher and all the other trackers, takes Broomhilda's freedom papers from the dead Dr. Schultz's pocket, and frees his wife from a nearby cabin. When Calvin's mourners return from his burial, Django kills Lara and the remaining henchmen, releases the two remaining house slaves, and kneecaps Stephen before igniting the dynamite that he has planted throughout the mansion. Django and Broomhilda watch from a distance as the mansion explodes, killing Stephen, before they ride off together.
Other roles include Russ Tamblyn as Son of a Gunfighter, Amber Tamblyn as Daughter of a Son of a Gunfighter, Don Stroud as Sheriff Bill Sharp, Bruce Dern as Old Man Carrucan, M. C. Gainey as Big John Brittle, Cooper Huckabee as Lil Raj Brittle, Doc Duhame as Ellis Brittle, Jonah Hill as Bag Head #2, a member of a Ku Klux Klan-like group; Lee Horsley as Sheriff Gus (Snowy Snow), Rex Linn as Tennessee Harry, Misty Upham as Minnie, Danièle Watts as Coco and Clay Donahue Fontenot as Luigi. Zoë Bell, Michael Bowen, Robert Carradine, Jake Garber, Ted Neeley, James Parks, and Tom Savini play Candyland trackers, while Michael Parks and John Jarratt, alongside Tarantino himself in a cameo appearance as Frankie, play the LeQuint Dickey Mining Company employees.
In 2007, Tarantino discussed an idea for a type of Spaghetti Western set in the United States' pre-Civil War Deep South. He called this type of film "a southern", stating that he wanted "to do 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, but they deal with everything that America has never dealt with because it's ashamed of it, and other countries don't really deal with because they don't feel they have the right to." Tarantino later explained the genesis of the idea: "I was writing a book about Sergio Corbucci when I came up with a way to tell the story. ... I was writing about how his movies have this evil Wild West, a horrible Wild West. It was surreal, it dealt a lot with fascism. So I'm writing this whole piece on this, and I'm thinking: 'I don't really know if Sergio was thinking [this] while he was doing this. But I know I'm thinking it now. And I can do it!' "
Tarantino finished the script on April 26, 2011, and handed in the final draft to The Weinstein Company. In October 2012, frequent Tarantino collaborator RZA said that he and Tarantino had intended to cross over Django Unchained with RZA's Tarantino-presented martial-arts film The Man with the Iron Fists. The crossover would have seen a younger version of the blacksmith character from RZA's film appear as a slave in an auction. However, scheduling conflicts prevented RZA's participation.
One inspiration for the film is Corbucci's 1966 spaghetti western Django, whose star Franco Nero has a cameo appearance in Django Unchained. Another inspiration is the 1975 film Mandingo, about a slave trained to fight other slaves. Tarantino included scenes in the snow as a homage to The Great Silence. "Silenzio takes place in the snow. I liked the action in the snow so much, Django Unchained has a big snow section in the middle," Tarantino said in an interview.
The title Django Unchained alludes to the titles of the 1966 Corbucci film Django; Hercules Unchained, the American title for the 1959 Italian epic fantasy film Ercole e la regina di Lidia, about the mythical hero's escape from enslavement to a wicked master; and to Angel Unchained, the 1970 American biker film about a biker exacting revenge on a large group of rednecks.
Among those considered for the title role of Django, Michael K. Williams and Will Smith were mentioned as possibilities, but in the end Jamie Foxx was cast in the role. Smith later said he turned down the role because it "wasn't the lead". Tyrese Gibson sent in an audition tape as the character. Franco Nero, the original Django from the 1966 Italian film, was rumored for the role of Calvin Candie, but instead was given a cameo appearance as a minor character. Nero suggested that he play a mysterious horseman who haunts Django in visions and is revealed in an ending flashback to be Django's father; Tarantino opted not to use the idea. Kevin Costner was in negotiations to join as Ace Woody, a Mandingo trainer and Candie's right-hand man, but Costner dropped out due to scheduling conflicts. Kurt Russell was cast instead but also later left the role. When Kurt Russell dropped out, the role of Ace Woody was not recast; instead, the character was merged with Walton Goggins's character, Billy Crash.
