The critical and box office success of Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained not only proves that there is a hunger for heroic images of African Americans in film but also that the subject of American slavery needs to be explored more widely, now by black filmmakers.
Django, the story of a freed slave who successfully returns to a plantation to free his wife, was nominated for five Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Original Screenplay. At the 70th Golden Globe Awards, Christoph Waltz won for Best Supporting Actor and Tarantino won for Best Screenplay. Django introduces a different narrative of slavery to the mainstream, opening a window of interest in the topic for black filmmakers to explore.
Hollywood films like The Pianist and Saving Private Ryan are not only entertaining but have also been culturally significant. These movies ingrained in the minds of audiences the devastating affect of major historical events — World War II, the Holocaust – that inflicted deep damage and lasting pain on entire populations. The victims of these events are portrayed as heroes with enduring spirits and in many cases they triumph over their oppressors.
While there have been many films made about slavery – Roots, Amistadetc.,– these films have yet to influence American culture and positively define the perception of Africans brought to America’s shores in the same way. Django begins to set the stage for films about American slavery that portray both the horror and the overcoming; if these stories now begin to be told by black filmmakers the way Jewish filmmakers have defined the narrative of the Holocaust, both the narratives and their presentation can contribute to counteracting the negative images that are so prevalent in American film, television, and news media. We will actively reframe the narrative of African people, their spirit, and their capabilities. We need historical role models who are not victims despite oppression.
Bios of historical black figures and events read like the film synopsis pages of IMDB: they are Oscar-winning films waiting to be made. A few of those films could come from the following subjects:
1. Frederick Douglass escaped from slavery and became a leader of the abolitionist movement, gaining notoriety for his dazzling oratory and incisive antislavery writing. He stood as a living counter-example to slaveholders' arguments that slaves were intellectually inferior. Douglass and his intellectual accomplishments serve as the perfect counterpoint to the brutal vengeance of Django.
2. The Underground Railroad and its network of secret routes and safe houses used by 19th-century slaves to escape north with the aid of abolitionists is a story of intrigue, suspense, resilience and victory of the human spirit equal to any WW II or Cold War spy series.
3. Sojourner Truth, the African-American abolitionist and women's rights activist, was born into slavery but escaped with her infant daughter to freedom. After her escape, she challenged the slave master in court to recover her son and became the first black woman to win such a case against a white man. The human drama of loss, reunion, family, and victory of her humanity over oppression, serve to validate the strength and resilience of the black slave.
I didn't watch Django only because I wanted to see a black slave kick the ass of his enslavers, but because I wanted to see more of the history of slavery, its barbarism, its moments of redemption, and its heroes and villains. Django introduces a different narrative of slavery into the mainstream. There are more of these stories to tell for future generations of Americans, reinforcing the dignity and enduring spirit of my ancestors. Django opens a door for black filmmakers to pick up the torch and tell great tales of history.