Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained (2012) is not a typical historical film. It is certainly an historical film—at least by a simplistic definition of what an “historical film” entails: it is set in the pre-Civil-War wild west and deep south, and it has all the detailed and well-researched visual details—set pieces and costumes—which have become a central defining trope of the contemporary historical drama. That said, at a more basic level it does not have the same relationship with history that most other films given the title “historical” do. Instead, Django, like Tarantino’s previous Inglourious Basterds (2009), re-renders history to match the topoi and narrative arcs typified by a particular film genre. It even goes so far as to explicitly and self-consciously create historically-absurd scenarios in furtherance of its cinematic goals. Tarantino deploys those things for which historical films are most often criticized—unintentional anachronism, historical implausibilities and absurdities—intentionally, developing a sophisticated interplay between the expectations of “historical accuracy” and cinematic fantasy. This is a controversial approach that at once bolsters and threatens to derail his intentions: with one hand, to render a compelling vision of the institution of slavery, and with the other, to smash that institution to pieces.
Once Upon a Time, in Nazi Occupied France
Quentin Tarantino’s first radical experiment in this style of cinematic history was Inglourious Basterds. The film begins normally enough—characters like “The Jew Hunter” Hans Landa or mountain man-turned-Nazi scalper Aldo Raine are certainly larger-than-life, but they remain within the realm of the audience’s perception of historical type. These characters conform neatly to character expectations derived from decades of popular culture: the methodical evil-genius Nazi and the brutally-aggressive and simple (but still likeable) American. Moreover, the film sports the beautiful historical details that have become one of the chief reality-effects (to borrow the concept from Barthes by way of Rosen) (Rosen 170–172) which are used as shorthand to indicate to the audience the historical veracity of a film. Its scenes are filled with perfectly-rendered French farmhouses, restaurants, bars and cinemas replete with impeccably turned-out Nazi officers and aristocrats. While an acceptance of vivid visual details by audiences and critics as historical shorthand has been criticized by some scholars as “ambientalism”, which Guneratne describes as “confusion of a certain look or feel—the artifacts of the texture of a time—with historicity”, it is nevertheless effective at implying not just another time and place, but a real one. (Guneratne 2) These details communicate, simply, to the audience the core conceit of historical fiction: This may not be real history, but it is plausible.
The historical-fiction author establishes a compact with her/his audience. This compact implies that although the events and characters in their story may be fictional, they will not compromise widely-known historical events or figures. The integration of these well-known figures also acts as a reality-effect by linking the fictitious story to events and people that the audience know to be real. Fictional characters can interact with major known figures like Lord Wellington in the Sharpe series, King Stephen and Empress Matilda in The Pillars of the Earth, or the famous figures which emerge as Dei ex Machinis throughout the works of Sir Walter Scott. In postmodern fashion, these fictional stories may even undermine our trust in the historical record (as lampooned in Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum or embraced with conspiratorial vigor in Brown’s The Da Vinci Code). But the time-travelling author and his reader companion cannot, within this established framework, alter the course of “history” without turning the world they inhabit into not-our-world. To violate this would signal to the audience that they were, instead, watching historical fantasy or alternate history and violently rupture the reality-effect. In short, you cannot kill Hitler.
As Basterds proceeds, it stays largely within this framework. Two complementary schemes are hatched to kill Hitler and the entire high command by, respectively, burning down and blowing up a movie theatre at which they will attend a premiere. But the plan quickly goes off the rails. Most of the heroes are killed or discovered and Lieutenant Raine is captured. The frame remains, reality remains; surely these glorious idiots cannot kill Hitler. They never could. But then the film takes a turn. Landa, confronting Raine, prophetically intones “What shall the history books read?”, and makes him an offer. The deal which Landa strikes is to allow the plan to succeed in exchange for having his own history re-written: he is to become (or, perhaps, is to became) a double-agent who was always working for the allies, and who single-handedly caused the downfall of the Nazi regime. The deal is struck, and as a result, the entire Nazi high command is burned alive in the movie theatre by its French-Jewish owner while Hitler has his face grotesquely machine-gunned off by a grinning Jewish-American soldier. And then it explodes.
