When I saw the initial trailers for Django Unchained, it certainly captured my attention. Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino, a stellar cast and a plot where the protagonist is a freed black slave who becomes a bounty hunter seemed to make for a promising if not contentious film. Although even before its release, Django Unchained was met with both controversy and acclaim. On one side there’s been criticism based on the argument that the film presents a parody of slavery. Conversely, it’s been praised by many for the retribution of a black protagonist against the backdrop of slavery. However, while I understand both perspectives, I don’t wholly agree with either and many people have simply confused the issues brought up by the film.
Before I’d seen Django Unchained, I had many conversations about the merits or otherwise of a film set during slavery that was subject to Tarantino’s artistic licence. Similarly, the controversy surrounding the film was well documented. Spike Lee refused to watch it, arguing it was “disrespectful to my ancestors” and Louis Farrakhan claimed reactions to the film would be “preparation for a race war”. Both reactions would appear to most to be hyperbole. Nevertheless, while I don’t agree with either statement, I can understand the subjective rationale that would lead to their views.
Admittedly, some scenes in the film did get me slightly heated. But unlike Farrakhan’s suggestion, I certainly didn’t feel inclined to prepare for a “race war”. Indeed, a film that borrows inaccurately from slavery, perhaps even becoming a parody of the era, can subjectively be perceived as disrespectful to enslaved blacks and does raise the question of its appropriateness. Yet a bigger question is how a film like Django Unchained can manage such commercial success while wider society still isn’t ready to have a candid discussion about slavery. Amidst the criticism, controversy and praise of the film, this was a question that was lost on most.
Candid discussion of slavery, and its long term impact, has become almost taboo in contemporary society. As a result, the film industry and mainstream cinema audiences have a cautious appetite for authentic, honest and non-sensationalist films about the slave trade, especially from the perspective of enslaved blacks. Django Unchained was never going to provide such a depiction of slavery and anyone that pinned their hopes on that being the case was very much mistaken.
What some critics of the film failed to understand is that Django Unchained is a fictional film and a historically inaccurate one at that. For that reason there shouldn’t be an expectation for it to portray anything of historical relevance or value. Not to mention, the film had little to do with slavery and instead used slavery as a backdrop for the actual plot. While it could be argued by some that this was in bad taste, it cannot be said that Tarantino has belittled slavery per se in making a film that isn’t actually about the slave trade.
What appears to also lie behind some of the disdain for Django Unchained is that it was made by Tarantino as a white man. Amongst the critics, there does appear to be some discontent at a white man making a film that is set during slavery yet almost a spoof of the era. However, Tarantino being white is irrelevant in any contempt one might have for the film as it represents his creative direction and not his race.
Where I do take issue with Tarantino, and again not because of his race, is his comment that Roots wasn’t authentic. Roots might not have been historically accurate but it was a lot closer to being factually authentic than Django Unchained is (and that isn’t a criticism either). For Tarantino to critique the authenticity of Roots when discussing a film as historically inaccurate as Django Unchained therefore does seem inappropriate.
On the other side of popular opinion on Django Unchained, I’ve also been confused by the reasoning behind some of the praise it’s received.
Django Unchained was oddly lauded by some as offering a sentiment of black empowerment due to Django’s retribution. While I enjoyed seeing Django’s vengeance and the rescuing of his wife, it definitely wasn’t on the basis of me identifying with a fictional former slave turned bounty hunter. Nor did I derive any sense of empowerment from the film either. It’s an ignorant and ludicrous suggestion and to paraphrase Chris Rock discussing black people celebrating OJ Simpson’s acquittal, black people haven’t won anything because of Django Unchained.
Parody or otherwise, Tarantino didn’t make a film that told the story of slavery but instead the story of Django, his retribution and the rescuing of his wife. I thought the film was decent but definitely not Tarantino’s best work, nor worthy of the criticism or acclaim it’s received on both sides. Despite Tarantino’s films typically seeking shock value, I wasn’t as taken aback by Django Unchained as I’d expected either.
I don’t agree with much of the controversy surrounding Django Unchained but I can understand the subjective perspectives that have led to it. Nonetheless, there are wider issues on how slavery is depicted and discussed in contemporary society that have been neglected as part of the debate surrounding the merits of the film. Any meaningful discussion should instead focus on this rather than ignorantly praising the film for a non-existent connection to black empowerment or stating the obvious in commenting on its fictional and inaccurate portrayal of slavery. Ironically, for all the controversy, such discussion is yet to come to the fore.