Slavery on Film: Sanitized No More

Scene from Gone With the Wind; scene from Django Unchained
Scene from Gone With the Wind; scene from Django Unchained

(The Root) — Not many films keep me thinking for days on end. Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained, about a slave-turned-bounty hunter in the antebellum South, accomplished this and then some. As a result, I have to classify it as a great film. A truly great film should stay with you, and Django certainly does. 


Some might counter, critically, that Django achieves its effect through the level of Sam Peckinpah-esque violence of the film. The violence per se is really not at all why I cannot stop thinking about or talking about this movie.

To be sure, some very grisly things happen in Tarantino's latest offering. But none of this, on its own terms, is enough to make it memorable. Indeed, a teenage nephew convinced me to see the film Final Destination 5 — a far, far more violent film than Django — and I erased the former from consciousness almost the moment I walked out of the theater.

Nor is heavy use of the n-word responsible for the film's lasting imprint on me. Thanks to hip-hop and urban youth culture, the n-word has unfortunately enjoyed an astonishing renaissance, inuring us to its destructive force to a troubling degree. I could have done with less of it in the film. Yet Tarantino's use of the n-word is no more excessive than in the average Boondocks episode and is far more context-appropriate.

Django is the most cinematically and culturally important film dealing with race since Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing (1989). For too long American cinema has presented — and American audiences have accepted, digested and largely tacitly embraced — a hopelessly sanitized version of slavery in the South.

The defining image, of course, is that of Scarlett O'Hara and family enjoying the "good life" before "the War." Slavery has been often rendered just a benign backdrop to the beauty, elegance and, indeed, virtue of the plantation elite. That is why this movie sticks with me. It literally blows to pieces this ridiculously inaccurate "collective memory."

In a similar fashion, Do the Right Thing exploded the myth of the happily, steadily, inexorably integrating, post-civil rights era urban America. I recall vividly the final, lasting frisson of emotion I felt sparked by the closing frames of Do the Right Thing as Mookie and Sal bellow at each other. That movie made you ask yourself a lot of deep questions. Django has a similar impact.


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.