This represents a profound reversal from the norm. Loaded in each scene, from the moment the deal is agreed until the fiery conclusion, there is a tension between the remnants of the previous framework (surely this cannot possibly succeed!), until it is replaced with an acceptance of a new paradigm—that of revenge fantasy. That new paradigm serves to tear the veil off the previous two hours. Suddenly the viewer is shocked to discover: this film is not history. Nor was it ever; its reality-effects were all just special effects in a movie theatre.
This serves as a magnificent theoretical bait-and-switch. Through the first two hours Tarantino establishes and works within the framework of historical plausibility and genre convention, only to smash it in the final act. In doing so, he reminds the viewer that he was making, first and foremost, a war-hero action film in the vein of the heroic films in the postwar era. In a war-hero action film, the heroes win. What is the greatest way the heroes could possibly win in a World-War II film? Machine-gun Hitler’s face off.
Incidentally, it is no accident that all this machine-gunning is done in a movie theatre. Hitler and the Nazi high command can be killed in a movie theatre because that is the only place where they can be killed. And it is also no accident that this is done by Jewish-American soldiers and a French-Jewish woman; while the holocaust is never mentioned in the film (except in a brief burst of violence against hiding Jews in the opening scene), its presence lurks constantly in the background because of the Jews in the film. But this time, the Jews are not seen crushed by Nazi oppression (as in Schindler’s List), but upright, strong and filled with vengeful anger. The audience is asked to excuse—even to celebrate—the tortures inflicted by the Jewish Basterds upon their Nazi victims (scalping, maiming, bludgeoning) only because we know so well the far-worse horrors inflicted upon the Jews of Europe by these selfsame individuals. But once the Basterds succeed in their scheme, Hitler and the high command are killed and the war stopped, the viewer is forced to reconsider the whole film as a work of fantasy. No matter how much the viewer may want the Jews to have their revenge upon the perpetrators of the holocaust, this can only be achieved in a movie theatre.
A Hero in the American Holocaust
Django continues this approach, by rendering a difficult piece of history through the medium of a genre film. As Tarantino explained:
I’ve always wanted to do a movie that deals with America’s horrific past with slavery, but the way I wanted to deal with it is, as opposed to doing a straight historical movie with a capital H, I actually thought it could be better if it was wrapped up in genre. (Django Unchained NYC Press Conference Q & A)
For Tarantino, there is a fundamental difference between the genre films that he creates and serious historical films “with a capital H”—possibly quoting Rosenstone’s term for serious historical films. To Tarantino, the latter adheres to a strict timeline of history, whereas he strives to “not just have a historical story play out—they did this and they did that, and they did this and they did that—but actually make it a genre story. Make it an exciting adventure.”(Gates Jr. 50) To him, allowing himself this flexibility with the past is crucial, as it permits him to accomplish his goal, which, in the case of Django, was to “[lay] waste to a genocidal, white racist class and the institution of slavery”. (Guru-Murthy)
But whereas in Basterds, the holocaust was the great invisible motivator—only briefly seen and never discussed on screen, but latent within the rage of the Jewish-American soldiers—Django wades thoroughly into the horrors of American slavery. Tarantino links the two histories explicitly, calling slavery “[one of the] two holocausts in America”. It tells a story that is firmly about slavery through the lens of a spaghetti western, and in so doing, reveals many of the racial elisions of which the western genre has been consistently guilty. As Cawelti points out in The Six-Gun Mystique Sequel: “The generic Western had few black cowboys until the sixties, though recent studies have shown that many actual cowboys in the later nineteenth century were African Americans.”(Cawelti 77) More specifically, while Hayward is exaggerating when she states “you can count black westerns on just about one hand (if you include black presence in a major role)”,(Hayward 422) she is only exaggerating slightly. In his catalogue of the western genre, Varner counts scarcely more than a dozen with African Americans in major roles, most either steeped in racial stereotype, or exploitation films produced primarily for black audiences. (Varner 2–3) Francis enumerates them as:
…mostly forgotten black Westerns and their heroes: Herb Jeffries’s films Two-Gun Man from Harlem (1938), and Harlem Rides the Range (1939), The Bronze Buckaroo (1939), Woody Strode in John Ford’s Sergeant Rutledge (1960) Sidney Poitier’s Buck and the Preacher (1972), and Thomasine and Bushrod (1974), starring Max Julien and Vonetta McGee and directed by Gordon Parks, Jr. who also directed Super Fly (1972). Such films reference the historical presence of African Americans in the west as documented by Tricia Martineau Wagner in African American Women of the Old West and Black Cowboys of the Old West. (Francis 43)
To this list should be added perhaps only the blaxploitation westerns starring Fred Williamson: The Legend of Nigger Charley (1972), The Soul of Nigger Charley (1973) and Boss Nigger (1975) (which Tarantino has cited as among his inspirations for Django), Mel Brooks’ western spoof Blazing Saddles (1974), and Van Peebles’ Posse (1993). The fact that Blazing Saddles was able to spoof the western genre so incisively simply by placing an African-American as the heroic lead indicates how under-represented black people were, and are, in westerns despite their significant presence in the historical American west.
Moreover, even among those few westerns featuring African-Americans, none of them engage with slavery in more than a cursory manner. For Tarantino, this oversight represents a larger cultural trend, and provided one motivation to make Django: “…so many Westerns that actually take place during slavery times have just bent over backwards to avoid it as, as is America’s way.”(Django Unchained NYC Press Conference Q & A) Even outside the confines of the western genre, American cinema has been reluctant to engage with the past of slavery in a serious way, as Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian notes:
Slavery is a subject on which modern Hollywood is traditionally nervous, a reticence amounting almost to a conspiracy of silence – except, of course, in the explicit context of abolition. As far as Hollywood is concerned, the day-to-day existence of unabolished slavery has been what welfare reformists called the live rail: don’t touch it. (Bradshaw)
Walter Johnson agrees, arguing that the preponderance of representations of slavery in films follow a predictable pattern: “To Kill a Mockingbird, Glory, Amistad, Lincoln, Mississippi Burning, etc: all these movies tell the same essential story of how good white people helped good black people become free. They are parables of right-minded white liberalism; historical legends of the era of civil rights.”(Johnson 17) Django Unchained does not follow either mold—the western film’s casual oversights of the harsh realities of slavery, or the slave film’s focus on white paternalism and abolition. While it begins with Django under the tutelage of the white bounty hunter Dr. Schultz, Django quickly becomes a hero in his own right, surpassing his master in ability. But unlike Basterds, in Django the heroes do not initially set out to exact revenge upon an evil institution, but to rescue Django’s wife from bondage. The plan to buy her from Calvin Candie (though it encounters a significant setback), seems set to be concluded nonviolently until Dr. King, unable to further stand Candie’s gloating, shoots Candie through the carnation pinned to his breast rather than shaking his hand—and is, in turn, killed. It is only after this that Django’s quest turns to blood. As Johnson argues,
With the death of Dr. King (!) Schultz, Django becomes a different sort of movie, one in which the plot is no longer framed by the meta-narrative of freedom struggle and the aspiration of interracial cooperation; or, put more pointedly, by the thematics of white racial mentorship made seemingly inevitable by the historical extension of previously all-white rights to blacks. (Johnson 17)
The gunfight that ensues after Candie and King’s death sees Django acting out of desperate self-preservation. But subsequently, after Django frees himself from the slavers to whom he is sold, in his return to Candieland the quest is no longer just to rescue his wife but to destroy the plantation and kill those who run it. It is in that moment that Django becomes a larger-than-life western superhero, laying waste to the entire institution of slavery: the overseers, complicit house slaves, slave owners, southern belles and even the big house itself.