Jonah Hill was offered the role of Scotty Harmony, a gambler who loses Broomhilda to Candie in a poker game, but turned it down due to scheduling conflicts with The Watch. Sacha Baron Cohen was also offered the role, but declined in order to appear in Les Misérables. Neither Scotty nor the poker game appear in the final cut of the film. Hill later appeared in the film in a different role. Joseph Gordon-Levitt said that he "would have loved, loved to have" been in the film but would be unable to appear because of a prior commitment to direct his first film, Don Jon.
In a January 2013 interview with Vanity Fair, costume designer Sharen Davis said much of the film's wardrobe was inspired by spaghetti westerns and other works of art. For Django's wardrobe, Davis and Tarantino watched the television series Bonanza and referred to it frequently. The pair even hired the hatmaker who designed the hat worn by the Bonanza character Little Joe, played by Michael Landon. Davis described Django's look as a "rock-n-roll take on the character". Django's sunglasses were inspired by Charles Bronson's character in The White Buffalo (1977). Davis used Thomas Gainsborough's 1770 oil painting The Blue Boy as a reference for Django's valet outfit.
In the final scene, Broomhilda wears a dress similar to that of Ida Galli's character in Blood for a Silver Dollar (1965). Davis said the idea of Calvin Candie's costume came partly from Rhett Butler, and that Don Johnson's signature Miami Vice look inspired Big Daddy's cream-colored linen suit in the film. King Schultz's faux chinchilla coat was inspired by Telly Savalas in Kojak. Davis also revealed that many of her costume ideas did not make the final cut of the film, leaving some unexplained characters such as Zoë Bell's tracker, who was intended to drop her bandana to reveal an absent jaw.
Principal photography for Django Unchained started in California in November 2011 continuing in Wyoming in February 2012 and at the National Historic Landmark Evergreen Plantation in Wallace, Louisiana, outside of New Orleans, in March 2012. The film was shot in the anamorphic format on 35 mm film. Although originally scripted, a sub-plot centering on Zoë Bell's masked tracker was cut, and remained unfilmed, due to time constraints. After 130 shooting days, the film wrapped up principal photography in July 2012.
Django Unchained was the first Tarantino film not edited by Sally Menke, who died in 2010. Editing duties were instead handled by Fred Raskin, who had worked as an assistant editor on Tarantino's Kill Bill. Raskin was nominated for a BAFTA Award for Best Editing but lost to William Goldenberg for his work on Argo.
The film features both original and existing music tracks. Tracks composed specifically for the film include "100 Black Coffins" by Rick Ross and produced by and featuring Jamie Foxx, "Who Did That To You?" by John Legend, "Ancora Qui" by Ennio Morricone and Elisa, and "Freedom" by Anthony Hamilton and Elayna Boynton. The theme, "Django", was also the theme song of the 1966 film. Musician Frank Ocean wrote an original song for the film's soundtrack, but it was rejected by Tarantino, who explained that "Ocean wrote a fantastic ballad that was truly lovely and poetic in every way, there just wasn't a scene for it." Frank Ocean later published the song, entitled "Wiseman", on his Tumblr blog. The film also features a few famous pieces of western classical music, including Beethoven's "Für Elise" and "Dies Irae" from Verdi's Requiem. Tarantino has stated that he avoids using full scores of original music: "I just don't like the idea of giving that much power to anybody on one of my movies." The film's soundtrack album was released on December 18, 2012. Ennio Morricone made statements criticizing Tarantino's use of his music in Django Unchained and stated that he would "never work" with the director after this film, but later agreed to compose an original film score for Tarantino's The Hateful Eight in 2015. In a scholarly essay on the film's music, Hollis Robbins notes that the vast majority of film music borrowings come from films made between 1966 and 1974 and argues that the political and musical resonances of these allusions situate Django Unchained squarely in the Vietnam and Watergate era, during the rise and decline of Black Power cinema. Jim Croce's hit I Got A Name was featured in the soundtrack.
The first teaser poster was inspired by a fan-art poster by Italian artist Federico Mancosu. His artwork was published in May 2011, a few days after the synopsis and the official title were released to the public. In August 2011, at Tarantino's request, the production companies bought the concept artwork from Mancosu to use for promotional purposes as well as on the crew passes and clothing for staff during filming.
