Django Unchained: Historical Inaccuracies and Racial Tropes Abound

Django Unchained

Django Unchained (Photo credit: Pink Cow Photography)

by Prof. Karen Johnson

Django Unchained, the latest film by Quentin Tarantino (QT), tells the story about a rescued enslaved person named Django (Jaime Foxx) who teams up with his rescuer, a German-immigrant bounty hunter, named Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), in efforts to capture criminal fugitives ‘dead or alive’ as a way of acquiring monetary awards. Django and Schultz ultimately devise a scheme to liberate Django’s enslaved wife, Broomhilde (Kerry Washington) from the brutal slave-owner Calvin Candie, played by Leonardo DiCaprio. The film takes place in the South, from the 1858 to 1859 timeframe.

Although Django Unchained is supposedly a depiction of slavery, it is not a historical period piece. Instead, this film is more truly a Spaghetti Western genre, in every sense of the word; even the title, Django, is the same name of a 1960s Spaghetti Western film, made by Italian filmmaker Sergio Corbucci. Tarantino’s Django reflects the typical QT derisively mocking, sardonic storyline motif, wherein which the aestheticization of violence is reverberated throughout the entire film; and is carried out by the main character, Django, and the other significant supporting characters of Schultz, and Candie. In true QT stylistic fashion, Django represents the antihero—a neo-noir personality type, who is a tormented and conflicted individual, due to the brutal horrors of slavery and to the separation of the love of his life, Broomhilde.  Django is willing to engage in any liberatory means necessary, albeit nihilistic acts of violence, to rescue Broomhilde from Calvin Candie’s plantation. For me, the only redeeming aspect of the film is Django’s unbridled love for Broomhilder and his desire to travel to the bowels of the earth, if you will, in efforts to free her from the holocaust of enslavement. That type of commitment to black love is rare on Hollywood screens. It is a powerful story plot, indeed!

Still, this is a White-American masculinist-authored fantasy about an “exceptional” bad-ass freed man, who is supposedly “different” from other enslaved men or women. Tarantino’s re-imagined Django stands out and alone from the other enslaved in that he is bold, fearless, and has some level of agency, albeit he is still subordinately tied to Schultz. The viewing audience is not given an understanding as to why Django is “exceptional” and the other well-dressed enslaved men and women are docile, idiots, fearful, happy, and have internalized their bondage.

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  • Daniel Marshall

    Is this the Karen Johnson from Tampa, FL? Wonderful, Strong article! Danny Marshall

  • http://www.facebook.com/karmella.haynes Karmella Haynes

    I think that this analysis risks being as polarized and simplified as the film it is critiquing. I agree that not all of our black ancestors were “happy slaves,” but not all of them were Harriet Tubman, or Django, either. Furthermore, not all whites were Candie, his family, or the poor whites in the film. I’m surprised that a professor of ethnic studies didn’t point out the obvious similarity between Tarantino’s film and ones like Shaft, Coffee, Foxy Brown, etc. Blaxploitation films use the same formula. The characters are always caricatures. An oppressed and exceptionally lethally skillful black anti hero rises up against “the man.” The horrors of racial injustice make it easy for the viewer to cheer on the antagonists’ brutal deaths. Same formula, same racial tropes, different time period.

  • Thelma

    This is one of the best explanations of the film I have read yet. Whether you enjoyed the movie or hated the movie, you analyzed what the movie really was. Thank you.

  • Jenise

    Excellent Dr. Karen Johnson, shared!

  • http://www.hopeandchange.net/2012/12/django-unchained.html joemarkowitz

    What makes you think that Tarantino was trying to make a “classic historical film about slavery?” And do you think anyone who knows anything about Tarantino, or who has seen any of this other films, go to this movie expecting that it would be historically accurate? This film is pure fantasy. It exists in a mythological world derived from popular stereotypes. Those stereotypes include the Western as conceived in Italy, as well as numerous black exploitation films. To criticize the film for including references to our stereotyped mythologized vision of slavery is to completely misunderstand what Tarantino was trying to do.

    Save your outrage for films like Gone with the Wind or Birth of a Nation, films that tried to pass as history, but were full of lies.

    • http://www.hopeandchange.net joemarkowitz

      I noticed that you revised your post since I commented on it, which is ok (I do that myself sometimes), but makes it hard to comment on a moving target. Anyway, what I wanted to add to my comment is that you do make a very valid point about the contrast between the Jamie Foxx character and the other slaves we see depicted in the film, who are mostly shown as a fearful and rather docile lot. That disturbed me a bit also when I watched the film. For example, there is one scene where Django frees several slaves, but then leaves them to fend for themselves, and they just sit there. While I was watching it, I was hoping they would join with Django in seeking revenge. In fact going into the movie I was expecting to see a broader slave rebellion when instead we got a one man super-hero.