In Basterds, the heroes blow up the Nazi high command. In Django, the hero blows up the plantation, and he rides off into the sunset with his girl by his side. Both deploy a reversal of expectations late in the film, which leads to an historically-ludicrous conclusion in both (though Django, by not explicitly violating history retains perhaps the thinnest veneer of plausibility). And both are steeped in the genre traditions that their films at once are the product of and seek to explode.
Reception among the African-American community
It is in part because of this genre-cisation of the history of slavery that Django’s reception was riddled with such controversy. As Carpio points out, “Django Unchained is not supposed to be experienced or understood as a historically accurate representation of slavery; surprisingly, this point has been lost on many a viewer.”(Carpio 1) However, the very fact that slavery was being depicted in a way that was not supposed to be understood to be historically accurate was the source of consternation for some. Filmmaker Spike Lee took offense (as he has frequently done with Tarantino’s films), as reported in The New York Times:
…he said he would not watch Quentin Tarantino’s latest film, set in the antebellum South, which opened in theaters on Tuesday. “I can’t speak on it ‘cause I’m not gonna see it,” he said. “The only thing I can say is it’s disrespectful to my ancestors, to see that film.”(Ryzik)
The reason for Lee’s ire became more clear with a subsequent post on Twitter, where he said: “American slavery was not a Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western. It was a Holocaust. My ancestors are slaves stolen from Africa.” (Lee)
Talk show host and activist Tavis Smiley followed suit, saying in an interview with Newsweek:
I refuse to see it. I’m not going to pay to see it… I’m troubled that Hollywood won’t get serious about making an authentic film about the holocaust of slavery but they will greenlight a spoof about slavery, and it’s as if this spoof about slavery somehow makes slavery a bit easier to swallow. The suffering of black people is not reducible to revenge and retribution. (Stern)
While controversy stirred by people who refuse even to see the film they are protesting should always be regarded with some skepticism, the issue seems to surround a dichotomy in these men’s minds between a genre film and an authentic or serious grappling with the topic of slavery. Smiley seems to equate genre films with spoofs. Perhaps it is better put by Carpio, “The combination of Tarantino having “a little fun” and his subject matter, arguably the mostly explosive and, especially from a contemporary perspective, most earnestly treated topic in American history, risks trivialization.” (Carpio 1)
This represents a false choice. The western genre and a sensitive portrayal of slavery are not inherently contradictory. That is rather like saying that a comedy cannot—should not—be made about the Nazis, and films from Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940) to Roberto Begnini’s Life is Beautiful (1997) have proven this to be a false rule. The central concern seems to be how the filmmakers treat the topic rather than the specific tools they choose to do it with—Life is Beautiful was not at all saying that the Holocaust itself was funny, but that there was humor and love still to be found in spite of that unspeakably horrible event. The Great Dictator uses humor not to celebrate the Nazis, but satirize their inhumanity.
Similarly, the treatment of slavery in Django is not “trivial”. If anything, Tarantino’s penchant for extreme violence and his fearlessness when grappling with brutal subjects makes the film’s depiction of slavery even more powerful. While the film simplifies many of the complex issues at hand when discussing slavery, and crafts an ending out of whole cloth which provides heroic closure on a subject that is anything but closed in contemporary America, its depiction of slavery neither treats the institution as inconsequential nor shies away from showing it at its worst.
In Django, the institution of slavery and all who engage in it are regarded as corrupt without exception—they wear the blackest of black hats in the tradition of the western. The film depicts slavers of all sorts: the abusive overseers who enact cruel punishments, the wealthy plantation owners who, while cloaked in civility and hospitality are barbaric at their core. There is even an Uncle Tom-figure, played by Samuel L. Jackson, who described his character as “the most despicable negro in cinematic history.”(Django Unchained NYC Press Conference Q & A) These villains do blood-curdling things: they whip a woman while her husband begs on his knees for them not to. They pit two men against each other in a gladiatorial fight to the death—one is instructed to rip out the others’ eyes before being given a hammer to bash his opponent’s head in. They put people in muzzles and in chains, hang them upside down and castrate them with hot knives. And every one of these villains gets their due: they are whipped, gunned down, dismembered or blown up by the hero. This heroic slave has a purpose so noble, and a challenge so great, he is openly compared to Siegfried of Germanic legends, and the institution of slavery, by extension, is the dragon. This time, the black man wears the white hat.