Django Unchained was released on December 25, 2012, in the United States by The Weinstein Company and released on January 18, 2013, by Sony Pictures Releasing in the United Kingdom. The film was screened for the first time at the Directors Guild of America on December 1, 2012, with additional screening events having been held for critics leading up to the film's wide release. The premiere of Django Unchained was delayed by one week following the shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, on December 14, 2012.
The film was released on March 22, 2013, by Sony Pictures in India. In March 2013, Django Unchained was announced to be the first Tarantino film approved for official distribution in China's strictly controlled film market. Lily Kuo, writing for Quartz, wrote that "the film depicts one of America's darker periods, when slavery was legal, which Chinese officials like to use to push back against criticism from the United States". The film was released in China on May 12, 2013.
After a total of 143 days, the film ended its American theatrical run on May 16, 2013 with a gross of $162,805,434 in North America. It grossed $262,562,804 in foreign countries including $51,597,323 of Germany, $37,297,979 of France, and $24,893,462 of the United Kingdom, making a worldwide total gross of $425,368,238. As of 2013, Django Unchained became Tarantino's highest-grossing film, surpassing his 2009 film Inglourious Basterds, which grossed $321.4 million worldwide.
The film was released on DVD, Blu-ray, and Digital Download on April 16, 2013. In the United States, the film has grossed $31,939,733 from DVD sales and $30,286,838 from Blu-ray sales, making a total of $62,226,571.
On Rotten Tomatoes the film has an approval rating of 87% based on 255 reviews and an average rating of 8/10. The site's critical consensus reads, "Bold, bloody, and stylistically daring, Django Unchained is another incendiary masterpiece from Quentin Tarantino." Metacritic, which assigns a weighted average score to reviews from mainstream critics, gives the film a score of 81 out of 100 based on 42 reviews, indicating "universal acclaim".
Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times gave the film four stars out of four and said: "The film offers one sensational sequence after another, all set around these two intriguing characters who seem opposites but share pragmatic, financial and personal issues." Ebert also added, "had I not been prevented from seeing it sooner because of an injury, this would have been on my year's best films list." Peter Bradshaw, film critic for The Guardian, awarded the film five stars, writing: "I can only say Django delivers, wholesale, that particular narcotic and delirious pleasure that Tarantino still knows how to confect in the cinema, something to do with the manipulation of surfaces. It's as unwholesome, deplorable and delicious as a forbidden cigarette." Writing in The New York Times, critic A. O. Scott compared Django to Tarantino's earlier Inglourious Basterds: "Like Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchained is crazily entertaining, brazenly irresponsible and also ethically serious in a way that is entirely consistent with its playfulness." Designating the film a Times "critics" pick, Scott said Django is "a troubling and important movie about slavery and racism." Filmmaker Michael Moore praised Django, tweeting that the movie "is one of the best film satires ever. A rare American movie on slavery and the origins of our sick racist history."
To the contrary, Owen Gleiberman, film critic for the Entertainment Weekly, wrote: "Django isn't nearly the film that Inglourious was. It's less clever, and it doesn't have enough major characters – or enough of Tarantino's trademark structural ingenuity – to earn its two-hour-and-45-minute running time." In his review for the Indy Week, David Fellerath wrote: "Django Unchained shows signs that Tarantino did little research beyond repeated viewings of Sergio Corbucci's 1966 spaghetti Western Django and a blaxploitation from 1975 called Boss Nigger, written by and starring Fred Williamson." New Yorker's Anthony Lane was "disturbed by their [Tarantino's fans'] yelps of triumphant laughter, at the screening I attended, as a white woman was blown away by Django's guns."
An entire issue of the academic journal Safundi was devoted to Django Unchained: "Django Unchained and the Global Western," featuring scholars who contextualize Tarantino's film as a classic "western". Dana Phillips writes: "Tarantino's film is immensely entertaining, not despite but because it is so very audacious—even, at times, downright lurid, thanks to its treatment of slavery, race relations, and that staple of the Western, violence. No doubt these are matters that another director would have handled more delicately, and with less stylistic excess, than Tarantino, who has never been bashful. Another director also would have been less willing to proclaim his film the first in a new genre, the 'Southern'."
Django Unchained was listed on many critics' top ten lists.
