Initially, I hadn’t even planned on seeing the film. I wasn’t interested in seeing a Western, I’m not particularly fond of Tarantino, and I’m always skeptical of a white persons ability to tell an honest story about people of color. But after its hype kept mounting, (along with pressure from friends who sang its praises) I was convinced Spike Lee and I were the only ones on the planet who hadn’t seen this damn movie. So I finally sucked it up and took a trip to the nearest Redbox.
Here’s what I thought:
1.) It kept my attention. Django’s quest to save his wife–and stay alive in the process– was suspenseful, emotionally engaging, and at times, humorous.
2.) Samuel L. Jackson was brilliant in his performance of Stephen, who was undoubtedly my favorite character, and was FUCKING HILARIOUS.
3.) It was a different cinematic approach to the context of American storytelling about slavery. The film was permeated through Django, who was a slave portrayal we had not really seen before; a rebellious and clever sharp shooter who talked shit, (“the D is silent, hillbilly”) had a little swagger, and was relentless in his rejection of the oppressive circumstances in which he lived. The soundtrack combined with the coolness/badassery that Jamie Foxx translated in his role, carved out a rare modern black heroism that (perhaps) this generation can relate to, and even admire.
4.) Kerry Washington is in it and I have a Fangirl crush on her that I chose not to rehash here for fear of a restraining order on her part.
1.) Although Django was a take-no-shit rebel, it seemed as if all the other slaves around him were of the docile, “yes massa” variety. Only Django (with the exception of his wife, Broomhilda) was seen as the “exceptional nigga” who wouldn’t accept his role as the happy slave, content with his circumstances. Throughout the film, the slaves are continuously faced with opportunities to escape, but don’t, for unknown reasons. For instance, when Django tricks the captors of LeQuint Dickey Mining Company into setting him free, kills them, and heads back to CandieLand to finish off the rest–the slaves in the “nigger cage” do not attempt to run away, but instead remain inside, bewildered and stupefied. Then of course, there’s Stephen, the loyal servant who is not only content in his bondage, but joins forces with his white oppressors to keep other slaves in their place and maintain the status quo. He even loses his shit when his master, Calvin Candie (Leonardo Dicaprio) is killed.
And although the trauma of slavery may have contributed to internalized feelings of self hatred that made a select few subservient, this concept of the Happy Slave has been exaggerated (in this case, to the point of parody) in historical film representations to blanket the vast majority. Calvin Candie’s monologue about Old Ben’s skull summarized the notions many have about slaves: that they rarely resisted, that they were comfortable, in need of guidance or white authority, and even biologically predisposed to submissive roles.
This is not only insulting as hell, but historically inaccurate. Slaves were documented as arguing, fighting, and sometimes even killing their masters (by gun or poison). They continuously ran away, at times for weeks, and hid in marooned communities. When they did stay on the plantation, they intentionally worked at slow paces to reduce crop production and would injure themselves to debase their property value–some even committed suicide. They stole food and valuables from their oppressors, learned to read illegally, developed their own factions of religion, and instilled a distrust of whites in their children.
In short: they were anything but the well-behaved model minorities largely depicted in Django Unchained.
2.) My biggest critique: The experiences of black women in slavery were virtually ERASED from this film. I get that it was told from Django’s point of view, but Broomhilda (and other female slaves) gave Tarantino the most logical and convenient opportunity to explore her realities but instead she was mostly a prop for the Damsel in Distress and had like three lines. While her physical brutality was somewhat depicted, the film glossed over the most central experience of black female slaves: rape.
The occurrence or threat or sexual assault, historically, would have been part of Broomhilda’s daily experience, but Django Unchained reduces it to the quasi-prostitution of a “comfort girl” instead of what it actually was: slave masters and overseers raping black women in the secrecy of slave quarters then depicting them as inherently depraved so as not to upset their wives–who, by contrast, were the symbols of purity and chastity. The only proof of the masters sexual abuse was the emergence of light skinned bi-racial children (who were also nonexistent in this film).
Black female slaves also faced hardships in relation to family. Pregnant women often gave birth, returned to work within a few hours, and were forced to put the needs of the slave masters children above their own, leaving their families to be raised by other people. As the primary caretakers, they carried the burden of remaining on the plantation for fear of leaving their children or losing them through trade, even while the men escaped. These realities are not only instrumental to the story of slavery but shape contemporary stereotypes of black women (especially that of the Jezebel or Unfit Mother) but are once again ignored in popular culture.