The criticisms leveled by Smiley and Lee are a racially-, politically- and personally- charged version of the perennial criticism leveled against historical films: they are historically inaccurate. A western, they seem to believe, cannot be accurate. More importantly, an inaccurate film cannot portray their ancestors with the gravity they deserve. And moreover, since the film is a work of historical fiction (rather than a based-on-a-true-story biopic) that roughly adheres to the framework outlined above, Tarantino is not only permitted, but required to invent characters and scenes that did not happen.
Conflicting Mythologies of the Old South
The debate about inaccuracy with regards to slavery in this film that has even bled into the Wikipedia article discussing the film. The section of the Wikipedia article on the film’s “Historical inaccuracies” focuses not on the typical reality-effects, like the costumes or the historical provenance of the characters as is usual in most such discourses. Instead, it focuses almost entirely on whether Tarantino’s depiction of the abusiveness and cruelty of slavery was accurate. Unbeknownst to some casual users, Wikipedia pages are not only a major locus for the dissemination of public knowledge (whether valid or not), but also a locus for public—often vigorous—debate. Often the debates that go into the crafting of a Wikipedia article remain largely invisible without delving carefully into the change logs, talk pages and annotations. However, on the page of Django Unchained, the debate is not only is obvious to the careful reader but evinces a troubling debate between the contributors.
Part of the section on Django Unchained’s “Historical inaccuracies” reads:
Richard Brody wrote in The New Yorker: “Tarantino rightly depicts slavery as no mere administrative ownership but a grievous and monstrous infliction of cruelty. The movie shows slaves forced into fights to the death for the entertainment of owners, and one fighter ripped to death by dogs when he refuses another bout. Whipping, branding, cruel punishment, and casual murder are the lot of slaves and the caprice of owners…” According to legal historian Thomas D. Morris, “Whatever the variations the trend was clear. Unless slaves resisted or died under a moderate correction for some misconduct, their killing usually would be placed on a level with the homicide of whites.” For example, the 1860 Mississippi case of Oliver v. State charged the defendant with murdering his own slave. Beginning in 1822, slaves in Mississippi were protected by law from cruel and unusual punishment by their owners. However, it should be noted that there have been many documented cases of abuse. (Wikipedia Contributors, “Django Unchained”)
The scene under discussion here is one in which plantation owner Calvin J. Candie (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) casually orders that a runaway slave be torn apart in front of him by dogs. The reason that this section of the article is discomforting is that lodged in it is a debate that is not, in actuality, about the film’s historical merits. Instead, the debate is over whether slavery was all that bad. There were three editors at work here. The first editor put forward Brody’s view is that the treatment of slaves in the film was not beyond the pale but part of the norm of antebellum southern society. The rebuttal, provided by a second editor, gives the evidence of Morris, and of Oliver v. State to argue that this behavior was both uncommon and forbidden by law. And thus, we are led to believe, slaves were protected by law and thus not casually abused or murdered. An alternative view, provided by a third editor, gets the final word in this version of the article; the second editor (who cited the legal histories) had originally concluded by providing further evidence of the humane treatment of slaves, but another editor changed the material to its present state (“many documented cases of abuse”), accusing the second editor of inappropriate “POV [point-of-view] pushing”. (Wikipedia Contributors, “Talk”)
That pushed point-of-view, that of the slavery apologist, is born of a pervasive myth of the old South that has existed since the old South was young and remains in some conservative discourses today. In it, slaves were not abused but valued by their owners, and any abuses were aberrations in what was, overall, a spirit of benevolent gentility on the part of the masters towards their slaves. (Rodriguez 114–121) This perspective is troublingly still present in still in contemporary America in the mouths and minds not just of “lost cause” confederate fantasists, but right-wing political leaders and anti-government celebrities.
