Are the racial epithets and graphic violence in Django Unchained racist or gratuitous? Quentin Tarantino doesn't think so.
In an interview with The Root, the acclaimed director defended his use of racial slurs in the latest Spaghetti Western, arguing that the disturbing diction and imagery is “just part and parcel of dealing truthfully with this story, with this environment, with this land.”
Tarantino is right in that just because something is inappropriate does not mean it’s inaccurate. If black people were verbally and physically abused in slavery, it would be unfair to them if we were to change that simply because of our own sensitivities. Because Frederick Douglass didn’t bowdlerize his story, for example, his narrative was a true depiction of the horrors of slavery; censoring that just to keep it inoffensive would have been a betrayal to his own struggle.
Tarantino also argued that the criticism was ridiculous because no one could say that the racial slurs were more excessive than they actually were in 1858 Mississippi. And if that they aren’t, Tarantino argues, “you're simply saying I should be lying. I should be watering it down. I should be making it more easy to digest.”
The director also makes a good point here because by softening a depiction, filmmakers soften the horrors of their subject, even something as grim as slavery. And, let’s face it, Hollywood has done that. If a writer omits all the evils of this institution, including diction and violence, then he creates slaves that aren’t being tortured and slave owners that don’t use racist language; that is certainly a lot more offensive than an accurate portrayal.
Racist films also seem to have this tendency to create back characters that are completely dependent on the help of other races or strictly there for support. Even in stories where there isn’t racist diction, this belittlement of an entire people is strongly present. Consider award winners like Blood Diamond or Lincoln; both have black characters that are either servant-like or entirely reliant on some other race.
Tarantino also fights this racism, giving his character lead status and moral fortitude. And although this doesn’t really happen until the second half of the film, Tarantino simply explains, “one of the tropes of Westerns and telling a story like this is you have an experienced gunfighter who meets the young cowpoke who has some mission that he has to accomplish, and it's the old, experienced gunfighter who teaches him the tricks of the trade: teaches him how to draw his gun, teaches him how to kill.”
Also, before criticizing Tarantino for relegating Django to the backseat for so long, understand that Tarantino clearly likes the master/pupil dynamic and he doesn’t always show just one race to be the “master.” In both the Kill Bill movies, for example, Uma Thurman’s character has masters that are Asian, another group that has been unjustly portrayed in Hollywood but was given strength and subject-status by Tarantino.
Perhaps it is as Tarantino says, that people want to “put slavery at an arm's distance,” as if “it's just intellectual.” For that reason, perhaps, they want the graphic depictions in Django to change. However, as much as I am often disgusted and offended by Tarantino’s films, at least he forces the viewer to, as he says, “look their own past sins completely in the face.”