Django Unchained: Disrespectful Portrayal of Slavery or Misplaced Expectations?

By Courtney Herring

There’s no doubt filmmaker Quentin Tarrantino is no stranger to controversy,  and he didn’t disappoint with his latest film, Django Unchained. The film, starring Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Kerry Washington, Leonardo DiCaprio, Samuel L. Jackson, and Kerry Washington is a cross between a Spaghetti Western and Blaxploitation film. Django, played by Jamie Foxx, obtains his freedom and becomes a bounty hunter partner and is focused on one mission: to rescue his wife, Broomhilda (played by Kerry Washington) out of slavery in the antebellum South.

Many people have held their breath and offered their commentary on the film, released on Christmas Day. Knowing Tarrantino’s works and his controversial portrayals of African Americans, along with his gratuitous use of the “n-word,” some believe Django Unchained is an irreverent, disrespectful portrayal of the horrors of slavery, comparing the work to Alex Haley’s Roots. In fact, filmmaker Spike Lee said he refused to see the film because he felt it was disrespectful to his ancestors. Some believed that we, as a country, have not evolved to the point where we can spoof slavery.  Others hailed the work as a funny, triumphant story of the enslaved seeking vengeance upon the enslaver. Some appreciated the ironic themes Tarrantino placed strategically in the work and walked away feeling empowered.

I went to see the film on Christmas Day, with some reservation.  I had an idea of what to expect, given the fact it was a Tarrantino movie, but other than that, I didn’t know what I was walking into. Part of it is because I refused to watch extensive interviews with the stars, the filmmaker or read any reviews from those who had seen advanced screenings of the film. I wanted my viewing to be as objective as possible.

I’ve had quite a few discussions about the film with my Twitter followers and Facebook friends and I started to notice a theme in some of these talks. I found that many balked at the film’s premise and some even had misplaced expectations about the film’s objective. For those folks, I make the following observations:

  1. The object of the film was not to provide a historically accurate account of slavery. Sure, some historical elements were used, but it was largely meant to be a cross between a Spaghetti Western and a Blaxploitation film – therefore making it largely satirical. A satire on slavery? Some balk at the very thought, given this country’s not-so-distant endorsement of an inhumane institution. I can understand the critiques some people have of Tarrantino and his work, so I get the reservation to “enjoy” something of this nature.
  2. Tarrantino’s work is known for being irreverent, violent and over-the-top. Django Unchained was no different. I think it’s important to situate the work with the one who produces the work, as well as the intent of the work. His intention was not to give us another iteration of Roots.
  3. From someone who is a scholar of race and the media, I think that if we take a step back and take Django Unchained for what it is (an irreverent satire), it’s actually quite impressive how much agency and power Django has, as well as others. I’m no film critic, but I do think there were some powerful themes and a lot of ironic moments that make slavery and racism out to be one of the most disgusting institutions and mentality this country has ever endorsed.
  4. It’s both unfair and nonsensical for people to compare this work, in particular, with that of Spike Lee, Mya Angelou and Alex Haley, for a number of reasons. For one, Tarrantino will never win that battle. Never – and I don’t think he’s trying to. Also, let’s briefly discuss the fact that many parts of Alex Haley’s Roots were plagiarized from the book The African. Additionally, Haley had to settle out of court because of that fact, and historians are pretty sure he failed to accurately trace his ancestry back to Kunta Kinte (some actually assert Kinte is a mythical figure). Does that make Roots any less powerful? Not for me, because I recognize it for what it is: a great and triumphant story that I’m sure mirrors many of our ancestors’. In a word, I’m not sure if Haley is a good example of true story telling. A good story teller? Absolutely.
  5. Finally, I don’t look toward Hollywood to tell my stories. Perhaps that’s having low expectations, but it’s the way I view it. I also don’t expect those of a different persuasion to tell my stories the ways I want them told. I just don’t. This is not to say that whatever Tarrantino makes doesn’t impact me, because it does in a variety of ways (that’s another post), but I am not holding him responsible to for getting my history or my story “right.”

Tarrantino’s works are always controversial. Some people have very strong opinions about his stuff and think he’s always been disrespectful to African Americans in his films. Is that true for Django Unchained? I think that’s up to individuals to assess. I enjoyed it because I looked at the film from a deconstructive, ironic, and satirical point of view. But, I do get why people are uncomfortable with both seeing and enjoying the film. It’s mighty hard to joke about slavery when this country wants to forget it and banish it into the annals of history, all the while denying its present-day implications upon us all.

What are your thoughts on the film?


About Courtney Herring

Courtney Herring is a 20-something witty rabble-rouser and opinionated provocateur dedicated to becoming a reliable source for news and current events while using her voice to bring issues to the fore impacting those 30 and under. You can find her sharing her two-cents and other musings on Twitter @thedivatweets and on Facebook as The Well-Read Herring.

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