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Django Unchained: Disrespectful Portrayal of Slavery or Misplaced Expectations?

By Courtney Herring

There’s no doubt filmmaker Quentin Tarrantino is no stranger to controversy,  and he didn’t disappoint with his latest film, Django Unchained. The film, starring Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Kerry Washington, Leonardo DiCaprio, Samuel L. Jackson, and Kerry Washington is a cross between a Spaghetti Western and Blaxploitation film. Django, played by Jamie Foxx, obtains his freedom and becomes a bounty hunter partner and is focused on one mission: to rescue his wife, Broomhilda (played by Kerry Washington) out of slavery in the antebellum South.

Many people have held their breath and offered their commentary on the film, released on Christmas Day. Knowing Tarrantino’s works and his controversial portrayals of African Americans, along with his gratuitous use of the “n-word,” some believe Django Unchained is an irreverent, disrespectful portrayal of the horrors of slavery, comparing the work to Alex Haley’s Roots. In fact, filmmaker Spike Lee said he refused to see the film because he felt it was disrespectful to his ancestors. Some believed that we, as a country, have not evolved to the point where we can spoof slavery.  Others hailed the work as a funny, triumphant story of the enslaved seeking vengeance upon the enslaver. Some appreciated the ironic themes Tarrantino placed strategically in the work and walked away feeling empowered.

I went to see the film on Christmas Day, with some reservation.  I had an idea of what to expect, given the fact it was a Tarrantino movie, but other than that, I didn’t know what I was walking into. Part of it is because I refused to watch extensive interviews with the stars, the filmmaker or read any reviews from those who had seen advanced screenings of the film. I wanted my viewing to be as objective as possible.

I’ve had quite a few discussions about the film with my Twitter followers and Facebook friends and I started to notice a theme in some of these talks. I found that many balked at the film’s premise and some even had misplaced expectations about the film’s objective. For those folks, I make the following observations:

  1. The object of the film was not to provide a historically accurate account of slavery. Sure, some historical elements were used, but it was largely meant to be a cross between a Spaghetti Western and a Blaxploitation film – therefore making it largely satirical. A satire on slavery? Some balk at the very thought, given this country’s not-so-distant endorsement of an inhumane institution. I can understand the critiques some people have of Tarrantino and his work, so I get the reservation to “enjoy” something of this nature.
  2. Tarrantino’s work is known for being irreverent, violent and over-the-top. Django Unchained was no different. I think it’s important to situate the work with the one who produces the work, as well as the intent of the work. His intention was not to give us another iteration of Roots.
  3. From someone who is a scholar of race and the media, I think that if we take a step back and take Django Unchained for what it is (an irreverent satire), it’s actually quite impressive how much agency and power Django has, as well as others. I’m no film critic, but I do think there were some powerful themes and a lot of ironic moments that make slavery and racism out to be one of the most disgusting institutions and mentality this country has ever endorsed.
  4. It’s both unfair and nonsensical for people to compare this work, in particular, with that of Spike Lee, Mya Angelou and Alex Haley, for a number of reasons. For one, Tarrantino will never win that battle. Never – and I don’t think he’s trying to. Also, let’s briefly discuss the fact that many parts of Alex Haley’s Roots were plagiarized from the book The African. Additionally, Haley had to settle out of court because of that fact, and historians are pretty sure he failed to accurately trace his ancestry back to Kunta Kinte (some actually assert Kinte is a mythical figure). Does that make Roots any less powerful? Not for me, because I recognize it for what it is: a great and triumphant story that I’m sure mirrors many of our ancestors’. In a word, I’m not sure if Haley is a good example of true story telling. A good story teller? Absolutely.
  5. Finally, I don’t look toward Hollywood to tell my stories. Perhaps that’s having low expectations, but it’s the way I view it. I also don’t expect those of a different persuasion to tell my stories the ways I want them told. I just don’t. This is not to say that whatever Tarrantino makes doesn’t impact me, because it does in a variety of ways (that’s another post), but I am not holding him responsible to for getting my history or my story “right.”

Tarrantino’s works are always controversial. Some people have very strong opinions about his stuff and think he’s always been disrespectful to African Americans in his films. Is that true for Django Unchained? I think that’s up to individuals to assess. I enjoyed it because I looked at the film from a deconstructive, ironic, and satirical point of view. But, I do get why people are uncomfortable with both seeing and enjoying the film. It’s mighty hard to joke about slavery when this country wants to forget it and banish it into the annals of history, all the while denying its present-day implications upon us all.

What are your thoughts on the film?

 

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5 Responses to Django Unchained: Disrespectful Portrayal of Slavery or Misplaced Expectations?

  1. Ruth Jones Reply

    December 31, 2012 at 1:01 pm

    Hi Courtney!

