Slavery on Film: Sanitized No More

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

Scene from Gone With the Wind; scene from Django Unchained

The level of intense controversy about the film, as a result, comes as a surprise to me. To be sure, slavery was not a spaghetti Western in which “the Negro with no name” rides in and lays waste to the bad guys. But the film is intended as entertainment, not as historical documentary-making. Indeed, it is explicitly pitched as a revenge fantasy, making the spaghetti Western an almost perfect template. This is movie-making; this is cinema. It is art, not a history lesson.

I’ve also heard the complaint that Django gives a constricted image of black women. The spaghetti Western is a “gunman-centered” format. So yes, the film is true to its heavily gender-biased narrative form. There is little room for well-developed female characters in the genre. Nonetheless, I found the gender politics of the film quite complex.

In the first place, Broomhilda von Shaft, as played by Kerry Washington, is a powerful presence in Django, though one does wish for a wee bit more of a full-voiced character. In a subtle fashion, one also sees black women in Django across a range of roles and capacities, even for a film much constrained by its antebellum setting. It can hardly be said that Django gives us little more than Mammy and Prissy, and its characters are certainly not so easily dismissed. Moreover, the film is careful not to give Southern white women “a free pass” regarding their roles in a slave society and its many predations. 

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.