Well, I finally got around to watching “Django Unchained” the other day. I’m probably the last person to have seen the film, and I did so reluctantly (and illegally, at that). After several months of reading articles that had nothing good to say about the movie, I figured it was time I do my own research and go to the primary source by watching the movie myself–and then [shamelessly] dedicate a blog-post to my findings!
As an African American, I found the film offensive for so many different reasons. Not that I wasn’t aware that feeling this way after watching a western film based around slavery could be a possibility, but now that the film has been nominated to win an academy award, I think it is crucial we really see and understand why this movie, along with its success, is perpetuating a problem that has too long existed within Hollywood–African Americans being poorly represented.
In an interview after winning a Golden Globe, Tarantino was confronted over his abundant use of “Nigger” being tossed around pretty liberally throughout the film–somewhere around 110 times. His response: He wasn’t using it anymore than they used it in 1858. Now if historical accuracy is what he uses to justify the use of the word, than historical accuracy should be a consistent theme throughout the movie. But instead, we see the film flooded with historical inaccuracies. Just to name a few:
1. In the beginning of the film, Dr. Schultz, after shooting one of the slave catchers, claims he has five witnesses (slaves) who can testify to the fact that he was defending himself. In 1858, Blacks weren’t considered citizens, and as such, they couldn’t testify in court, even if they were freeman.
3. There was no Mandingo fighting plantations. In fact, slaves never fought to the death for entertainment. They were too valuable and the strongest were used for useful purposes–tobacco and cotton production–purposes that could generate real profit. After all, that is why slavery existed–for profit, to fuel the economy and a market revolution in America.
Tarantino doesn’t get to justify his use of the n-word with historical accuracy while he so clearly doesn’t stay true to history in so many other regards throughout the movie. Black America has a right to be offended over these contradictions. We have a right to feel disrespected when someone white wants to manipulate our ancestry’s past to become enjoyable to watch. We have a right to be angered when the [white] mainstream sees this movie as a success in conquering racism in America by giving us a black “hero”. All of these responses–along with the movie itself–aren’t a symbol of how far we have come, they represent how far we haven’t come.
To be fair, I felt the film was a success in many ways. Tarantino really went in on this one. Cinematography, directing, acting, and action sequences were all great to watch. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t more than a little bit entertained while watching this movie.
But that’s the underlining problem–the movie was entertaining. Tarantino claims that his intentions in this film are to depict slavery accurately, and in no way was the institutional enslavement of millions meant to be turned into a spaghetti western for our enjoyment and for someone to make millions off of. This film does no justice to educating people on what slavery was: a horrible institution that could come no where close to be entertaining if one stayed true to history. Rather, it’s an over romanticized version of slavery from the eyes of Tarantino, a white man.
A lot of people question why accuracy matters. Whats wrong with making an entertaining movie that doesn’t stay true to the facts? Its not like it hasn’t been done so many other times before by Hollywood. That’s true, but when it comes to the representation of African Americans and our history within Hollywood, accurate representation has been minimal. Despite taking up a greater part of American history, movies based around slavery are few, and so many people are still oblivious to the details and facts behind the racist institution.
But not just slavery, what about African Americans? So seldom do we see African Americans–or our history–in films. When we do, their roles are either minimal or secondary, and our history generally revolves around–or told from the perspective of–white folks. “Django” being no exception. Django’s character is more of a sidekick who gets his “five minutes of fame” at the end of the movie. His freedom, his ability to purchase his wife, and even his skills as a bounty hunter are all predicated on the relationship he has developed with a white man–which seems to be an extremely paternal relationship.
So often in Hollywood do we see the “black sidekick” or the paternalism underlying black-white interactions with one another (anyone remember “The Help”). So based on Hollywood’s track record when dealing with racial matters, “Django” doesn’t really surprise me, but that doesn’t let them off the hook.
To all those who could care less about historical accuracy and more about being entertained: that way of thinking is costly. It perpetuates the degradation of black actors/actresses. It leaves no room for meaningful dialogue on black misrepresentation. It allows blacks to narrowly be cast into the same roles we have become so used to seeing. Roles that don’t adequately represent the diversity of the black community, but that rather perpetuate stereotypes that have far too long existed in Hollywood.
Tarantino claims he was trying to give blacks a western hero we have long deserved but never had.
Maybe African Americans do need a hero to call their own, but that ain’t Django.