3). The concept of slavery itself was also ridiculously oversimplified in Django Unchained. It was depicted mostly as white hatred and cruelty that led to slavery when in fact, racism was socially constructed to justify slavery. Tarantino reduces it to a matter of white vs. black relationships and overt bigotry. It reminds me of the way that The Help made Jim Crow seem like a 1960′s version of Mean Girls, a matter of white people “not liking” black people (because of irrational ignorance or insensitivity) which is implicitly solved once a “nice” white person is inserted into the story who selflessly helps the black person overcome racial obstacles. (In The Help, it was Skeeter, in Django Unchained it is Dr. Shultz).
But slavery was an institutional form of oppression; systemic racism put in place to achieve astonishing wealth in North America and the rest of the world. It created the foundation for modern economy on a global level, made the South the richest and most powerful region in America, was the direct cause of the Civil War, made a fortune on Wall Street, and is inextricably woven into this countries social and economic history. Yet it was virtually invisible in the larger context of the film.
Whats even more whack is Tarantino’s ahistorical portrayal in which slaves are maimed and killed for no apparent reason; like the infamous Mandingo fights wherein slaves fought each other to death for the entertainment of their masters. But this is beyond ludicrous. Slave masters were not, as Calvin Candie implied, well-to-do white business men who kept slaves around to indulge their sadomasochistic fantasies then would dispose of them whenever they got bored. They were largely working class men who absolutely depended upon the bodies of slaves for their livelihood. Most slave masters had fewer than 20 slaves, each and every one of infinite value, which means killing them all would intentionally eliminate their own profits. That’d be like McDonalds throwing all their “beef” into a fire pit just for shits and giggles.
4.) Tarantino’s continuous depiction of violence also bothered me. Not in a squeamish way, but I always felt like he was referencing his hipster racist delusions; imagining the cruelest things that could happen to slaves (being torn apart by dogs, castration, etc) and realizing them so that a.) white people would feel appropriately guilty and b.) black people would get appropriately angry. The latter would provide the emotional vehicle for the fantastical ending, one where Django kills all the Bad White People (and Stephen) before riding off on horseback with his main squeeze. It used brutality and villainy as the perfect psychological triggers which allowed us to root for Django uncritically. To walk away from the film feeling that justice was served, that black people “got back” at white people and therefore whites can feel better about this pesky little blemish in American history because now, thanks to Tarantino, the score has been settled.
It baffles me why white filmmakers always depict racial oppression in this binary way of good vs. evil and ignore the larger structure. Maybe its their unconscious belief that black/brown people still harbor old feelings of resentment about the past and therefore want “pay back” (financial, physical, psychological) for the treatment of their ancestors (the ridiculousness of reverse-racism comes to mind). But I think there’s a much bigger reason. I think the whitewashing of realities like slavery and Jim Crow get boiled down to race relations because its easier to make a heart wrenching film that evokes white guilt for a few hours than to acknowledge a more difficult truth: that America was essentially built on the backs of other people. People who don’t look like you, people who are perpetuated portrayed as lazy slackers who chose to live on state welfare. To acknowledge that your ancestors exploited the labor of these people for their own financial gain files in the face of everything conservatives like to tell us about this country. That success is based on merits, hard work, pulling yourself Up By Your Bootstraps, never taking handouts, and individualism. It would mean the vast majority of white Americans would have to wonder whether or not the inheritance of land, property, businesses, and wealth was made possible only by the sacrificial bloodshed of black and brown people (yes) or that the poverty, crime, and education disparities may not actually be evidence of an inherent flaw of blackness or brownness but an inevitable outcome of the very bloodshed you benefit from (yes).
And I get that its a film. That’s it fiction, that Tarantino’s a nut job branded in gory revenge-style cinema , and that art does not always lend itself to accurate historical translation and blah blah blah. But here’s the thing: Fiction does not mean being unrealistic, art is not immune to honest political context, and white people don’t get to tell stories about the realities of others without being called out when they get it wrong (as they often do).
The film wasn’t the worst thing I’ve ever seen, but in retrospect I’m thinking maybe I should’ve saved my Redbox money and Tarantino should’ve just sat this one out.