Seeing that my winter break was soon coming to a close, I took the opportunity to go see Quentin Tarantino’s new movie “Django Unchained” with some of my good friends yesterday. Given my interest in the history of antebellum America, the institution of slavery, and Tarantino as a filmmaker, it seemed like this film would be a home run for me. The film has received good reviews and several of my friends and family members have gone so far as to say that it was even better than Tarantino’s “Inglorious Basterds.” That’s a pretty strong claim in my book.
Many Historians view movies–whether they try to be historically accurate in a manner similar to “Lincoln” or closer to what could be considered fiction in a historic setting–in a negative light. They live in a world where their job is to complicate the past, removing the simplistic inaccuracies of the black and white and molding them into grays that challenge our understanding of the past. Preferably, historians want to have a lot time to dive into these complexities; an entire semester, a full day at a conference, or 10-15 hours reading a book of history are all good beginnings to achieve this task. The movie format is thus seen as potentially problematic in the historian’s eyes. Generally speaking, the time constraints of movies (usually two or two and a half hours at most) force them to take gray issues and turn them into black and white ones. In the case of “Django Unchained,” the complex topic of slavery is turned into what Ta-Nehisi Coates calls a “revenge fantasy.” Slavery is wrong, slavery must be destroyed, the means justify the ends, might makes right. It’s the end of slavery (at least for Django and his wife Broomhilda) the way we want to see it: bloody, violent, and with all the bad guys (white and black) dead.
To be sure, the historian in me had a few moments of anguish. I was rolling in my chair when the movie flashed the following text at the beginning of the film: “1858: (Two years before the Civil War).” [Yes, the process of secession began in 1860 following Abraham Lincoln’s election to the Presidency, but the actual war didn’t start until April 12, 1861, when Confederates fired on Fort Sumter and Lincoln called for 75,000 troops to suppress “the rebellion.”] I also know that there’s no way those extremely accurate guns in the film would have ever been that accurate in the real 1858, especially in the hands of a former slave who would have never been trained in the use of guns while in slavery. Furthermore, what the hell was going on with Tarantino’s weird-ass Australian accent at the end of the movie? That was strange. That said, when I go to see a film, especially a Tarantino film, I go to be entertained, not to receive a history lesson.
The biggest problem I had with this movie was that I struggled to connect with the two protagonists. In the case of Dr. King Shultz, I had trouble understanding how and why he would have a vested interest in Django’s life or why he would want to help Django find his wife. New York Times reviewer A.O. Scott unintentionally confirmed my confusion when he described the Dr. Shultz character in a contradictory manner, stating that he is “a charming, sadistic German bounty hunter whose distaste for slavery makes him the hero’s ally and mentor,” yet also claiming that he is “an amoral gun for hire, tracking down fugitives and habitually choosing the first option offered in the formulation “Wanted: Dead or Alive.” If he’s amoral, where does the distaste for slavery come into play? How did Dr. Shultz find himself in a position to take a stand one way or the other on slavery, especially considering that he came from a country where there were no slaves or African Americans? (The movie points this out in more colorful language). In the one scene in which we get a chance to learn about Dr. Shultz’s role in helping Django and why he did so, he blandly responds to Django (more or less) that “I don’t like slavery, but when I gave you your freedom I found myself wanting to help you more.” I was unconvinced of Dr. Shultz’s opposition to slavery and felt that his character development was poor.
For Django, his interactions with Dr. Shultz turn him into someone who can be pretty amoral at times. He kills a man in front of the man’s son for no other reason than because Dr. Shultz told him the man had a bounty on his head. After Dr. Shultz offers to pay $200 for a runaway slave at the “Candy Land” plantation who was going to be forced into a “mandingo” fight that could have killed him, Django says that the slave is not worth the money and that he should be left to be killed by the plantation overseer’s dogs. For Django, as long as he gets what he wants (his wife), the ends justify the means.
For me, the biggest takeaway from “Django Unchained” was that it showed the challenges African American faced when the opportunity of freedom arrived. At the beginning of the film, Dr. Shultz points out the North Star to a newly freed group of slaves, suggesting that this was their chance to go North to the free states. Yet it wasn’t that simple. What about the family members of these slaves? Were they in the North or South, free or slave? If enslaved, would it be worth it to find them and try to break free and go North, or would it be better to stay somewhere in the South? Or would it be better to go alone to the North and try to find the family later, if at all?
Similar challenges are raised towards the end of the movie when Django frees three slaves locked up in a slave pen. The camera cuts away before we get a chance to see where these freedmen went. Where would they get their next drink of water or meal? Where could they stay without being caught by the many slave patrols who roamed the South? We are left wondering.
Finally, there is the case of Stephen. Reviewer Scott describes him as “an Uncle Tom whose servility has mutated into monstrosity and who represents the symbolic self Django must destroy to assert and maintain his freedom.” Stephen (played by Samuel L. Jackson) is certainly a manipulative, somewhat detestable figure, but I think Scott’s description goes too far. Think about Stephen’s situation. He has served his master(s) for more than fifty years. He has earned the trust of his current master (although not his respect) and has been rewarded with a spot in the “big house.” He lives knowing that he will be taken care of for the rest of his life and that he will always have a warm meal and a place to stay. It is safe to say that no other slaveowner would care for Stephen the way the Candy family has. Therefore, when Django enters the picture, he represents Stephen’s greatest fear: a possible alteration of the status quo. If Stephen’s master dies, Stephen’s life falls into disarray and chaos. The comforts of life fall into limbo. He’s old, has nowhere else to go, and he knows it. This personal conflict within Stephen demonstrates that “freedom” took on many different meanings for African Americans, and that even a self-evident black and white decision to fight for freedom may have a little more gray than we care to acknowledge.