    I love your take on this film! Before I saw the film, I saw your Facebook post that said something to the point of this film’s purpose was not to be historically accurate. I took that thought into the theaters with me and I am still unsure of how to feel about it. I’m in Oakland, so the theater I went to was quite diverse to say the least. In saying that, hearing a theater full of people laugh at the repeated use of the “N” word and the other satirical scenes depicting slavery did not make me feel comfortable. At the same time, I could not pinpoint the reason that warranted my discomfort.

    My thought after the movie was exactly what you mentioned above: I’m not sure we as a country are quite ready to laugh at slavery. Even more, I could not ignore the fact that even Django’s triumph was largely due to the white character that served as a sort of “savior” for him. I understand the historical implications to that, but I was still bothered. I am still bothered thinking about it! I want to see this movie for what it is, however, I cannot ignore the issues surrounding the movie being what it is: a comedy about slavery. As open as I am trying to be, I just can’t wrap my head around that.

  2. Ruth Jones Reply

    December 31, 2012 at 1:03 pm

    Hi Courtney!

    I love your take on this film! Before I saw the film, I saw your Facebook post that said something to the point of this film’s purpose was not to be historically accurate. I took that thought into the theaters with me and I am still unsure of how to feel about it. I’m in Oakland, so the theater I went to was quite diverse to say the least. In saying that, hearing a theater full of people laugh at the repeated use of the “N” word and the other satirical scenes depicting slavery did not make me feel comfortable. At the same time, I could not pinpoint the reason that warranted my discomfort.

    My thought after the movie was exactly what you mentioned above: I’m not sure we as a country are quite ready to laugh at slavery. Even more, I could not ignore the fact that even Django’s triumph was largely due to the white character that served as a sort of “savior” for him. I understand the historical implications to that, but I was still bothered. I am still bothered thinking about it! I want to see this movie for what it is, however, I cannot ignore the issues surrounding the movie being what it is: a comedy about slavery. As open as I am trying to be, I just can’t wrap my head around that.

    BTW: Your blogs are awesome! I am so happy that you take the time to write intelligent, thought provoking commentary about what’s going on today :)

    • Courtney Herring Reply

      December 31, 2012 at 2:47 pm

      …Oh! And thanks so much for your support. It’s great knowing that others appreciate reading my stuff. :)

  3. Courtney Herring Reply

    December 31, 2012 at 2:45 pm

    Hey Ruth! Thanks so much for your comment. I completely understand your reservations about the film. It’s a difficult one to parse out and actually feel comfortable with. But, I think that’s the point. Now, let me preface what I’m about to say with this: I am NOT a Tarrantino fan. I’m actually quite ambivalent about him as a filmmaker, so I don’t sing his praises. I do think that in other films, he has shown himself to be completely obsessed with African Americans and our culture and our struggles. The ways he captures those are disconcerting to say the least. But, I did enjoy Django for what it was. I do think, however, that one of the things he did right in Django was show the horrors of slavery in an unadulterated fashion. I would list some of those here, but I don’t want to give away the spoilers for those who haven’t yet seen the film. In addition to that, I do think his use of the n-word is gratuitous and over-the-top in his other works, but in this one? I think it was on point. It’s slavery. It’s the antebellum South. That’s how I image we were talked to and referred by – the “n-word.” I think that from a film critic’s point of view, Tarrantino did a LOT of things that challenged the idea of racism and discrimination by turning the institution on its head in various ways throughout the film. I don’t think Tarrantino took this project lightly and I say that because of some of the interviews I read and things I saw for myself in the film.

    It’s my hope that people who see this film are at least knowledgeable about the fact that this is not a historically accurate portrayal of anything. It’s historical fantasy, and should be taken as such. I think where some of “our” problems come in with the film is that we may be afraid that people think this is how it really was. Black folk could have risen out of slavery with the help of benevolent outsiders and enough gumption to stand up to the “man,” when we know that really couldn’t have been the case. I just hope the film is not taken out of context and is appreciated for what it is: a satire.

    The reason why I’m able to speak so confidently about Tarrantino’s objectives is not because I’m assuming or because I’m a mind reader. He gives a WONDERFUL deconstructive, 3-part interview with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. about his thought process making the film. I’m gonna link it here, so you (and others can read it), but I think for those who want to see the film, they should hold off before reading it, because they talk about too much plot, which waters the movie down, in my opinion. Give this a read, and maybe it will help clear up some things for you: http://www.theroot.com/views/tarantino-unchained-part-1-django-trilogy.

    Even after reading this interview, you still may feel like you’re still uncomfortable with the film, and that’s okay. I agree with you to a certain extent: I don’t think this country is ready to have a bunch of irresponsible, sloppy filmmakers taking on slavery as satire. But, with Hollywood, when something is a money maker, please know that there will be imitators. I’m holding my breath at what’s to come out of this…

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