      I think that’s because there is a tension between the kind of slave rebellion revenge fantasy that a lot of the audience would like to see, and the model of the spaghetti Western that Tarantino was basing his movie on. Jamie Foxx is definitely playing a Clint Eastwood type of character, and in Eastwood Westerns the hero is also usually acting alone and the townspeople tend to be fearful, docile types.

      I can understand how people might see this as an offensive depiction of slavery. But that’s only if you think the film was trying to present an accurate historical depiction of slavery, instead of just using that setting to present a super-hero fantasy.

      • http://Facebook Jimmy Reed

        Thank you Joe for both excellent comments. One thing you probably overlooked, Can you say sequel? That’s why no uprising. And oh, people, “Its a MOVIE”, not a documentary. Let’s get real. Don’t get it twisted. Q.Tarantino is smart enough to get all this free publicity for his movie. Brilliant. Sorry Spike. Gonna have to disagree with you on this one.

  • Brandon Melendez

    A wonderful critique; thoughtful, thorough, and personal. However I feel I must pose the question–as someone who has seen a fair share of Tarrentino films (but has yet to see this one): after seeing the end of Inglorious Basterds can we ever expect any semblance of historical accuracy from Tarrentino? Or further yet, with the in-film inconsistencies and chronological jumbling present in Pulp Fiction, I think it is fair to assert that QT films are based in their own sort of reality–similar but removed and markedly different, fantasized, and agreed steeping in white male masculine violence. There is an Internet fan theory that these films exist in a universe unto themselves so that they needn’t be reliant on trivial things like facts and historical accuracy. So I think the larger question, in response to your critique, is was it responsible, purposeful, or somehow (meta or otherwise) commentary for this film to be made? Is it fair to call it a film or just a flimsy , faux-intellectual shoot-em-up, popcorn flick?

    For certain when I do see the film I will be watching it through the lens of your review, and rightfully so–because if it has caused the right people to be insulted while the wrong people were merely entertained then it probaby didn’t capture the lightning in a bottle that appealed to so many at the revisionist ending in Basterds.

    Thanks for this post.

  • Hannah

    This movie is not meant to be a accurate depiction of historical slavery epitome. It’s Tarantino’s take on Western cinematography, with a historical twist to it. Tarantino consistently pushes the envelop in his films. To my understanding, Tarantino simply wants your attention, and in the time that he has it,Tarantino presents questions to movie viewers on the social mores. For example, the part in the film about the Mandingo fighters another is the dolls at the Cleopatra club. In addition, the house verses the field for lack of better terms “Nigger”. Another question is whether it’s worst to be a white slave owner of black slaves versus a black slave owner of black slaves. Tarantino inter-weaves the discussion topic of phrenology. If you aren’t a Tarantino aficionado, there is probably a great deal to be misunderstood. In summary, the acting in this movie is Oscar worthy for all of its characters (Samuel Jackson, Leonardo Di Caprio, Jamie Foxx, and Kerry Washington, etc.)

  • Runoko Rashidi

    Excellent my sister! Simply excellent!!

  • http://gravatar.com/rechilds rechilds

    You know, one thing that always amazes me is how quickly black people jump to the defense of this caliber of tripe whenever it is produced, and do so to the applause of those who were “entertained by,” and supported it at the box-office. Someone like Tarantino takes license with our history and misery, does so for profit, gets sellouts like Foxx and Washington to buy into it for a check and then we help them all beat a path to the bank.

  • Linda Davis

    It is shockingly refreshing that a mulatto or light skin black woman with white-like features was not cast in this film. However, it would have been historically accurate for Kerry Washington’s character to wear an afro, locks or braids rather than a long straight weave. It seems that we simply can’t be portrayed as being beautiful without that shit on our heads.

  • http://twitter.com/kwamezulushabaz ghetto intellectual (@kwamezulushabaz)

    Thanks for taking the time to write this Karen.

  • Sam Livingston

    I Enjoyed the review as it points readers to the many inaccuracies in the film. To those who claim that Tarantino or any other director is above the law of history, I would say you are quite naive. These films justify a particularly western worldview and historical narrative. In the case of Django, Black resistance to slavery and even revenge must be conducted through white male agency. I enjoyed the film, however, I realize that it does more to distort the history of slavery rather than clarifying any issues even in an artistic or representational way.

