This year, America will celebrate the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, a presidential decree that effectively abolished slavery in all states in rebellion during the Civil War.
The anniversary will be marked with a series of conferences, speeches, and publications in the academic world. However, the significance of this event has been somewhat diminished by the highly controversial and newly Oscar nominated film “Django Unchained.”
Quentin Tarantino’s latest film tells the story of a former slave, Django (Jamie Foxx), who partners with a bounty hunter, Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), to rescue his wife who was sold away from him to a sadistic slave owner, Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).
The film is set as a spaghetti western and in true Tarantino style is filled with excessive uses of violence, the N-Word, and revisionist history. What’s not to like a about a film in which a slave seeks revenge on overseers and slaveholders and does it all with swagger?
If you like Tarantino and you want to be entertained, I have full confidence that you will be. However, the film is filled with a number of caricatures that beg to be deconstructed.
A common and yet tragic theme within the film is that of the “white saviour.” For a film with the backdrop of slavery, the simplistic binary of good and evil is superficial. “Django” perpetuates a world where whites are both villains and heroes, yet villains are unusually exceptional and the heroes are always naturally good-hearted and morally superior.
This can be seen in the character of Schultz who is both paternalistic and benevolent. He confesses to Django his interest in helping him to retrieve his wife, by declaring: “… I feel responsible for you.” Almost instantly, Django is infantilised, inspired by the German story of a princess in need of rescue. Throughout the first half of the film the newly freed Django is like an enraged child who must be coaxed into patience by Schultz. Ironically, Waltz is the only actor to be nominated for an Oscar for his role.
Not a single black character is complicated or multi-dimensional. Black women are especially on the periphery. Django’s wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), is the quintessential “damsel in distress.” She barely speaks, and is a glorified prop who somehow maintains her beauty throughout the entire film. Who is Broomhilda? Who is Django? By the end of the film we still don’t know.
Tarantino believes he is presenting a film in which the black man finally strikes revenge on his oppressors, but in doing so he also perpetuates the same old stereotypes of black men as characters to be feared, not loved. Django is only out for himself and his girl. He is not an abolitionist. He is not political. He does not free slaves.
The most damaging character is Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), who is the ultimate loyal slave to Candie and attempts to sabotage any hope Django has in retrieving his wife. Despite the fact that historically, the field and house slave enmity is largely contrived, Tarantino uses Stephen as the outlet for viewer’s moral outrage over slavery.
How is it that by end of a film the character audiences will not hate the white slave owner, but the black slave himself? Critics have complained that the N-word is used more than 110 times, but for me the most egregious offence of all is the use of Stephen.
The relationships in slavery were extremely complicated and in this film they fall flat. The warped “Disney-like” characters of the conniving Uncle Tom, the big Mammy, and the enslaved are more caricatures of our imagination than representative of real human beings.
Some might argue that this is not a film about slavery, or that we should not be looking to learn anything about slavery from this film. I disagree. With so few decent films concerning slavery, I would like to believe that by now Hollywood can tell a good, even great story without diluting it to the treatment of an over-the-top spaghetti western.
Interestingly, in 1962 the famous author James Baldwin wrote a remarkable letter to his nine year old nephew, regarding the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, which concluded with the words: “You know, and I know, that the country is celebrating one hundred years of freedom one hundred years too soon.” Now 50 years later, Tarantino has produced a film that grossed more than $100 million and collected Oscar nominations.
Yet if filmmakers still cannot tell the story of black people as real people with agency, and without the aid of white superiority, we might as well be celebrating 150 years of the Emancipation Proclamation, 150 years too soon.