Does ‘Django Unchained’ Get the History of Slavery Right?
Django Unchained is Tarantino’s skewed Christmas gift to America — a movie designed to reveal the chains of slavery that continue to haunt America, while introducing the horror with unrelenting violence.
Django Unchained is also a cross between spaghetti western, Shaft’s Big Score, and the Mandingo films and books of the 1970s.
Tarantino combines all of these elements to create an epic story, emulating the German lore of Nibelung that Django’s liberator, Dr. King Schultz (played by Christoph Waltz) tells after finding out Django’s wife’s name is Broomhilda.
Django Unchained is not just a love story or a violent thriller, it is an epic that borrows from each genre. In fact, I was a bit surprised that Tarantino did not use portions of the Ring of the Nibelung opera cycle by Wagner in one particular scene of hooded riders (invoking another movie, Birth of a Nation).
Instead, Tarantino uses a variety of music to set the tone, with a James Brown/Tupac mash-up capturing the essence of the movie. Additionally, the film is violent, overwrought and long.
Operas and epic stories have a purpose: to remind a people of their shared memory, and the heroes they worship.
In this case, America’s shared memory is slavery. Django is a particular depiction of slavery that tugs at the memory of the so-called “peculiar institution”.
That memory is tainted by a particular fantasy: that vengeance is satisfying, and heroes are always cowboys. The memory he gets completely right is the violence of slavery.
Consider the applause at the end of the movie as an example of reorienting that memory. In the suburban Texas theater in which I watched Django, white people clapped for a black man killing white people. Django’s heroics spoke to everyone in the theater. The cost however, was the acceptance of the bullets, blood and gore, an often-romanticized part of the history of America.
By embedding Django’s story in a western, Tarantino inserts his characters into a complicated story of complicity and evil. That story is understood in our nation’s most commonly recognized figure: a cowboy.
Making Django a freed slave turned bounty hunter cowboy searching for his wife makes the movie romantic. Without the romance, most moviegoers would be appalled. Love is the only emotion for many that is worth shooting up the world for. Slavery is not good enough. Remember Lincoln?
Slavery, not the romance, is the real storyline of the movie, our shared national memory. Many Americans including African-Americans have no idea how horrible it was, or the extent to which it consumed America in the 19th century.
Tarantino has a simple commentary about slavery embedded in this movie. That message, spoken by Waltz’s character, a German dentist turned bounty hunter is “I know Americans.” Indeed. Americans won’t remember a story unless it is coated in violence and schmaltz.
Knowing that Waltz also played a “Jew Hunter” in Inglorious Basterds helps to ingratiate the viewer in the space that Tarantino inhabits — playing with history to deconstruct history and the oppressors. Dr. Schultz is the trickster-teacher in the movie, the person who wants to use Django, but also respects his humanity. Using a German as Django’s sidekick is a sly aside to reinforce a point — no white American could get past their prejudice to assist blacks — even in the face of making money.
What does the epic Django Unchained say? Even though it is a re-imagined history of slavery, one point remains true: slavery was an evil, violent business. Black bodies were maimed and destroyed. Life was cheap. Those who had money and power ruled over all, black and white alike. Violence was at time the only way to get out of it slavery, along with guile.
The relentless violence on the screen of Django may be “amoral” as The Nation‘s Ari Melber points out, but it is an amorality that is in the warp and woof of our nations history.
As a person who teaches about slavery on a regular basis, I can tell you that many of the scenes of violence and torture were real. The chains, neck irons, the hot-box and whippings were only a few of the physical tortures inflicted on slaves. Focusing in on the violence, and the use of the n- word misses the point of what Tarantino is doing — mocking everyone watching this movie, or to use his terminology, he’s ***king with you all.
Tarantino has a moral code in the movie, and by making the bounty hunter German, and the slave owners all caricatures (with names like “Big Daddy” and “Candie”) Tarantino is needling Americans by making the only white person in the entire movie slightly moral a European. Every other white person in the movie is either a hick, crazy, or evil. He’s also not letting black people off easy with his portrayal of slaves that are not able to advocate for themselves, and turn away from the violence done to others.
To have a plantation named Candieland in Mississippi with Samuel L. Jackson playing an evil, self hating version of Uncle Ruckus in the 19th century is brilliant.
Spike Lee is right; slavery was not a spaghetti western. It was a holocaust. I disagree, however with his assessment of Tarantino’s film.
When the nation cannot talk about the holocaust of slavery productively, recasting the story in our epic movie language can play a positive role.
I also do not presume to speak for my ancestors. That would be disrespectful. I do, however, want to at least remember their struggles.
Django Unchained may be a flawed, violent story of America’s history of slavery, but it is a movie that perhaps will spur curious moviegoers to examine their position to the reality of the violent history of slavery in our nation.