by Prof. Karen Johnson
Django Unchained, the latest film by Quentin Tarantino (QT), tells the story about a rescued enslaved person named Django (Jaime Foxx) who teams up with his rescuer, a German-immigrant bounty hunter, named Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), in efforts to capture criminal fugitives ‘dead or alive’ as a way of acquiring monetary awards. Django and Schultz ultimately devise a scheme to liberate Django’s enslaved wife, Broomhilde (Kerry Washington) from the brutal slave-owner Calvin Candie, played by Leonardo DiCaprio. The film takes place in the South, from the 1858 to 1859 timeframe.
Although Django Unchained is supposedly a depiction of slavery, it isnot a historical period piece. Instead, this film is more truly a Spaghetti Western genre, in every sense of the word; even the title, Django, is the same name of a 1960s Spaghetti Western film, made by Italian filmmaker Sergio Corbucci. Tarantino’s Djangoreflects the typical QT derisively mocking, sardonic storyline motif, wherein which the aestheticization of violence is reverberated throughout the entire film; and is carried out by the main character, Django, and the other significant supporting characters of Schultz, and Candie. In true QT stylistic fashion, Django represents the antihero—a neo-noir personality type, who is a tormented and conflicted individual, due to the brutal horrors of slavery and to the separation of the love of his life, Broomhilde. Django is willing to engage in any liberatory means necessary, albeit nihilistic acts of violence, to rescue Broomhilde from Calvin Candie’s plantation. For me, the only redeeming aspect of the film is Django’s unbridled love for Broomhilder and his desire to travel to the bowels of the earth, if you will, in efforts to free her from the holocaust of enslavement. That type of commitment to black love is rare on Hollywood screens. It is a powerful story plot, indeed!
Still, this is a White-American masculinist-authored fantasy about an “exceptional” bad-ass freed man, who is supposedly “different” from other enslaved men or women. Tarantino’s re-imagined Django stands out and alone from the other enslaved in that he is bold, fearless, and has some level of agency, albeit he is still subordinately tied to Schultz. The viewing audience is not given an understanding as to why Django is “exceptional” and the other well-dressed enslaved men and women are docile, idiots, fearful, happy, and have internalized their bondage.
In addition, the enslaved women in the film are characterized as weak, passive, obedient, damsel-in-distress and complicit in their own sexual exploitation. Such myths and depictions run counter to the numerous slave narratives that reveal Black women who were resilient survivors who actively embarked on obliterating slavery. I argue that the erroneous and controlling stereotypical images of Black women as the happy servant or the willingly whore serve to set Black women aside from her humanity and justify and rationalize, to the viewing audience, her bondage.
Tarantino rightfully took artistic liberties to create his film but unfortunately presented a piece that is historically inaccurate and one that drew on racial tropes as a filmic formula. I argue that his film tapped into a particular set of Post Emancipation retrogressionist racial beliefs about the U.S. enslaved person. It appears that he rarely relied on the historiography of U.S. slavery, slave narratives, Civil War widows’ pension testimonies nor other empirical support for his discursive structure or character depictions. If he had tapped into these sources, he would have learned that the enslaved engaged in all sorts of acts of resistance in efforts to undermine slavery. The Nat Turners, Gabriel Prossers, Harriet Tubmans were abundant and they worked in concert with each other, rarely alone, to fight for their people’s liberation. In fact, history reveals that slaverydid not work because of the ongoing various forms of resistance to it. In addition, the time frame in which the film takes place (1858-1859) is a pivotal period in the controversy over slavery in the U.S. and the free and enslaved Black was at the “heart of it all,” in their struggle to put a death knell to this monstrous system, one and two years before the bloodiest battle in American history, the Civil War.
Although Tarantino attempted to break the mold with this film and present a raw and in-your-face visual imagery of the vile abomination of slavery, he interjects lots of satirical humor as a way to diffuse the brutality and degradation of slavery, in attempts to make it more palatable and acceptable. The loud and boisterous laughter my niece and I were surrounded by in the predominately white theater in which we saw the movie was perturbing! Nothing is humorous about human bondage and degradation. At the end of the film, I overheard audience members making comments such as, “that was a funny movie” or “that was entertaining.” With these types of comments, what does that say about the (mis)re-presentations about history in films regarding U.S. slavery? Whose and what representational images are worth depicting accurately in film? Why do we, in this country, continue to tolerate the distorted history about the holocaust of enslavement in film, pop culture, and even in the K-12 school textbooks? At what point will this nation seriously come to grips with its ugly past? Such distortions that Tarantino presented inDjango Unchained do not diminish or challenge the Eurocentric hegemonic regime of truths that invalidate or de-legitimatize Black folks legacy of liberatory struggle in this nation! Taken as a whole, Tarantino’s Django Unchained fails on so many levels! It is not a classic historical film about slavery, but one white man’s imaginary gory and violent video game!
Karen A. Johnson is an Associate Professor of Education & Ethnic Studies at the University of Utah
Professor Karen Johnson is Coordinator of African American Studies, a division in the Ethnic Studies Dept; Associate Professor of Ethnic Studies; Associate Professor of Education in the College of Education at University of Utah. She earned her PhD at UCLA · Los Angeles, California email: email@example.com