“Django Unchained” and The Contemporary Slave Narrative

By Elizabeth Lee '16
Copy Editor and Film Columnist

Trigger Warning: film contains graphic violence

Courtesy of haitiantimes.com

Courtesy of haitiantimes.com

It is probably more uncommon at this point for one to have not seen “Django Unchained” (2012), given its immense critical success and popularity.  But in keeping with the Claremont spirit, when it showed up on Netflix, I couldn’t help but revisit this film not only through a lens of racial violence but also in reflection on the importance of narrative to historical transitions and even social justice.

Our understandings of slavery come from not only the authority of history textbooks and lecturing scholars, but also the stories we remember, create and circulate— from first-hand accounts to contemporary fictional films.  These narratives have the potential to give voice to those who were victimized and to draw attention to the brutality they suffered as we work towards a more progressive future.  Depending on who dictates the story, however, the narratives also have the potential to twist the past into a more favorable, less accurate and more distant memory.

Perhaps the most important aspect of these slave narratives to consider is the various ways in which  they depict violence.  A systemic objectification and commodification of human beings, an intimately brutal act of immorality, a manifestation of dominant ideologies and racial superiority, a form of resistance.  How the violence is portrayed often determines whether we are being drawn into the memory of it or attempting to leave this distant suffering behind.  While the powerful accounts of, say, Frederick Douglass often confront us with some of our darkest moments, “Django Unchained” has its own take on slave violence.

Starring a cast of prominent celebrities, including Jamie Foxx, Samuel L. Jackson, Leonardo DiCaprio, Christoph Waltz and Kerry Washington, and written/directed by the ever prominent Quentin Tarantino, the film was released to great critical acclaim and box office success, rendering it more a work of artistic achievement and entertainment than of significant social commentary.  Tarantino, who is quite famous for the brutality and satirical nature of his highly stylistic films, made “Django Unchained” a very intentional juxtaposition of the traumatic and serious versus heavily stylized entertainment violence.

In doing so, Tarantino distinguishes the cruel violence between masters and slaves from the retribution and supposed ultimate empowerment of the protagonist, a slave who is freed and becomes a bounty hunter in the process of tracking down and saving his wife who had been sold off.  During the scene in which Django first sees his wife, Django watches from afar as she is removed from a “hot box,” a metal box placed in the sun where she is forced to remain without clothes or water as she overheats.  Not a single drop of blood is shown, but the footage is slowed down as melancholy music plays quietly and painfully over her screams.  On the other hand, the culminating shootout at the slave owner’s plantation is less disturbing or heart-wrenching than it is an exciting game, with choreographed stunts and blood spurting everywhere.  While one depiction of violence highlights the brutality of slavery, the other uses it to engage the audience and encourage them to root for the slave-turned-hero.

 The stylized violence comes from Tarantino’s intent to create a spaghetti western film, a term used in the past to refer to Italian westerns.  The genre itself, in this case, seems like a means of appropriating our own culture, infusing humor and stylized violence into our nation’s tragic history.  “Django” seems to simultaneously criticize as well as distance us from our past and the violence we’ve committed and suffered.

 And yet it begs the question of whether slavery can actually be considered a thing of the past.  Have we effectively transitioned from an era of violence and injustice to one of peace and justice?  Or are there ways in which the remnants of institutionalized slavery persist in our contemporary world?  The hefty number of protests in response to the hefty number of police shootings of unarmed, black victims even just within this past year seems to indicate the truth of the latter.  Though it is easy and reassuring to view ourselves as moving from one state of chaos and hatred to one that is peaceful enough that we can now perceive slave violence as a thing of the distant past, we are caught in a never-ending struggle to reach a better place or way of life, to constantly reconcile with the past so that we may continue to move forward.