For example, in 2008 conservative pundit and former presidential nominee Pat Buchanan wrote on his website:
First, America has been the best country on earth for black folks. It was here that 600,000 black people, brought from Africa in slave ships, grew into a community of 40 million, were introduced to Christian salvation, and reached the greatest levels of freedom and prosperity blacks have ever known…Second, no people anywhere has done more to lift up blacks than white Americans. Untold trillions have been spent since the ’60s on welfare, food stamps, rent supplements, Section 8 housing, Pell grants, student loans, legal services, Medicaid, Earned Income Tax Credits and poverty programs designed to bring the African-American community into the mainstream… We hear the grievances. Where is the gratitude? (Buchanan)
For Buchanan, the fundamental injustices of slavery and segregation are easily brushed aside; African Americans should show “gratitude” for the “gifts” offered by whites: Christianity, freedom and prosperity—even if, paradoxically, that prosperity has been slow to come even with “untold trillions” spent on social programs.
And those social programs seem to take centre stage in other right-wing discourses about slavery and race. More recently, in January of 2014, Phil Robertson, one of the stars of the hit A&E reality show Duck Dynasty caused a minor public controversy by voicing his views in a GQ cover story:
I never, with my eyes, saw the mistreatment of any black person. Not once. Where we lived was all farmers. The blacks worked for the farmers. I hoed cotton with them. I’m with the blacks, because we’re white trash. We’re going across the field…. They’re singing and happy. I never heard one of them, one black person, say, ‘I tell you what: These doggone white people’—not a word!… Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say: Were they happy? They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues.
Setting aside his misapprehension of blues culture, Robertson projects his personal experience working amongst black people to the entirety of the black experience in the South, and more generally. He constructs a myth of the Jim Crow South entirely reminiscent of the myth of the old South discussed above. “Entitlement” and “welfare” are the real evils for Roberton, and, echoing Buchanan, Christianity (or here, godliness) is a source of fulfillment.
Similarly, just a few months later, a Nevada rancher named Cliven Bundy briefly became a cause célèbre among the anti-government fringes of the right-wing. His standoff with government officials (over his refusal to pay grazing fees for his cattle) drew armed supporters from across America. Moreover, it garnered interest—and support—both from conservative politicians (particularly Senator Rand Paul) and the conservative news media (especially Fox News anchor Sean Hannity). However, support for his cause quickly crumbled after, in one of his daily press conferences, Mr. Bundy said:
I want to tell you one more thing I know about the Negro… in front of that government house the door was usually open and the older people and the kids —and there is always at least a half a dozen people sitting on the porch—they didn’t have nothing to do. They didn’t have nothing for their kids to do. They didn’t have nothing for their young girls to do.
And because they were basically on government subsidy, so now what do they do?… They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton. And I’ve often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy? They didn’t get no more freedom. They got less freedom. (Nagourney)
Whereas for the mythological old south it was reconstruction that ruined everything, in these popular racist discourses, it was “entitlement” and “welfare” (for Robertson) and “government subsidy” (by way of abortion and, somehow, jailing their own young men) that caused misery for African-Americans in post-Jim-Crow and twenty-first-century America. Slavery is either brushed aside, or held up as a better option than the present.
I also have some personal experience with what may be part of the origin of this persistent myth that attempts to whitewash America’s history of slavery and racism. While working at George Washington’s home, Mount Vernon, as an historical interpreter, I would frequently give talks at the working farm site there. On a number of occasions while doing so I encountered adults and children who asked the same question: “Was George Washington good to his slaves?”
George Washington was, as many of the founding figures of America were, a slave owner. For some visitors it was difficult to reconcile the enlightenment values espoused by these men—freedom and liberty—with the fact that they casually denied those same values to the slaves they owned. And, it is even more difficult to reconcile the heroic pedestals upon which we have placed these founding figures with the fact that they participated in and benefitted from a system which we find so abhorrent.
