There is much controversy surrounding the movie “Django Unchained.” This blog is not meant to add to that controversy but offer my own thoughts and opinions on what I viewed. As with any book, movie, video or other art form the art is left for the user to interpret. No matter what the artist or creator intends to portray the user will interpret the art form based on her or his own personal lens. This is one of the reasons I rarely read reviews of movies from movie critics and most movie viewers.
Most people walked into the movie with their minds already made up about how they should feel about the film. Many people heard about Spike Lee boycotting the film and went in immediately looking for something to dislike about it. Some saw interviews with the cast, specifically Jamie Foxx and Kerry Washington, and had astronomical expectations based on those interviews. More people heard about the use of the n-word and were immediately withdrawn. Others heard about some of the comedic elements in the film and did not understand how comedy could be added to a film about slavery. Tarantino’s reputation led others to either go see the film or stay away. His style is either one you love or hate, I have not encountered too many middle-of-the-road Tarantino fans. We all walk into films with some kind of expectation or bias.
“Django Unchained” is a spaghetti western
In spaghetti westerns are more action oriented than their American counterparts. For the time of making many spaghetti westerns were quite violent, and several of them met with censorship problems, causing them to be cut or even banned in certain markets. The Civil War and its aftermath is a recurrent background. Instead of regular names such as Will Kane or Ethan Edwards, the heroes often have bizarre names like Ringo, Sartana, Sabata, Johnny Oro, Arizona Colt or Django. (Source: http://www.spaghetti-western.net/index.php/Introduction)
Sergio Leone’s Fistful of Dollars and the following films in his Dollars trilogy created the Spaghetti Western as a novel kind of Western. In this seminal film the hero enters a town that is ruled by two outlaw gangs and ordinary social relations are non-existent. He betrays and plays the gangs against one another in order to make money. Then he uses his cunning and inordinate weapons skill to assist a family threatened by both gangs. He is disclosed and severely beaten, but in the end he again uses cunning and inordinate weapons skills to defeat the remaining gang.(Source: Author Unknown)
“Django Unchained” is not a movie about slavery
Django Unchained is an action drama. The movie takes place in the south two years before the civil war. The title character, Django, is a slave who has been separated from his wife. While being transported to a new plantation he is “freed” by a German bounty hunter. The bounty hunter, Dr. Schultz, played by Christoph Waltz, uses Django to help identify his former slave masters in order to collect a bounty. During this unusual partnership Dr. Schultz learns of Django’s “Broomhilda” and decides to help him rescue his wife in exchange for his bounty hunting assistance. Django develops into an excellent bounty hunter and gun slinger. Throughout this entire process Dr. Schultz is disturbed by the horrors of slavery that constantly surround them, Django acts as a man possessed and bullet proof in pursuit of his wife.
“Django Unchained” and elements of slavery
I do not claim to be an expert on slavery. However, I noticed that many of the elements within the movie were fairly accurate. All of the devices, contraptions, and other forms of slave control were very accurate. One of the things that can be debated is the attitudes of many of the slaves on Candie’s plantation. Did the slaves seem happier than usual? What is usual? Were there some slaves that were happy? Were there some slaves that had smiles on their faces? Were slaves allowed to “play” outside?
There are a couple of things that could be going on here. Tarantino could be saying that slaves decided to make the best of a horrible situation so they played happy, even though they were not. I cannot imagine what it would have been like for a slave to watch another slave be ripped apart by dogs. Tarantino could also be saying it’s ridiculous for any slave to pretend to be happy in these circumstances, so let’s show everyone this imaginary idea they have of slavery.
Here is an excerpt of an interview with Quentin Tarantino and Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr.
“I’m a scholar of slavery, and one of the things I notice in my classes [that I teach] is that we’ve become inured to the suffering and pain of slavery, that we’ve distanced ourselves enough from it, that people can’t experience the terror, the horrible pain, the anxiety, the stress, et cetera, that came with the slave experience. I thought that in Django you really began to reinsert contemporary viewers into that pain, particularly through the scene when the dogs tear Candie’s slave D’Artagnan apart. And by the way, I don’t know if you know, but that actually happened. The French used these dogs in the Haitian revolution …” –Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr.