    The heart of what the story is: a Blaxploitation redo of the Siegfried – Brunhild cycle, is worthwhile as it is a chronotrope of a declining white Male hegemony. For many whites, Django will be read as Barack Obama. In the white male historical imagination, wanton slaughter was the only historical act of anti-slavery resistance that registered on the dialectical meter. The historical record suggests that violence became routinely directed at enslaved Africans only. American slave revolts were notoriously parsimonious in the amount of violence directed at whites. Random slaughter coming from Black hands was rare. Regardless, during slavery, the perceived threat was almost as potent as the record of actual revolt, just as the imagined Mau Mau sitting in the White House, today, has caused the proliferation of white militia armed to the teeth and preparing for their Django.

    • Jenise

      Sam, ^5, thank you!

  • Pingback: Django Unchained l Commentary by Professor Karen Johnson, Coordinator of African American Studies, Univ. of Utah | OCG

  • http://www.thepodium.ca/2013/01/django-unchained-rethinking-slavery-in-films/ Will Ramirez

    I think you are simplifying the characters in the story and not in the way that they are intended to be simplified.

  • http://www.thepodium.ca/2013/01/django-unchained-rethinking-slavery-in-films/ Will Ramirez
  • Gary C.

    I think the problem lies in assuming Tarantino was going to make a historical accurate, and serious slavery piece in the first place. This film is right up the alley with what he does. If any protests or reservations made about the film, it should’ve been expressed when news broke that Tarantino was going to helm a slavery film in the first place as I did. I felt he would trivialize the slavery experience turning it into a cartoon much like he did with the subject of hunting nazis but more now the film is made, I can go into it with a different mindset. His violence doesn’t bother me. As a black make, I see nothing wrong with a slave killing rednecks on the big screen. My pause is my wits end that I’m at with Tarantino’s fetish with the “N” word. I assumed it would be high volume and I was correct in that it had a record number of uses where it isn’t necessary.

  • aaron jackson

    “Still, this is a White-American masculinist-authored fantasy about an “exceptional” bad-ass freed man, who is supposedly “different” from other enslaved men or women. Tarantino’s re-imagined Django stands out and alone from the other enslaved in that he is bold, fearless, and has some level of agency, albeit he is still subordinately tied to Schultz. The viewing audience is not given an understanding as to why Django is “exceptional” and the other well-dressed enslaved men and women are docile, idiots, fearful, happy, and have internalized their bondage.”

    The movie is about DJANGO not about the other slaves. If everyone appears to be exactly the same as the hero in the movie it takes the spotlight away from the hero for instance say everyone in a Spider-Man movie had wall crawling abilities it wouldnt be as entertaining. And that what the movie is for ENTERTAINMENT. If you paid attention to the movie you would realize that the other slaves were not docile and stupid, they had no time be given the fact that Django is the only male slave with more than five to six lines.The movie isnt about the liberation of slaves its about a man doing whatever he can to be with his girl.

    “Taken as a whole, Tarantino’s Django Unchained fails on so many levels! It is not a classic historical film about slavery, but one white man’s imaginary gory and violent video game!”

    Taken as a whole your review of this movie fails on so many levels, this is a movie its not a docudrama about slavery its not roots its not an end all completely accurate description of slavery its not a movie about actual historical events such as Lincoln( which by the way doesn’t mention Fredrick Douglass role in the events but i don’t see you writing about that!) its not supposed to be anything except what it is which is a Tarantino film.

    Obviously you know nothing about film and are extremely unqualified to review a movie in such a way.

    The comedy in the movie is not a way to make the film more palatable as you put it. Quentin Tarantino has always mixed comedy and serious situations in his movies.

    ” At the end of the film, I overheard audience members making comments such as, “that was a funny movie” or “that was entertaining.” ”

    That is the kind of response you want from a MOVIE, which is what it was. I ll say it again its a MOVIE.

    “In addition, the enslaved women in the film are characterized as weak, passive, obedient, damsel-in-distress and complicit in their own sexual exploitation. Such myths and depictions run counter to the numerous slave narratives that reveal Black women who were resilient survivors who actively embarked on obliterating slavery. I argue that the erroneous and controlling stereotypical images of Black women as the happy servant or the willingly whore serve to set Black women aside from her humanity and justify and rationalize, to the viewing audience, her bondage.”

    again the movie is not about obliterating slavery its about Django not the womens resistance. There are few female slaves in the movie besides Broomhilda with speaking lines. And id like to point out that Broomhilda the leading lady of the film is not portrayed as weak, docile or complicit in her sexual exploitation. Django is not on a mission to end slavery hes going to get his girl THATS ALL.

