Does 'Django Unchained' get the history of slavery right?
Django Unchained is Tarantino’s skewed Christmas gift to America — a movie designed to reveal the chains of slavery that continue to haunt America, while introducing the horror with unrelenting violence.
Tarantino combines all of these elements to create an epic story, emulating the German lore of Nibelung that Django’s liberator, Dr. King Schultz (played by Christoph Waltz) tells after finding out Django’s wife’s name is Broomhilda.
Django Unchained is not just a love story or a violent thriller, it is an epic that borrows from each genre. In fact, I was a bit surprised that Tarantino did not use portions of the Ring of the Nibelung opera cycle by Wagner in one particular scene of hooded riders (invoking another movie, Birth of a Nation).
Instead, Tarantino uses a variety of music to set the tone, with a James Brown/Tupac mash-up capturing the essence of the movie. Additionally, the film is violent, overwrought and long.
Operas and epic stories have a purpose: to remind a people of their shared memory, and the heroes they worship.
In this case, America’s shared memory is slavery. Django is a particular depiction of slavery that tugs at the memory of the so-called “peculiar institution”.
That memory is tainted by a particular fantasy: that vengeance is satisfying, and heroes are always cowboys. The memory he gets completely right is the violence of slavery.
Consider the applause at the end of the movie as an example of reorienting that memory. In the suburban Texas theater in which I watched Django, white people clapped for a black man killing white people. Django’s heroics spoke to everyone in the theater. The cost however, was the acceptance of the bullets, blood and gore, an often-romanticized part of the history of America.
By embedding Django’s story in a western, Tarantino inserts his characters into a complicated story of complicity and evil. That story is understood in our nation’s most commonly recognized figure: a cowboy.
Making Django a freed slave turned bounty hunter cowboy searching for his wife makes the movie romantic. Without the romance, most moviegoers would be appalled. Love is the only emotion for many that is worth shooting up the world for. Slavery is not good enough. Remember Lincoln?
Slavery, not the romance, is the real storyline of the movie, our shared national memory. Many Americans including African-Americans have no idea how horrible it was, or the extent to which it consumed America in the 19th century.