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‘Django Unchained’ – A Breakdown Before You Go

Before breaking my Christmas induced food coma yesterday and trotting to downtown Brooklyn to see Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained  last night, I will admit that I had my reservations. Plenty had already been written about the film, from critical reviews to “well I think” Black Twitter rants, to the public questioning of Tarantino’s right to make a movie about slavery. Some I found to be puzzling, and some made me more intrigued to see the film. So like the rest of Brooklyn, I was at the 7:20pm screening and stayed up talking about the film to about 1:00am the next morning—it’s that good.

As with the spaghetti-western genre that blatantly influenced Unchained, here you have an outsider (Tarantino) making an entertaining film about a very serious, exclusive African-American experience (American Slavery), much like the initial feedback that Sergio Leone the creator of the genre and an Italian, had when attempting to touch a very white American cultural archetype—the Western. Much of what I’ve observed is a “its not okay for him to make this” attitude, to which I say “did we see the same film?”

So that we don’t get anything twisted, here’s my quick and dirty breakdown on what to know before seeing Django Unchained:

First, Django Unchained isn’t a movie about slavery.
It’s not Roots, which has unfairly been dubbed as an accurate portrayal of the complete Black American slave experience, nor is it Amistad, Sankofa or any other movie that takes a critical or factual look at the peculiar institution known as American slavery. Rather, Django is a movie about revenge, with slavery serving as basis of the plotline. It’s certainly not a comedy, but it will have you rolling in your seat at times, nor is it a classic drama or post-racial epic saga. I suppose people will dub it a host of things, but it is definitely a classic Quentin Tarantino flick: irreverent, entertaining, witty and layered.

But This Is Our Story!
Approaching the movie with the expectation of a Kunta Kinte style dramatic will not only set you up for failure while watching, but also obscures the larger dialogue that the film touches—namely, slavery is not just our story to tell.

To place a label of exclusivity on American slavery as something that only Blacks have the right to address or use not only diminishes its place in history, it also relinquishes non-Blacks of the seriousness and responsibility of their participation in the business of buying, breeding and selling humans that were seen as more as cattle. The reality is just as many of our ancestors were slaves, for many white Americans their ancestors participated in the buying, selling and management of slaves. It’s a dual experience to acknowledge and makes the history of African Americans explicitly linked with the building of this nation. Slavery is not just African American history, it is American history that is not to be viewed with an exclusively Black lens. This notion of it being “ours” is unrealistic and dangerous in how this attitude affects how slavery is at times romantically portrayed in textbooks and media.

Violence and Niggers
Like the Tarantino films that precedes it, Django is violent. As in, a slave gets his eyes ripped out, and more slaves are branded, bridled and tortured violent. Also, in Django you will hear the word nigger (I refuse to use “the n word”) repeatedly. For some, this has been too much to handle and has been the basis for the “controversy” which goes back to the aforementioned notion of exclusivity. Slavery was horribly violent and sadistic—it was a sociopath’s dream. In addition to breeding and working, rape was seen as a normalized  instance in the life of a slave (female and male), and the torture of slaves was a cottage industry complete with experts and tools. Documented instances of forced bestiality, medieval style dismemberments and other humiliations are not unknown, they simply are just not told enough. Everything shown in Unchained, with the exception of Mandingo fights**, is pretty accurate and is included not as a glorification, but as a criticism. And during the entire time, we were called niggers. The term “African American” did not exist in the 1800’s and other terms such as ‘blacks’ or ‘negroes’ was used more academically than anything. Honestly, I’d be upset if Tarantino didn’t use ‘nigger’ in this movie as it would lend itself to a mockery.

And What Of The Women?
Another intriguing aspect of this film was it’s depictions of women. While Kerry Washington’s Hildy was not a major vocal character, her appearances are unforgettable in their nature and context. She comes to life towards the end of the film, however it seemed to me that Tarantino’s restraint with her character was a direct nod to how Black women were looked at the during that time: seen but not heard. There is also a small glimpse into a oft-overlooked courtesan-like pleasure houses and the business of plaçage, that were known in both Mississippi and Lousiana where Black women were indeed “dressed-up” for the purpose of the pleasure and amusement of white men. Interestingly enough, I appreciated that the ‘strong black woman/mammy type’ character was missing from this film as she has already been contorted enough in history. There’s not enough to stamp it with a feminist label, however the feminist in me was amused.

Overall, Unchained is an entertaining film that has good guys, bad guys and one deliciously evil yet funny house slave, played by Samuel L. Jackson. The teaming of Christopher Waltz and Jamie Foxx is surprisingly brilliant and balanced. I didn’t deem it to be disrespectful to our history, it’s virgin territory in filmmaking that is going to make the older guard squirm, or wish they did it first. Whats more important than who made it, is that it was made. And let’s be honest, Tarantino being white is the reason why this film was “allowed” to be made at this production level. And while all of the characters are certainly larger than life and fiction, Unchained is definitely grounded in reality and avoids being the spoof that some have made it out to be. However, it’s also unfair to the film to charge it with the responsibility of being the next Amistad because that was never it’s intent. Much like Inglorious Basterds should never be looked through the same lens as Schlinder’s List. It walks a fine line between fantasy and fiction, while offering a very realistic glimpse into a very realistic period of American history that is fair game. And Jamie Foxx makes for a pretty cool superhero. So go see it, and yes, its okay to like it, and it’s okay to laugh.

**While the fictionalized business of Mandingo fights serves as the backdrop of one of the goriest parts of the film, there is no historical basis for it. However, there is proof of slaves fighting for sport. Notably, the first Black American heavy-weight contender, Tom Molineaux, who won his freedom after defeating another slave in an fighting arranged match. Slaves were made to fight each other for entertainment, just not until the death, which wouldn’t be profitable for slave owners.

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  • Alain

    You make some great points in this breakdown. I especially like the “This is Our Story!” breakdown.

    I never thought of slavery as being shared history, although it clearly is. And when you view it through that lens, the whole “The White Man” can’t tell an authentic and compassionate story on or related to slavery argument implodes. I can’t wait to see this movie.

  • Bran

    Wow. Very impressed with this analysis. I watched it last night and was left simply without an opinion. Thanks for the breakdown, I now see clearly!