Commentary: Django Is the Slavery Movie Not Really About Slavery

American filmmakers and viewers are famously wary of slavery films and Django Unchained doesn’t really break that streak.

Posted: 12/11/2012 12:05 PM EST

On Christmas Day, Quentin Tarantino will release his latest film, a violent tale set in the time of slavery called Django Unchained. The story details the life of a fictional slave named Django — played by Jamie Foxx — who is freed by a bounty hunter and then proceeds to go on a murderous rampage in an effort to free his wife. The story, an oppressed minority reacts brutally to his captors, is much in the same vein of Tarantino’s last film, Inglorious Basterds, in which a team of Jewish soldiers violently slaughter Nazis (and, ultimately, Hitler himself) during WWII.

Inglorious Basterds was a hit that was also draped with critical acclaim. Will Django Unchained, with its similar theme, earn the same kind of accolades? If past is prologue, probably not.

At least since Roots premiered as a TV miniseries in 1977, becoming a massive hit and cultural phenomenon in the process, people have wondered if another slave film could make a dent in the American cultural landscape the way the story of Kunta Kinte once did. And the answer may be no.

There was Glory, of course, the heartrending film about the 54th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, the Black military unit composed partially of ex-slaves that saw significant action in the Civil War. After that came Amistad, a 1997 Spielberg film about a revolt aboard a slave ship in the Middle Passage in which Africans slaughtered their captors and then had to fight for their freedom in an American court. Glory was a hit and earned Denzel Washington an Academy Award, but it was mostly a war film. Amistad, a much more direct look at the horrors of slavery, had nowhere the success of Spielberg’s other glimpse into ethnically motivated atrocity, the Holocaust drama Schindler’s List.

In the years since, there hasn’t been a single movie of record about the American slave trade. And more than 15 years after the release of Amistad, the film we finally do get is Django, an action flick from Blaxploitation expert Tarantino. With all the buzz around it, it’s very likely that Django is going to be a hit, but it’s also worth noting that it’s not a historical depiction so much as it is a fantasy. Tarantino himself has admitted as much:

"We all intellectually 'know' the brutality and inhumanity of slavery," Tarantino reportedly said at a screening of 'Django Unchained' in the U.K. on Thursday. "But after you do the research it's no longer intellectual any more, no longer just historical record –- you feel it in your bones. It makes you angry, and want to do something ... I'm here to tell you, that however bad things get in the movie, a lot worse s--t actually happened."

In other words, in order to make a movie about slavery people are actually going to watch, a director had to make slavery into a less brutal action movie romp. Django isn’t a slavery movie; it’s an action movie. We should all keep that in mind.


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(Photo: Columbia Pictures)

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