The question is reflective of the work of historians who have, over the past sixty years, revealed a picture of slavery in America as a complex institution with more diversity than uniformity of experience for all involved. (Berlin; Parish) The experience of slaves on a small farm in Maryland would have been markedly different than that on a large plantation in Georgia; some slave owners were renowned for their violent cruelty while some were not. The major remaining common denominator remains that it was a system that relied upon dehumanizing a group of people in large or small ways so that they would accept the subhuman role into which they were forced by their masters. But the methods, details, and circumstances encountered and employ by each slave, each trader and each master differed.
Washington had a complex relationship with slavery; in personal letters he opposed it, but had no tolerance for slave rebellions, openly supporting the French slave owners in Haiti and signing the fugitive slave law of 1793. He discontinued selling his slaves out of concerns about breaking up families, but also went to extraordinary lengths to shanghai one of his slaves when they escaped to freedom in New Hampshire. (Hirschfeld 112–117) He freed the slaves he owned as a provision of his will, but this gesture seems somewhat hollower since, after his and Martha’s death, their usefulness to him was, by definition, over. (Hirschfeld 209–223) However, emphasizing this complexity and diversity can lead a person to attempt to rehabilitate slave owners—particularly ones such as Washington who are so revered. Seen in this light, the question of whether Washington was good to his slaves is the wrong one. A better one might be: “How would you be good to a slave?”
When I asked this question, some had difficulty answering. Others said: “free them”. This typically then led to a discussion about the complicated moral issues not just about slavery and abolition, but about judging people in the past—whether it is appropriate to view our heroes by the standards of their day or by higher universal standards of decency. And while this then typically involved a discussion of Washington’s complex history with slavery, the answer to the question was not “yes”. Because not only was Washington not universally good to his slaves, we must be reminded that the institution of slavery itself makes it simply impossible for a slave owner to be truly “good” to someone who remains their slave.
Necessary Shocks to the Sensibilities
Django may be historically simplistic in its depiction of slavery as a universally-corrupting and wholly-evil institution, where everyone participating in, and benefiting from, it deserves to be riddled with holes. However, it is important that we not be so inured by the complexities of the issues around slavery that it allows a for the return of nostalgic apologetics, where the complexities of these histories is used to argue that slavery was anything but dehumanizing and cruel. Perhaps Tarantino’s simplistic approach to this complex issue may be necessary from time to time. Using it can serve to shock the American viewing public with the brutality of which this system was capable, and to shake them from the natural desire to think of slavery, as it slips further and further from the present, as less awful, less cruel, or less dehumanizing than it was. It is crucially important to be shocked out of thinking that “no one was singing the blues”.
However, paradoxically, because of Tarantino’s penchant for breaking the rules of the historical film genre, Django may actually work at odds with that intent. As explored above, when the Nazi high command are blown up in Basterds, the audience is starkly reminded that what they are seeing is a fantasy. Similarly, when Candieland plantation is blown up in Django, some viewers might be inclined to think that what they have seen—including all the visions of the brutalities of the antebellum south—is similarly overblown. Because Tarantino has such a reputation for stylish violence, doing so may be working at cross-purposes with his stated intent to “[lay] waste to a genocidal, white racist class and the institution of slavery”. (Guru-Murthy) Thus, it must be reinforced that while Django’s ability to gun down slavery is a fantasy, the horrors of the institution were, in fact, very real.