    This movie is not supposed to be a historical representation of slavery and all the atrocities the slaves endured and you are responding to it as if it is. the movie isnt about slavery its about a mans quest to rescue his love from certain doom. I understand where you’re coming from but just because the movie deals with slavery doesn’t mean its about slavery. This movie doesn’t deserve the criticism you gave it. It doesn’t show black people in a negative way. A black man is the hero. He is going to rescue his black wife showing how far a black man will go for the one he loves. If anything Quentin Tarantino has opened the door for more black love stories and other movies that deal with slavery.

    I could debate you on almost everything you said about the movie but i feel this comment is already long enough. So I will end by saying next time you decide to evaluate a movie in this way research the structure of a film and do s little more research on the actual film you’re talking about.
    This was an excellent movie from beginning to end

    -A black man who studies film

  • Clarence

    In true QT stylistic fashion, Django represents the antihero—a neo-noir personality type, who is a tormented and conflicted individual, due to the brutal horrors of slavery and to the separation of the love of his life,

    An anti-hero, according to Wikipedia, is a protagonist who lacks heroic virtues and qualities (such as being morally good, idealistic, courageous, and noble). My question is under what lense are you seeing Django as an anti-hero? Rescuing your wife from slavery to live happily ever after with her is not courageous, idealistic, or noble?

    Django is willing to engage in any liberatory means necessary, albeit nihilistic acts of violence, to rescue Broomhilde from Calvin Candie’s plantation.

    You mean any means necessary like our beloved Malcolm X, Nat Turner, Denmark Vessey, Che Guevara, Toussaint L Ouverture, the Maroons, Pancho Villa, Sitting Bull, Tecumsheh or any number of Americans in history who dared lift the yolk of bondage off of their neck because they couldn’t just request a vote? A simple please didn’t work in those days. Also, Django did try to buy her freedom, but he got caught up in the bone-headed scheme of Schultz for which both he and Broomhilda LOST their freedom because the German was too proud to offer the plantation owner Candie, whom he deemed inferior to him, a simple handshake.

    Still, this is a White-American masculinist-authored fantasy about an “exceptional” bad-ass freed man, who is supposedly “different” from other enslaved men or women.

    Tarantino has written and directed seven movies now. Three of which starred bad ass heroines (Kill Bill I amp; II and Jackie Brown) and one of which was a black heroine played by Pam Grier that put her back into the public consciousness and rejuvenated her acting career.

    Tarantino’s re-imagined Django stands out and alone from the other enslaved in that he is bold, fearless, and has some level of agency, albeit he is still subordinately tied to Schultz. The viewing audience is not given an understanding as to why Django is “exceptional” and the other well-dressed enslaved men and women are docile, idiots, fearful, happy, and have internalized their bondage.

    I freed a thousand slaves. I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves. – Harriet Tubman

    I am assuming that Mother Harriet was implying that many were docile, fearful or had internalized their bondage and for that reason, many were never freed.

    Also, did you not notice how the smartest folks in the movie were the blacks? Candie and Schultz’s pride is what caused their deaths. Schultz and Candie were so busy trying to show how superior they were to each other that they couldn’t complete a simple business transaction. Candie, a privileged, aristocratic Mississippi plantation owner with French roots can’t speak a lick of French, yet Broomhilda, a born slave, could speak German. Schultz the German was so sure that he could outsmart all of the American whites in the film that he went about recklessly doing his bounty hunter work throughout the movie. He almost gets away with it until he overestimates Candie and his elaborate scheme is foiled by none other than Steven the house slave-accountant, Django tricks the Aussies into freeing him and giving him a horse and a gun by appealing to their greed. Did you miss the part where Stephen told Django that because of his antics white people whom had NEVER had a clever idea in their life were brainstorming creative ways to kill him? Then the mistress of the house appropriates Stephen’s idea of sending him to the Le Quint Mining Company so that he would suffer for years breaking rocks until his back gave out. Did the Klansmen seem all that bright?

    This movie is about the hero’s journey and transformation that Django makes. Schultz could open the gate, but ultimately Django had to seize the opportunity, TAKE his freedom, and then fight courageously to save Broomhilda. Did you notice how Candie and Schultz both died a good 30 minutes before the end of the movie which serve to highlight the final heroics of Djang

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