It is safe to say that Quentin Tarantino’s latest film Django Unchained has had everyone talking. Whether you’re a history major, a Tarantino fan or just a regular theatregoer, you’re sure to have an opinion on this somewhat risky blockbuster.
Django has already won awards at The Golden Globes and is expected to do well at The Oscars with a total of five nominations.
The film takes us on an adventure with Dr. King Shultz (Christoph Waltz) and freed slave Django (Jamie Foxx), that begins with the bounty-hunter business and ends on a southern plantation with the most narcissistic slave-owner imaginable (Leonardo DiCaprio) in search of Django’s enslaved wife (Kerry Washington). Tarantino toys with his audience’s emotions – in one moment we find ourselves howling with laughter at the KKK, and the next cringing in our seat at the most harrowing, violent scenes of “mandingo fighting.”
A comment that has wrung in my head (and what inspired me to write this article, in response to criticism against the movie) was something that Tarantino himself. In response to criticism of his use of the “N word” the director claimed, “It is my responsibility to tell the truth.”
The film has sparked a number of controversial discussions around how the subject of slavery has been explored in the movie. Some critics have praised the movie to no-end; in one of my favorite reviews from The Chicago-Sun Times, Roger Ebert stated, “What Tarantino has is an appreciation for gut-level exploitation film appeal, combined with an artist’s desire to transform that gut element with something higher, better, more daring. His films challenge taboos in our society in the most direct possible way, and at the same time add an element of parody or satire.”
So, yes, there are some who have commended Tarantino on how he approaches a “difficult” subject, but there are others who question the integrity, appropriation, and “historical accuracy” of the film. Particularly, people have taken issue with the extreme violence in the movie, and the use of the “N word.”
Spike Lee has spoken out against Django, tweeting, “American Slavery Was Not A Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western. It Was A Holocaust. My Ancestors Are Slaves. Stolen From Africa. I Will Honor Them,” but he refuses to actually watch it.
So I question, how exactly do these critics/directors/the public in general suggest directors take on the matter of slavery? It is safe to say that the United States is not prone to embracing the shady aspects of its past. Sequentially, directors seem to either consciously ignore “touchy” issues or historical periods, or they misrepresent them in a flowery, loveable, morally sound way.
In December 2012 we saw Spielberg’s Lincoln and Django hit the screens. Both end up finding themselves in similar territory, but in starkly opposite ways. Lincoln is highly political, meant to be historically accurate, filled to the brim with acclaimed actors, and probably very boring for most. Django is, as mentioned, exciting, funny, thrilling, violent, visual, controversial, and based on a Spaghetti Western theme and a German fairytale. The two movies couldn’t be more opposite. So, is this all Hollywood can offer us? You either see the politics or you see the fantasy.
For a subject matter that has not been addressed, or even really acknowledged by Hollywood, Django seems like an ‘appropriate’ response. You could probably count on two hands movies dedicated to telling a slave narrative – Spielberg’s Amistad is the only that immediately comes to mind. Roots does not count – it was a book and a TV series, not a movie. Staying safe when a topic hasn’t been done before wouldn’t make sense. You want to get people talking – grab their attention. I don’t think anyone could argue that Tarantino hasn’t achieved at least that. I would like to suggest that Tarantino has opened up a door for directors in Hollywood.
Tarantino is openly admitting to his audience that the film works inside the realms of a fairytale story. He openly admits that some of the scenes are “historically inaccurate” with his ingenious use of humor. A perfect instance is the KKK scene. Tarantino does not invite you to believe that this actually happened. The film is set in 1858, which is before KKKs time, and second; no group of people could be that astonishingly stupid. The effect of this scene is that the audience does not wish to align itself with the KKK, or in contemporary society, what the KKK now represents: unjustified, cruel, nauseating racism.
What’s more, the hero in the movie is really Dr. King Shultz – and he does not represent a group of people. He is a German (but English and French speaking) bounty hunter living in the Deep South. The result of this is that there is no realistic hero presented in the movie. If you strip back the dramatic shoot outs, the hilarity and the fairytale you are left with a handful of scenes that are ethically and historically serious. And Tarantino ensures that you will not miss them.
The real story of slavery is also told through Stevens (Samuel L. Jackson), Calvin Candie (DiCaprio) and Hildi (Kerry Washington). Each character reflects a different aspect of the slave experience. Stevens – the Uncle Tom figure. A gut-wrenchingly despicable character who has been warped and manipulated by slavery. Candie – who represents the cruel white southern plantation owner, and what the slave-owner was capable of. And Hildi – an intelligent black slave who we see brutally whipped by the “Brittle brothers”. Each of these characters makes you laugh at times, but you absolutely take them seriously. They are the real figures of the slave experience. They are the absolute truth in the story.
Slavery is part of America’s past. Before the film industry begins to seriously address the importance, significance, and value in the slave narrative, you have take risks, open the subject up – get people’s attention and get them talking – and that is exactly what Tarantino has done.