Quentin Tarantino’s new film Django Unchained is many things. It’s an expertly executed action film, a riotous comedy, and a stylish genre exercise packed to the gills with memorable characters and razor sharp dialogue. However, despite its strengths, this film commits many of the worse offenses possible for a work of historical fiction, unwittingly reinforcing the racist narratives it is trying to correct.
Tarantino has said that the film is his attempt to give young black men a Western-style hero as a counterbalance to the blanched profile characteristic of the genre. In and of itself, this is a worthy goal. In fact, as many as 30% of cowboys in the west were men of color, and the role of African-Americans in Western history has long been minimized. However, this film does not take place in the West, with Dr. Schultz at one point remarking that Django may soon be called the fastest gun in the south.
The goal of the film is not to correct this error in American historical memory, but rather to “correct” the events of the past themselves. In this way, Django follows the pattern set by Tarantino’s last film Inglorious Bastards, showing an oppressed minority group violently rising up against their oppressors. This goal implies that such acts of resistance did not happen, and that justice can be served after the fact through film. By presenting resistance occurring in an alternate, preferable timeline, both films emphasize the erroneous and racist narrative that violent resistance to oppression was rare.
When Calvin Candie wonders, “Why don't (African-Americans) just rise up and kill the whites?” his question rings with irony, given that Django has spent a considerable portion of the film doing just that. But by presenting Django as the exception to a rule of slaves quietly accepting their servitude, the film leaves the question unanswered, and even unironized. Such questions have been asked since the Civil War, with the implicit answer being that slaves did not rise up because bondage suited their submissive nature. This explanation of course ignores the realities of the institution of slavery; if African-Americans were naturally suited to slavery, why did slave-owners feel the need to chain and whip them? Why were they denied access to education? Why did Southern society organize en masse to prevent slave uprisings, escapes, and insurrections?
Throughout the more than two hundred year existence of slavery in the colonies and later in the United States, slaves in fact did rise up against white oppressors. The most dramatic such event was Nat Turner’s 1831 uprising, in which 60 people were killed before Turner and his compatriots were captured. This event caused widespread panic throughout the South, resulting in enhanced crackdowns on the rights of slaves and freedmen. In the film, Django is shown to be unable to read. This would have been due to restrictions on the rights of slaves put into place in reaction to Turner’s actions. These crackdowns also added fuel to the fire of the abolitionist cause, hastening the arrival of the Civil War.
Tarantino’s revenge fantasy depicts acts of black resistance to slavery as just that, a fantasy. This portrayal ignores the significant extent to which black resistance shaped the course of American history. It also reinforces the view that blacks were either too timid or too dumb to effectively resist. Tarantino’s film re-evaluates the traditional role of the timid house slave in the role of Stephen, but he contributes to the narrative that allowed such a role to be created in American public memory following the Civil War. He does so by presenting black resistance as a missed opportunity, not as a historical fact.