So, in summation, Django Unchained, like its successor Inglourious Basterds has a complicated relationship with history and the “rules” of historical fiction. In both, Tarantino sets high expectations for historical accuracy by the reality effects he deploys: detailed scenery and costumes. But in both films, he pulls the proverbial rug out from under those expectations with a blood-soaked finale wherein those oppressed people in history are able to exact vengeance upon their oppressors. In Basterds this is historically impossible, and forces the audience to reconsider their understanding of the film on the whole as a work of fantasy rather than the half-truth offered by historical fiction. In Django, the finale is instead not necessarily impossible, but remains very improbable. That having been said, its ending is problematic in two ways—first, it gives small credence to the criticisms leveled by Lee or Smiley, that slaves did not, and possibly could not, extract such complete vengeance upon their masters. By showing otherwise, even to satisfy the genre expectations of an heroic western and in a fantastical context, it may be perceived by some as being disrespectful. When Django triumphantly proclaims “I am that one nigger in ten thousand”, what does that say about the other nine thousand nine-hundred and ninety-nine who remain the silent ancestors of contemporary African-Americans? When one of many is made a superhero, does that uplift or denigrate the remainder? In short, the issue lies with whether the individual audience member identifies with Django, with the other slaves, or, perhaps ideally, both.
The other way in which Django’s ending is problematic is that by creating a compelling narrative of the horrors of slavery, but then creating such an unrealistic reversal in the finale (like Basterds) that it calls into question the authenticity of the depiction of brutality. Basterds sidestepped this by leaving the holocaust—the real reason for the vengeful finale—largely unseen. But the ending of Django has left the door open for those who wish to revise history—whether they be on Wikipedia or Duck Dynasty—to intimate that slavery and the black experience in America was not as bad as it is generally understood to have been. Django, then, should not seen in isolation, but instead viewed alongside other films which reinforce those parts of Django’s narrative which show the cruelty inherent in American slavery and add a more nuanced view, such as Roots (1977) or the recent 12 Years a Slave (2013).
So, that raises the question: could Django have been made differently to avoid these problems? The answer seems to be that there is a paradox inherent in making an heroic western slave film. If the hero succeeds, as he does in this film, it gives rise to the complex issues seen above. If he fails, it is equally assailable on the grounds that it both violates genre expectations and casts black people as unheroic. And, if the hero is helped or saved by others, the film could be assailed as paternalistic. It is perhaps little wonder, then, that Tarantino’s film is so rare in the way that it chooses to engage with this subject. While Django Unchained remains problematic and controversial, when viewed in combination and contrast with both Tarantino’s other work and the broader corpus of films which depict slavery this rare deviation from history “with a capital H” stands as an impressive, if provocative, accomplishment.
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-  For the remainder of this essay I will refer to Django Unchained as Django. This is not to be confused with the 1966 film Django, on which Tarantino loosely based his own.
-  For a recent iteration of these old tropes, see: Captain America: The First Avenger (2011).
-  Rosenstone first develops the distinction between History and history (the former academic, the latter popular and ‘postmodern’, in (Rosenstone, Visions of the Past) He has developed this line of inquiry further in his subsequent work, particularly: (Rosenstone, History on Film/Film on History 2)
-  The other American holocaust, according to Tarantino, is the genocide of the Native Americans. (Django Unchained NYC Press Conference Q & A)
-  This is perhaps a key difference between crafting a revenge film around the holocaust and slavery. In the holocaust, there is a central figure around whom the ire can be focused: Adolf Hitler. By contrast, the institution of slavery has no such central villain whose face can be conveniently blown off—it was an institutional conspiracy of thousands of people over generations, many more than could fit into a movie theatre.
-  The controversy surrounding Django revolved around four things: the film’s liberal use of the racial epithet “nigger”, the production of a line of Django-themed action figures (which some felt was disrespectful to the history of slavery and may tacitly encourage slave-master play), a controversy over whether depictions of violence in films like Django might inspire real-world violence (since the film was coincidentally released in the wake of the Sandy Hook school massacre), and the appropriateness of depicting slavery in a western. Herein I focus only on the last of these.
-  Ironically it seems that describing American slavery as a holocaust is one of the only things Tarantino and Lee seem to agree upon.
-  For an examination of whether holocaust films can, or should, be funny, see: Sander L. Gilman, “Is Life Beautiful? Can the Shoah Be Funny? Some Thoughts on Recent and Older Films,” Critical Inquiry 26, no. 2 (Winter 2000): 279–308.