Slavery on Film: Sanitized No More

Straight Up: 'Django Unchained' trashes the soft-pedaled depiction that American cinema has embraced.

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A good friend claimed that he would never see the film because he was tired of "white savior" films. I don't see it this way at all. Moreover, if any film has the right to veer in this direction, it is this one. Last I checked, neither Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant nor William Tecumseh Sherman was black. Nor were Frederick Douglass and other blacks the only voices of abolitionism. 

What the film does do, and what stands out for me as its lasting import, is to give us an unforgettable cinematic expression of the brutality, inescapable violence and absolutely thorough moral degradation of American slavery. In doing so, Tarantino powerfully flips a script that has for too long dominated our collective imaginations. For years I have complained that anyone offering a generous word about the film Gone With the Wind should be compelled to have a viewing of Spartacus, since the latter was the only American film I knew of that comes close to capturing the inherent savagery of a slave regime. 

Many great films have wrestled with race in America. Many of these have vividly captured the injuries and absurdity and the tragedy of racism. Only a few, however, really make us seriously examine our own cultural fabric and assumptions and thereby prompt us to rethink our self-understandings and core national narratives. Tarantino's Django Unchained grabs the American collective unconscious and refuses to let loose. Big, big thumbs up!

Lawrence D. Bobo is the W.E.B. Du Bois Professor of the Social Sciences at Harvard University. 

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