Some commentators have felt that the film's heavy usage of the word "nigger" is inappropriate, affecting them to an even greater extent than the depicted violence against the slaves. Other reviewers have defended the usage of the language in the historic context of race and slavery in the United States.
Filmmaker Spike Lee, in an interview with Vibe, said he would not see the film, explaining "All I'm going to say is that it's disrespectful to my ancestors. That's just me ... I'm not speaking on behalf of anybody else." Lee later wrote, "American slavery was not a Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western. It was a Holocaust. My ancestors are slaves stolen from Africa. I will honor them." Louis Farrakhan, the leader of the Nation of Islam, interpreted the movie as "preparation for race war".
Actor and activist Jesse Williams has contrasted accuracy of the racist language used in the film with what he sees as the film's lack of accuracy about the general lives of slaves, too often portrayed as "well-dressed Negresses in flowing gowns, frolicking on swings and enjoying leisurely strolls through the grounds, as if the setting is Versailles, mixed in with occasional acts of barbarism against slaves ... That authenticity card that Tarantino uses to buy all those 'niggers' has an awfully selective memory." He also criticizes the lack of solidarity between slave characters, and their general lack of a will to escape from slavery, with Django as the notable exception.
Wesley Morris of The Boston Globe compared Samuel L. Jackson's Stephen character to black Republicans like Clarence Thomas or Herman Cain. Samuel L. Jackson said that he believed his character to have "the same moral compass as Clarence Thomas does". Jackson defended heavy use of the word "nigger": "Saying Tarantino said 'nigger' too many times is like complaining they said 'kyke' [sic] too many times in a movie about Nazis." The review by Jesse Williams notes, however, that these antisemitic terms were not used nearly as frequently in Tarantino's film about Nazis, Inglourious Basterds, suggesting the Jewish community would not have accepted it.
Marc Lamont Hill, a professor at Columbia University, compared the fugitive ex–Los Angeles police officer Christopher Dorner to a real-life Django, saying "It's almost like watching 'Django Unchained' in real life. It's kind of exciting." Writing in the Los Angeles Times, journalist Erin Aubry Kaplan noted the difference between Tarantino's Jackie Brown and Django Unchained: "It is an institution whose horrors need no exaggerating, yet Django does exactly that, either to enlighten or entertain. A white director slinging around the n-word in a homage to '70s blaxploitation à la Jackie Brown is one thing, but the same director turning the savageness of slavery into pulp fiction is quite another."
While hosting NBC's Saturday Night Live, Jamie Foxx joked about being excited "to kill all the white people in the movie". Conservative columnist Jeff Kuhner wrote a reaction to the SNL skit for The Washington Times, saying: "Anti-white bigotry has become embedded in our postmodern culture. Take Django Unchained. The movie boils down to one central theme: the white man as devil—a moral scourge who must be eradicated like a lethal virus."
Some reviews criticized the film for being too violent. The originally planned premiere of Django was postponed following the Sandy Hook school shooting on December 14, 2012. Thomas Frank criticized the film's use of violence as follows:
Not surprisingly, Quentin Tarantino has lately become the focus for this sort of criticism (about the relationship between the movies and acts of violence). The fact that Django Unchained arrived in theaters right around the time of the Sandy Hook massacre didn't help. Yet he has refused to give an inch in discussing the link between movie violence and real life. Obviously I don't think one has to do with the other. Movies are about make-believe. It's about imagination. Part of the thing is trying to create a realistic experience, but we are faking it. Is it possible that anyone in our cynical world credits a self-serving sophistry like this? Of course an industry under fire will claim that its hands are clean, just as the NRA has done – and of course a favorite son, be it Tarantino or LaPierre, can be counted on to make the claim louder than anyone else. But do they really believe that imaginative expression is without consequence?
The Independent said the movie was part of "the new sadism in cinema" and added, "There is something disconcerting about sitting in a crowded cinema as an audience guffaws at the latest garroting or falls about in hysterics as someone is beheaded or has a limb lopped off".
