By Sarah Redmond & Jasmine Chacko
Django Unchained is an unconventional western film that was released in 2012, written and directed by Quentin Tarantino, a world-renowned director most commonly known for his famous revenge-based films. Django Unchained is classified as a spaghetti western, a wide-ranging term that applies to Western films, most of which were directed by Italians. Django Unchained is mainly influenced by the spaghetti westerns of the Italian director Sergio Corbucci. Sergio Corbucci created the 1966 film Django, and Django Unchained pays homage to Corbucci’s film (Pulver, “Quentin Tarantino Defends Depiction of Slavery in Django Unchained”).
Django Unchained focuses on a slave, Django, played by actor Jamie Foxx, who teams up with a German bounty hunter, Dr. King Schultz, played by Christoph Waltz, that gave Django his freedom. Django helps Schultz capture wanted criminals in exchange for the finding of Django’s long-lost wife, Broomhilda, played by actress Kerry Washington. The movie takes place two years before the start of the Civil War. In order to reunite Django and Broomhilda, Django and Schultz make their way to a plantation known as CandyLand, owned by Calvin Candie, played by Leonardo DiCaprio. On this plantation, slaves are forced to fight each other to the death in gruesome ways. Django and Schultz form the pretense that they are at CandyLand to purchase one of these fighting slaves, when they are actually there for Broomhilda. In the end, Schultz and Candie are both killed and Django’s wit allows him to escape, and finally reunite with Broomhilda. Django, of course, returns to the plantation, not only killing the people who live there but blowing up the whole house with a smirk on his face.
Historical and Cultural Context
Overall, Django Unchained strives to impart the violence associated with slavery to the audience. When talking about Tarantino’s way of creating the film, Patrick Rael, an Associate Professor of History at Bowdoin College, makes the notion that Tarantino rewrites “the past metaphorically rather than academically” (“Two Recent Films About Slavery”). In other words, the film does not intend to represent an accurate history, but to retell the horrors of slavery in a way the audience might better understand. Completely rewriting history with this film created controversy for Tarantino, however. Historians and critics claim that it’s disrespectful to create a false reality, or more so, a fantasy about slavery (Cobb, “Tarantino Unchained”). However, Tarantino’s goal was to create a story that redefines “black masculinity and classical Hollywood black cinematic stereotypes” (Carr, “Introduction: Django Unchained– Disrupting Classical Hollywood Historical Realism?”).
While the film portrays some inaccurate details, the overall depiction of slavery is fairly accurate to history. Django Unchained depicted the notion of women slaves being sexually abused and the true power the white slave-owners presented within the plantation system as being fairly accurate to history. This infinite power that the slave-owners seemed to have went beyond just women, too. The slave owners controlled the lives of their slaves, seen in the way the slaves are put ruthlessly to work and the way the slaves fear their masters. The scars on Django’s back and other multiple whippings throughout the film are a clear mark of the hold slaveowners had over their slaves’ lives. Through Django’s complete turn from chained slave to freed man, the film brings about the story of slave resistance and politics that helped to bring forth the abolitionist movement.
The film leaves the audience realizing that the constant brutality was a norm for everyday society, such as when Django shows all of his scars on his body, or when it’s not uncommon to see a slave being brutally beaten throughout the movie. For the audience watching the film when it was released, they are reminded of the racial tensions going on in present-day America. Right before the film was released, Barack Obama had been elected for president for his second term, defeating yet another white presidential candidate. Making history as the first-ever black American president, former President Obama not only gave a sense of pride to the black community but seemed to begin an era in which we could experience a post-racism America. In Peniel Joseph’s words, “The American presidency suddenly looked very different, and for a moment America felt different, too” (“Obama’s Effort to Heal Racial Divisions and Uplift Black America”). However, four years after his first election, racial tensions were still running high. With the death of Trayvon Martin handled terribly in the hands of white police officers in the beginning of 2012, the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement shortly after the release of Django Unchained, and an explosion in media coverage, Americans were finally made aware of the fact that racism was not over, yet. This film served to remind America of the past horrors of slavery, and the prejudices within the film rang true in an America that was increasingly dividing over race.
Themes and Style
Vengeance from an ex-slave’s point of view is a core theme throughout the film. The plot revolves around the fact that Django is able to kill the same people who persecuted his own. There’s an obvious flip in power throughout the film. Django is no longer a subordinate slave, but he has an aura of superiority to him. Even with other black slaves, he treats them as lower than himself. Django is able to stand up to anyone that gets in his way, and is finally able to have his moment of justice when he kills several white slaveowners, and then blows up the entire CandyLand plantation.
Django Unchained really evokes a sense of strength and hope for the enslaved African Americans during this time through Django’s fearless actions. Django would rather risk his life in order to take vengeance upon the deserving criminals and slave-owners. This theme in the film is a portrayal of the constant occurrence of slave rebellions and slave escapes that actually took place during the slave era. In Django Unchained, Django alone, represents the community of slaves in history that took it upon themselves to stand up for what they believed in: justice, freedom, and liberation.
