Ever since the first trailer was released, Django Unchained has been the film to talk about. Everyone was titillated, offended or both by the blaxploitative slavery Spaghetti western pastiche that Tarantino was promising to serve topped with his trademark dollop of revenge. After all, who could ignore that juicy line about bounty hunting: “Kill white folks and they pay you for it? What’s not to like?”
I was in both the titillated and offended camps when I first saw the trailer. I was particularly struck by its white paternalism and how deliberate the bounty hunting, ex-slave revenge scenario is set up: Django is freed at the hands of a white man—a white man who wants something from him—who essentially gives him the A-OK to kill whites who are wanted criminals and/or involved in the slave trade. Would this movie still have gotten made if Django had freed himself and made the decision on his own to kill those who kept him enslaved? If there was no white character to tell him and the audience that it was A-OK?
These were the first thoughts that made me wary of Django Unchained, but actually seeing it brought forth what I saw as an even bigger issue. As moviegoers have gleaned from Tarantino’s last hit, Inglourious Basterds, sometimes he likes his films to have an a-historical slant, and while he has artistic license to do so, there’s a big problem with the particular a-historical slant he used in his slavery revenge fantasy.
Resistance of enslaved blacks was very real. And it was continuous. A number of them committed acts of revenge against those who kept them enslaved and upheld systems of oppressive racism. But in Django Unchained, Tarantino reduces the resistance and agency of enslaved persons down to one man’s singular quest. I wasn’t surprised that there was no armed uprising in the film, but in reality, enslaved people would resist every day by running away and consequently freeing themselves, stealing, poisoning their “masters” and their masters’ families and sabotaging plantation production by working as slowly as they dared to, pretending to be sick, damaging machinery or “accidentally” burning down structures.
We don’t get the scope of that collective resistance in Django Unchained. Not even a taste. Django is meant to be “special” and Tarantino presents him as the resistant, revenge-taking anomaly with a sense of personal agency. A fantasy. And aside from Django, his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) and our black “villain” – Calvin Candie’s (Leonardo diCaprio) loyal house slave Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), all of the black persons in the film are reduced to wallpaper or collateral damage. As for black female characters, a good number of them get the special privilege of being rendered as sexualized house dolls. Though shockingly, you won’t find a trace of the sexual violence black female slaves had to endure in their daily lives, despite Tarantino’s lip service about how he wanted to depict the real brutality of slavery. On top of that, there is next to zero solidarity among the black characters. Django is often dismissive of other blacks and sometimes downright verbally abusive.
Tarantino’s warped lens of slave resistance as well as his heavy-handed simplification of the black characters among the flamboyant and eloquent white males, namely Dr. Schultz (Christophe Waltz) and Calvin Candie, feed into persistent and harmful narratives that still exist in America today. One of them is that our society still conditions us to not see blacks as engaging and fully capable human beings. As inferior. We need the “good” white guy who unlocks Django’s chains and, out of the gracious paternalism of his heart, shows the poor slave the way. Watch Django Unchained. Who is in charge and commanding the attention of the audience? Except for when he slips in his power sparring with Candie, Dr. Schultz is running the show, literally up until the moment he is killed. The movie is carried by the white male leads. It’s almost as if one-dimensional Django is only on screen so that Tarantino can still technically say that his film is a slavery revenge flick.
Django Unchained has an odd duality going on: it takes a harsher stab at racism than most modern films, but at the same time, it misunderstands the slaves themselves. And when it comes to American slavery, what do we understand less than the actions and psyches of the enslaved?
Take the psyche of Stephen, for example, who is essentially a demonized Uncle Tom. Tarantino plays him up for laughs and he plays Stephen up for the audience to hate him and to hate him without thinking. Yes, Stephen is cruel and vicious. Yes, he goes above and beyond in serving his white “master” to the point where many would label him a race traitor. But Tarantino never takes a moment to make the audience consider why he is like that. He never asks the audience to think about the psychological damage the institution of slavery did to people and how enslaved blacks were forced to make the most difficult decisions just in order to survive. But that’s the whole movie: looking at individuals and willfully forgetting oppressive systems in which those kinds of people existed.
At the end of the day, Django Unchained is, as author Roxane Gay put it, no more than “a white man’s slavery revenge fantasy.” This film was not made for black Americans nor was it made to be truthful about slavery. It’s not even really about slavery. Slavery is merely the traumatic historical backdrop Tarantino decided to use for his Spaghetti western pastiche. It’s titillating. It’s offensive. And it’s pretty irresponsible when you think of America’s severely warped perception of its slavery legacy. Now Tarantino’s misconceptions and misunderstandings will become part of the cycle by reinforcing these perceptions for those who have seen and will see Django Unchained.
We’re past the point of revenge fantasies; we just need someone willing to tell the truth about American slavery.