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"Django Unchained" and Understanding the Relationship between Hollywood and History

"Django Unchained" and Understanding the Relationship between Hollywood and History

Quentin Tarantino’s Spaghetti Western/Blaxploitation flick Django Unchained (2012) is among the most critically acclaimed films he has directed. The movie itself takes place in the South two years before the Civil War where an enslaved person by the name of Django (Jamie Foxx) finds himself accompanying a bounty hunter named Dr. King Shultz (Christoph Waltz). Shultz ultimately gives Django his freedom and together they hunt the South’s most-wanted criminals. Django’s motivation throughout the movie is to find his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) after they had been separated and punished for trying to escape their enslavers.

The movie has been read as an accurate description of the horrors of slavery as Tarantino never shy’s away from using excessive violence in any of his films. It makes one wonder if the violence in the film is to underscore the brutality of slavery or if slavery just fits the bill as the backdrop for a classic Tarantino film. Certainly Tarantino himself, the actors in the film, and many viewers of the film saw this as a movie explicitly about slavery. In an interview with Jay Leno, Kerry Washington noted that “in a lot of our films there’s a romanticizing of slavery, if you look at ‘Gone With The Wind’ it was the good old days of slavery when everyone got along, which is, you know, not how it really went down.” While she is absolutely right, the violence in the film as a way to get at the “truth” romanticizes slavery in its own way by reducing it to its most sensational and gruesome parts. The infamous scene when Django has a flashback to when Broomhilda is being whipped is cited as the most powerful part of the movie. However, there are many parts of it that romanticize and sensationalize slavery where Django is negotiating the value of Broomhilda as a houseslave and quoting the Bible while Broomhilda has a rosary draped on her arm as she is being viciously whipped.

The additional plot of Django Unchained being a love story provides an extra layer for interpretation. Love, marriage, and relationships among enslaved people were an integral part of expanding their networks. However, the Spaghetti Western style of Django Unchained portrays Django’s quest of vengeance as an individualistic and masculine one. In class, we discussed that most of us were not expecting historical accuracy and it is obviously wrong to expect that from any Hollywood film. One question that remains to be discussed is the function film plays in our society. As Stuart Hall reminds us, how we interpret media objects is informed by our individual experiences and the ideologies we hold.

The movie also gets directly at the issue of representation. The article titled, “Django Unchained is a heroic love story” highlighted how high the stakes are for films with Black actors and about issues that disproportionately affected Black people in history which is critiqued by Adolph Reed in his article, “Django Unchained, or, The Help: How “Cultural Politics” Is Worse Than No Politics at All, and Why.” In class, we tried to unpack the quotes from former article that can serve as inspiration for the comments below:

(1) “We also have, in Django, that rare Hollywood thing: a film about Black history where a Black person has agency and is central to shaping his or her destiny rather than playing the foil for a white person who proves they have character by helping a downtrodden Black person.” 

(2) “Schultz is Django’s liberator and teacher but over time Django becomes the leader of their duo and his journey remains central.”

(3) “Tarantino applies none of his typical campiness to slavery, never backing away from showing it as a despicable evil and enjoying its destruction.”

(4)“I wonder if some of the anger at Tarantino is discomfort with any white person dealing with Black culture. Or anger at Hollywood for not producing more Black films or Black filmmakers, which is definitely a problem and surely not Tarantino’s fault.”

(5) “For the descendants of slaves, who live in a world still tangibly doused in slavery’s residue, watching Django kill his oppressors could possibly feel cathartic.”

(6) “Some bristle at Tarantino’s copious use of the n-word in this film, and in his oeuvre, which is perhaps the least valuable or interesting discussion point for a film of this import. Slavery is the real obscenity, not this word…when white people in his movies use the n-word he is generally signaling that they’re racist and thus despicable.”

(7) “He gives us masters dying at the hands of a freed slave on a mission to liberate his wife. I wonder if our ancestors would find that disrespectful.”

The assigned readings for this class were: 

  1. Adolph Reed, “Django Unchained or The Help: How ‘Cultural Politics’ is Worse than No Politics at All and Why” (2013) https://nonsite.org/feature/django-unchained-or-the-help-how-cultural-politics-is-worse-than-no-politics-at-all-and-why

  2. “The D is Silent” from Michael K. Johnson, Hoo-Doo Cowboys and Bronze Buckaroos: Conceptions of the African American West, (2014).  

  3. “Django Unchained” from Richard Aquila, The Sagebrush Trail: Western Movies and Twentieth-Century America, (2015). 

  4. "Django Unchained is a heroic love story" http://www.msnbc.com/the-cycle/django-unchained-heroic-love-story

 

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1 comment

I especially love this part of your blog, Chandni: "The additional plot of Django Unchained being a love story provides an extra layer for interpretation. Love, marriage, and relationships among enslaved people were an integral part of expanding their networks. However, the Spaghetti Western style of Django Unchained portrays Django’s quest of vengeance as an individualistic and masculine one." I am always quick to defend love plots and melodramatic elements in film as they are too often belittled because they are considered feminine. And I guess I'm going to do it again, ha! I think you're right and I think that the problem in this film, as enjoyable as I find it to watch, may be that the love plot is actually not feminized enough (meaning it is too tightly associated with American individualism as figured in the icon of the lone ranger). While feminity has always been problematically tied to domesticity, I do think there is something to say for the creation of safe, communal spaces by women from which this film could have possibly benefited. Of course the film is a product of Tarantino's style and his overall interest in the hypermasculine aspects of the western genre, similarly to his others. And after reading “The D is Silent” from Michael K. Johnson's Hoo-Doo Cowboys and Bronze Buckaroos: Conceptions of the African American West, it seems Tarantino is also either uninformed or ignoring the history of the black western.

I'm actually recently becoming a huge western fan and am looking forward to watching some of these films myself. Although I do think I may enjoy westerns for different reasons than Tarantino - I'm least drawn to the violence and most drawn to the interactions between humans and nature and especially to elements of westerns that emphasize teamwork and the construction of socio-political spaces - I love the recent westerns Deadwood and Godless for these very reasons. I do wonder how Django Unchained may have turned out if Tarantino was focused on creation alongside destruction, while of course still acknowledging the very real destruction that slavery caused. On that note, I am still looking for a western that addresses just how devastating movement west was for indigenous American populations, one that will go beyond Dances with Wolves and The Last of the Mohicans. I'm open to suggestions! I think I'm going to pick up on this search by watching the documentary Reel Injun this summer.

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