Django’s display of revenge leads to another theme: a conflict in morals. What’s “right” isn’t black and white. The constant violence throughout the film results in several murders; however, most of them are white slaveowners. While the splashing sounds the bullets make entering the bodies makes the audience wince, no remorse is felt because those bodies belong to the villainous slave-owners. The only death that is truly mourned over is that of Calvin Candie, but even his death is only grieved by the head slave, Stephen. The characters themselves aren’t too concerned with this massive display of violence either. Both Django and the whites engage in shootouts, watch a slave being torn apart by dogs, and generally have violent encounters with each other. Pulling a gun at the first sign of trouble seems to be normal among the characters. This obvious disregard of who dies conflicts with the morals Django should have, as the justice he seems to deserve comes about in the form of even more violence.
The style of the movie depicts slavery in an over-exaggerated way. The Ku Klux Klan, although a clear anachronism, is presented to be almost silly, especially in the way they argue about the eye-holes in their masks. While the KKK is a representation of an incredibly tense point in American history, their representation offers a great source of humor. It’s also unlikely that major shootouts, such as the ones that frequently appear in Django Unchained, occurred. Furthermore, it is highly improbable that slaves were made to fight each other to the death in the way that they are on the CandyLand plantation. While the humor that is woven into these scenes keeps the audience engaged, the general bloodshed speaks to the manner in which slaves were treated. Brit Bennett, a graduate from Stanford University and author of the New York Times bestseller The Mothers, discusses in her article “Ripping the Veil,” about the formulaic writing that was present in slave narratives. She makes the claim that authors of slave narratives often downplayed and glossed over violent anecdotes or skipped over them entirely. However, in Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino forces the viewer to watch the violence unfold on the screen. He doesn’t hold back in showing blood gushing and even a slave being ripped apart by dogs. This style of Django Unchained serves its purpose: to leave the lasting impression of slavery on its viewers.
Many critics have claimed that Django Unchained is inaccurate, offensive, and that slavery should not be treated with such light-heartedness. For instance, Jermaine Spradley, in his The Huffington Post article “Django Unchained Controversy”, makes the very argument that slavery does not play well with the humor it is presented in. He goes on to say that the film is so highly satirized that the audience doesn’t understand the weight behind the meaning of the film. Furthermore, other critics point out the flawed history within the film. An inconsistency of the film is pointed out by the founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Lonnie Bunch, in his article: “What Django Unchained Got Wrong.” He argues that the enslaved women depicted in the film are presented as constantly crouched down in fear or sexually abused throughout the film, but in reality, the enslaved women in history were very strong by the fact that a lot of them were able to “maintain a sense of family and a belief in the possibilities of future that they could only imagine.” Yarimar Bonilla, an associate professor at the University of Chicago, further explores this controversy in her peer-reviewed article “History Unchained” regarding Django Unchained. Her primary argument is that the film was an inaccurate portrayal of history. She points out the finer incorrect details of the film: the KKK appearing before their time, slaves riding horses, and slaves fighting each other to the death. Bonilla goes on to justify these inconsistencies presented in the film, however. Bonilla argues that the intentions of the movie were not to relay facts of history, but to impart the terrors of racism and slavery that have existed in the past and still exist today. The violence and discrimination displayed in the film are still issues in today’s society, and Bonilla seeks to communicate that Django Unchained was not meant as simply a retelling of history, but a way for viewers to link this brutal past with the world we live in now. The audience is left with the lasting impression of the terrors slaves experienced despite the humor that is involved.
Tarantino himself defends his decisions in Django Unchained. He explains that for any violence seen in the movie, it was “far worse” in the slave era. Further, he says, “When slave narratives are done on film, they tend to be historical with a capital H…I wanted to break that history-under-glass aspect, I wanted to throw a rock through that glass and shatter it for all times, and take you into it” (Pulver, “Quentin Tarantino Defends Depiction of Slavery in Django Unchained”). The humor, the exaggerations, even the inaccuracies, are all intentional. They are meant to draw the viewer in, to collapse the inevitable bridge between the past and present. By closing this gap, Tarantino allows the audience to connect a time when it’s almost impossible to know the kind of emotions associated with such an institution as slavery; he shares this brutal past and enables the audience to better understand the way Django feels. In “Django Unchained: He Can’t Say That, Can He?”, author Chris Vognar also defends Tarantino. He says that as a director, Tarantino provokes the audience. He mentions the fact that the overuse of the “n word,” causing some critics such as Spike Lee to condemn the movie, actually captures the essence of the language that the white slave owners used. There is a clear divide in the opinions of Django Unchained, but this sort of controversy seems to be the exact intention Quentin Tarantino had when creating the film.
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Spradley, Jermaine. “Django Unchained Controversy: A Look at the Conundrum Tarantino’s Latest Created in Progressive Black America.” The Huffington Post, TheHuffingtonPost.com, 11 Jan. 2013, www.huffingtonpost.com/jermaine-spradley/django-unchained-controversy_b_2457739.html. Accessed 4 Oct. 2017.
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Keywords: Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino, Django Unchained analysis, Recent spaghetti-western film, Unconventional slavery film, Ex-slave vengeance