Django Unchained is a Quentin Tarantino movie and thus, by definition, a bloody movie. There are horrific close-ups of violence in the latter part of the movie. But the reason that the movie has struck such a chord among millions of viewers is not the violence, but the type of violence that it is.
In the movie, we see the daily violence of the slave system: slaves being force-marched across a desolate countryside, barely clothed, and in shackles and chains. We see slaves being whipped for having the effrontery to try to run away from their “owners.” We see a slave being torn to pieces by dogs for committing the same “crime.” Tarantino has done the people in the U.S., especially young white people, a favor in bringing to light the barbarity of the slave system.
The movie is a reminder of the brutality and violence of the slave system, a system where men casually talk about buying and selling other human beings. It is also a reminder that, throughout the history of slavery and even today, there have been courageous Black men and women who stood up for freedom and justice, some with arms in hand who answered the violence of the oppressor with the violence of the oppressed. Django is a movie about the violence of the oppressed.
Without giving too much away, I would say that the fictional character of Django combines the qualities of Nat Turner, Malcolm X, and Jonathan Jackson. Although it took a bloody civil war to bring an end to the system of chattel slavery in this country, Django does his part by bringing the violence of the slave owners home to them in a direct and unforgettable manner. As a white person viewing Django, I found myself cheering as Django used arms to bring havoc to the slavemasters and their hired guns. This is a great movie, a revolutionary movie. If you have a chance to see it, I strongly recommend you do so.
The movie Django Unchained could have been an ad for the NRA’s position on the current gun control debate, namely that the only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. That formula may suit Tarantino’s Spaghetti Western style, where a lot of bad guys do get killed. But it shortchanges the real history of the idea of freedom that was personified in the over 30-year struggle by the Abolitionists. I am glad PBS is finally paying some attention to that page of U.S. history.
I agree with Michael Gilbert (“Django Unchained,” March-April N&L) that Quentin Tarantino has brought to light the barbarity of the slave system, but I don’t see the movie as revolutionary. I always watch Tarantino’s movies holding my nose, because his depiction of graphic violence makes me feel brutalized to the point of dehumanization, not revolution. It’s important for revolutionaries not just to know, but to feel the violence that permeated slave society. But Tarantino does not take us beyond that. Our challenge is to transform that brutal culture into one where everyone’s humanity is recognized and nurtured.
Susan Van Gelder
I could not disagree more with Michael Gilbert’s review. The length of Django Unchained is only the beginning of its faults. The violence vacillates from the cartoonish to the realistic. The enthusiasm with which Tarantino subjects his audiences to the brutalization of Black people is characteristic of his career. Slavery is the perfect backdrop for his obsession with violence and the brutalization of Black bodies. The first plantation scene was hard to distinguish from the set of an instant ice tea commercial: well-clothed Black people strolled arm-in-arm or swung from swings suspended from grand trees. The film’s strong suggestion was that brutality and racism were the fault of ignorant—read poor—whites, the sole source of such social evil. As a Black American, I object to this tale of revenge. Our struggle for liberation is one which seeks to extend liberty to all peoples everywhere. Despite how bloody awful this movie is, it was positive to position a Black woman as so valued that one would risk one’s own freedom to go back for her. That kind of solidarity is what animates true revolutionaries. The question is why are movies being made by Spielberg and Tarantino on this period of U.S. history? We have yet to grapple with this ugly fact of American history. Both works are attempts to control the narrative around race, who Black and white people are. It is no coincidence that they were released during President Obama’s second term.