“Well, however you want to depict the horrors of slavery, slavery itself was 10,000 times worse.” –Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr.
“That almost became our slogan. It’s like, look, the stuff that we show is really harsh, and it’s supposed to be harsh, but it was [actually] a lot worse.” –Quentin Tarantino
“Django Unchained” and Slavesploitation
If you are looking for a slavesploitation movie Django Unchained is not that movie. It is a well written story that takes place two years before the Civil War. With wonderful actors, good (but gory) action, great cinematography, and superb dialogue Django Unchained is a “Good movie with questionable moments.” –Danny Cochran
Additional movies about slavery or elements of slavery
“Birth of Nation” (1915)
“Uncle Tom’s Cabin” (1927)
“Gone With the Wind” (1939)
“Goodbye, Uncle Tom” (1971)
“The Legend of Nigger Charley” (1972)
“Black Snake” (1973)
“Jefferson in Paris” (1995)
“Django Unchained” and comedic elements
There were several parts of Django that were pretty funny. In an action-drama that was very intense at times it was good to have the tension released with some comedic elements. There is one scene in particular that I would like to recount. The KKK bandits were planning to shoot up Dr. Schultz and Django as they prepared to depart with their bounty. The KKK members began to argue about the bags they had placed on their heads as disguises. They shared how the holes were too small, they couldn’t see, and how unappreciative others were about the work that went into making the bags. This scene is particularly funny because it shows the KKK looking ridiculous. This is a direct contrast to other movies that have portrayed the KKK.
Bag Head #2: “I think we all think the bags was a nice idea. But, not pointing any fingers, they could of been done better. So how bout, no bags this time, but next time, we do the bags right, and then go full regalia.”
Big Daddy: “Wait a minute! I didn’t say no bags!”
“Django Unchained” and some 21st century metaphors
1. Slave lingo reminded me of some of the street vernacular of today. Some of the slave lingo had more to do with language barriers and adapting to a foreign tongue. Over time it had more to do with the lack of access to a formal and informal education. How many books have you read lately?
2. Blood sport reminiscent of today’s sports and entertainment world. Owners, promoters, and managers watch as the players fight it out in the ring.
3. Stephen, played by Samuel L. Jackson, immediately looked upon Django with disdain and condemnation. Stephen does this because Django comes in riding on a horse. It was unusual for anyone to see a Black man on horse. How many of us have experienced or witnessed haters?
4. In one of the final scenes a slave who had once looked upon Django with contempt looked at him with admiration as Django rode off into a final battle. In this scene Django utilized his acquired intelligence to gain his freedom from his captors. How many of us are inspired when we see others that look like us do things that we have dreamed of.
“Django Unchained” and my favorite lines
“Do I sound like a slave?”
“I am just a little more used to Americans than he is.”
“Black slaver is lower than the lowest slave.”
“Alexandre Dumas was a Black man.” (paraphrased)
(Dumas is the Author of The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers)
In the end “Django Unchained” is a fictional movie. The movie shows in detail a fantasy uprising of a slave. Just as in Inglorious Bastards, Tarantino wanted us to revel in the idea of bad guys going down hard, and the oppressed rising up against the oppressor. Too many people expected a documentary or docudrama on slavery. I would encourage you to do research on the writers and directors of movies prior to viewing them. That will give you a better idea of what to expect.
There are many things that people, specifically Black people, should focus on much more than a fictional story. Are you debating the current foolishness on TV? Are you challenging the racist criminal justice system? Are you tackling the Black unemployment rate? If those tasks are too daunting for you try these: Are you telling the young man in your family to pull his pants up? Are you telling the young lady in your family to keep her pants on? Are you mentoring at least one young black man or woman? Are you reading a book to improve yourself? Are you doing all that you can to help improve this miserable condition that Black people are in?
Our energy and voices are better served engaging in initiatives that can help the Black community right now. I am not saying to dismiss, ignore, or refuse to debate our history. What I am saying is that we need to pick our battles wisely to maximize effort and to affect real change.