Adam Serwer from Mother Jones said, "Django, like many Tarantino films, also has been criticized as cartoonishly violent, but it is only so when Django is killing slave owners and overseers. The violence against slaves is always appropriately terrifying. This, if nothing else, puts Django in the running for Tarantino's best film, the first one in which he discovers violence as horror rather than just spectacle. When Schultz turns his head away from a slave being torn apart by dogs, Django explains to Calvin Candie—the plantation owner played by Leo DiCaprio—that Schultz just isn't used to Americans."
Although Tarantino has said about Mandingo fighting, "I was always aware those things existed", there is no definitive historical evidence that slave owners ever staged gladiator-like fights to the death between male slaves like the fight depicted in the movie. Historian Edna Greene Medford notes that there are only undocumented rumors that such fights took place. David Blight, the director of Yale's center for the study of slavery, said it was not a matter of moral or ethical reservations that prevented slave owners from pitting slaves against each other in combat, but rather economic self-interest: slave owners would not have wanted to put their substantial financial investments at risk in gladiatorial battles.
The non-historical term "Mandingo" for a fine fighting or breeding slave comes not from Tarantino, but the earlier film Mandingo.
Writing in The New Yorker, William Jelani Cobb observed that Tarantino's occasional historical elasticity sometimes worked to the film's advantage. "There are moments," Cobb wrote, "where this convex history works brilliantly, like when Tarantino depicts the Ku Klux Klan a decade prior to its actual formation in order to thoroughly ridicule its members' veiled racism." However, Tarantino upholds that the masked marauders depicted in the film were not the KKK, but a group known as "The Regulators". They were depicted as spiritual forebears of the later post-civil war KKK and not as the actual KKK.
On the matter of historical accuracy, Christopher Caldwell wrote in the Financial Times: "Of course, we must not mistake a feature film for a public television documentary", pointing out that the film should be treated as entertainment, not as a historical account of the time period it is set in. "Django uses slavery the way a pornographic film might use a nurses' convention: as a pretext for what is really meant to entertain us. What is really meant to entertain us in Django is violence." Richard Brody, however, wrote in The New Yorker that Tarantino's "vision of slavery's monstrosity is historically accurate.... Tarantino rightly depicts slavery as no mere administrative ownership but a grievous and monstrous infliction of cruelty."
Also a copy of the bust of the Egyptian queen Nefertiti is displayed in the foyer of 'The Cleopatra Club'. The film is set in the 1850s, however the bust wasn't discovered until 1912.
Django Unchained garnered several awards and nominations. The American Film Institute named it one of their Top Ten Movies of the Year in December 2012. The film received five Golden Globe Award nominations, including Best Picture, and Best Director and Best Screenplay for Tarantino. Tarantino won an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. Christoph Waltz received the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, the Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor, and the BAFTA Award for Best Supporting Actor, his second time receiving all three awards, having previously won for his role in Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds. The NAACP Image Awards gave the film four nominations, while the National Board of Review named DiCaprio their Best Supporting Actor. Django Unchained earned a nomination for Best Theatrical Motion Picture from the Producers Guild of America.DC Comics: Django Unchained (February 2013)
Tarantino has said in an interview that he has 90 minutes of unused material and considered re-editing Django Unchained into a four-hour, four-night cable miniseries. Tarantino said that breaking the story into four parts would be more satisfying to audiences than a four-hour movie: "...it wouldn't be an endurance test. It would be a mini-series. And people love those."
The story which became the director's follow-up film The Hateful Eight was first attempted as a paperback novel sequel to Django Unchained titled Django in White Hell. Tarantino decided, however, that the character's established morals did not fit the tone of the developing story so he began re-writing it as an original screenplay with no connection to the earlier film. He has expressed a desire to write a series of Django sequel novels.
Sony is planning on a Django/Zorro crossover movie, which currently exists in the form of a comic book by Dynamite Entertainment.
In the 2014 film A Million Ways to Die in the West, Django is seen shooting the proprietor of a racially charged shooting game, saying "people die at the fair". Despite his appeareance, the film has no serious connection with Tarantino film and is used mostly for parody and humor.
In December 2015, a $100 million lawsuit was filed against Tarantino by filmmakers Oscar Colvin Jr. and Torrance J. Colvin, who claimed that the script for Django Unchained bears extensive similarities to their film, titled Freedom. The lawsuit was filed in a federal court in Washington, DC. On January 24, 2017, the lawsuit was dismissed.