Django Unchained

by Jed Barg

For this blog post about how the south is represented in film, television, song, or really any media, the first film to come to mind was Django Unchained, written and directed by none other than Quentin Tarantino. Tarantino is known for his unique style of moviemaking in which he will often take real historical circumstances and twist them in a certain way that allows for a fictional story to (very entertainingly) unfold. Django Unchained takes place in a pre-civil war Southern America and is about a slave named Django (played by Jamie Foxx) who befriends a German bounty hunter, Dr. King Schultz (played by Christoph Waltz), that grants Django his freedom in return for help to hunt down bounties. The movie includes graphic scenes and depictions of slavery and life for slaves on a plantation as well as scenes of slave rebellion and intense violence towards the end (which is classic Tarantino). About ½ way through the movie, we realize that above anything, Django’s main goal is to gain his freedom so that he can find his wife (who is played by Kerry Washington and was split up from him during a slave auction) and get revenge on those that have hurt him/her. I deeply apologize for the spoiler, but in the end, Django and Dr. King Schultz encounter the plantation where Django’s wife lives (Candyland), the evil plantation owner Calvin Candie (played by Leonardo DiCaprio), and Django burns down the entire plantation while Dr. King Schultz kills Calvin Candie. In the last shot, Django gloriously rides away with his wife on a horse with the plantation burning in the background. 

 There are many things that are fictional regarding Django Unchained’s depiction of the South. First of all, the movie is filled with stereotypical scenery. The movie begins with a line of slaves chained up walking through hot planes of land with no end in sight. Heat waves can be seen in the camera as deep country-sounding chords are played in the background. This is already stereotypical south: land, upon land, upon land with no infrastructure in sight for miles, unbearably hot weather, and country-sounding music. On top of that, the scenes of the plantations include big, beautiful houses on beautiful plots of land with people working in the front yards and guards on horses. This is a very stereotypical depiction of a southern plantation. Most white people (with the exception of the plantation owner who is always lavishly dressed) are dressed in cowboy clothes and hats, riding horses and wielding guns on their waists while most black people are on foot without any weapons or shoes dressed in nothing but rags and dirty cloth. My point here is that there were choices made regarding the smaller details of the movie (scenery, costumes, even accents) that were clearly made specifically to give the audience a feeling and sense of the “old south during slavery.” Now for the bigger details. 

 Another fictional part of the movie is the fact that the entire plot line is about a slave who earns his freedom because he got lucky by meeting a kind white man that isn’t racist. The freed slave then ends up finding and saving his wife (who was split up from him MANY years prior) while burning down an entire plantation AND killing the owner of the plantation in a glorious moment of revenge. Sure, this is a compelling, entertaining, and satisfying story. However, the stories of most slaves in this time are in deep opposition to what happens to Django in Django Unchained. This movie and Django specifically makes the south during slavery look like a place of opportunity, revenge, and happy endings. This is far from the truth. It is possible that there are positive slave stories similar to this that exist, however, the majority of slave narratives depict intense and lasting pain, abuse, and upset with very few chances to escape it. There are also many people who were enslaved and never lived long enough to see freedom. This makes the positivity of Django Unchained arguably insulting to the reality of what slaves went through during this time in history. 

 To propose a counter argument, one could suggest that Django Unchained does do slavery and this timeframe justice in how it is depicted. As I mentioned, the movie includes deeply intense and graphic scenes in which slaves face abuse and racism. The Tarantino-esque intensity and violence of these scenes are intended to shock the audience and make them realize just how terribly black people were treated in the south during this time. At the same time, the story is about a black man who defies the odds and succeeds in saving his wife and gaining his freedom. This is, above all the racism, hateful speech, and violent scenes of white power, a black power story with a powerfully evocative ending. In this regard, one could argue that Tarantino was attempting to depict the south as a terrible place that was defeated by a noble, hardworking man of color.  

In conclusion, Django Unchained is a brilliantly crafted movie with clever dialogue, evocative scenes depicting slavery, and an extremely entertaining and satisfying plot line. However, there are elements of the movie and its depiction of the south that are fictional and stray from the truth of what happened in the south pre-civil war. It is important to recognize that the positivity of the plot line (specifically the happy ending) is enlightening and attempts to represent a story of black power, however, that story is far from the reality of what most slaves suffered during the era before abolition and does NOT well represent the degree to which slavery effected the black community and our country as a whole. I personally love this movie and I think Quentin Tarantino makes movies that are entertaining and compelling, however, it must not be forgotten that Django Unchained was made to tell a love and revenge story for entertainment purposes, not a true story for educational purposes.


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