Quentin Tarantino’s idea of American slavery pictures Jamie Foxx riding horseback and spinning a pistol on his index finger while wearing a ridiculous blue getup with white ruffles, spewing corny-if-rebellious catch phrases like, “I like the way you die, boy.” Yes, the godfather of motion picture vengeance’s latest, Django Unchained, reverts to a significant era in history to swap victim with victor (much like 2009’s Holocaust-based Inglorious Basterds). Instead of a group of Jewish soldiers vengefully plotting against Nazi leaders, Django (Jamie Foxx), a slave turned bounty hunter, guns down any white man who impedes in the rescue of his enslaved wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). Despite Tarantino being an equal opportunity history books trivializer, the problem with Django Unchained is it’s being presented as the “hip-hop generation’s Roots” as opposed to the feel-good revisionist history it is.
Per usual, Tarantino wanted to make his audience uncomfortable. I cringed as I sat through an early December screening of Django amongst a predominantly white audience in New York City’s School of Visual Arts Theatre watching horrific, graphic scenes that included freshly welted black backs and canines eating an enslaved man alive. Even more unbearable, though, were the snickers heard during such a visually intense movie that makes light of centuries of injustice. Jonah Hill’s three-minute cameo scores cheap laughs off an amateur racist sect’s poorly constructed masks (“I can’t see sh*t!” one Klansman blurts). The word “nigger” is spat more than 100 times through the film’s two-hour-and-45-minute span.
To save you the $13 cost of admission, here’s a rundown of the plot: Two years before the Civil War in the antebellum south, German bounty hunter, Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) purchases Django to identify three murdering thieves known as the Brittle brothers who have price tags on their heads. In exchange, Dr. Schultz mentors Django in the art of murder, playing Batman to Django’s Robin in the pursuit of his lady. They take off for Mississippi when they learn of Broomhilda’s whereabouts, at Calvin Candie’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) vast Candyland plantation deep in the racism-rich South. It’s like the King of Diamonds of plantations—female house slaves dress in fine bouffant dresses and his right-hand house slave, Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), gives insight on business matters, and even sasses white visitors. Candie himself is a sarcastic, slick-talking overseer who indulges in violent Mandingo fights while his slave mistress watches, cocktail in hand. As the film nears its end, Tarantino’s signature twists lead to an expected bout of bloody, gory action.
All trigger-happy abolitionist fun, right? A good ol’ spaghetti western complete with Rick Ross and a James Brown/2pac mash-up on the soundtrack. You’ve got to wonder how many moviegoers will watch, munching on nachos and popcorn, and depart their seats thinking, “Slavery wasn’t too bad after all,” or worse, “Why didn’t all slaves just revolt?” Let’s get real. Django’s opportunity to shoot down slavemasters one-by-one would’ve never happened—he’d be hung after the first white man he killed, but most likely would’ve never sought revenge at all. The institution of slavery was deeper than whips and chains; it was a deep-rooted mental oppression that psychologically suppressed its sufferers.
Sure, Django Unchained is not a documentary intended to inform. But even though Tarantino has stated that he was “uncomfortable” presenting the slave experience, the whipping scenes and BS phrenologist comparisons of a slave’s skull to that of a free man don’t always play that way on screen. I wish that he would have put the same level of thought into developing Jackson’s well-acted role, which hardly surpasses the “house nigger” caricature. Or avoiding the Great White Hope meme (see: Glory, Dangerous Minds, Blind Side, The Help) that finds Foxx playing sidekick and Washington as a voiceless damsel. In reality, there was no nice German savior swooping in to emancipate the enslaved. Freedom was an impossible task seldom achieved by slaves making ultimate sacrifices.
Tarantino lauded himself for being familiar enough with the subject of slavery and black culture to critique Roots, Alex Haley’s thorough cinematic exploration of American slavery. “When you look at Roots, nothing about it rings true in the storytelling, and none of the performances ring true for me either,” he told The Daily Beast of the film adapted from literary fiction masterpiece Roots: The Saga of an American Family. The enslavement of Africans in the U.S. for more than 400 years was much worse than could ever be portrayed on screen, yet Roots is still the closest depiction of the often-closeted atrocity. Django Unchained is no Roots. The problem, however, is Tarantino’s packaging of his latest effort as some type of eye-opening, thought-provoking, progressive piece of art.
Slavery has long been America’s dirty little secret that’s often left untouched. Most Americans aren’t versed enough on the effects that unfortunately linger today. Any film, entertainment or not, has a responsibility to address the topic with a certain level of information—and acknowledgement of slavery’s lasting effects—presented.
Jamie Foxx told VIBE magazine that “Every two, three years there is a movie about the holocaust because they want you to remember and they want you to be reminded of what it was.” He argued African-Americans should recall slavery with the same urgency, and that’s why this film must be supported. Difference is, America doesn’t wish to forget the Holocaust. And Django Unchained may very well remind America of its dark twisted past, it does so by misinforming and making the masses feel good about it first.