Django Unchained awakens debate on slavery and racism

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Squirm in your seat, try to hide behind your hands all you want, closing your eyes might stop you from watching the graphic cruelty on screen – but the reality is there and never has it been captured like this in fiction. Though Tarantino’s Django Unchained has been branded as anti-white propaganda, as a vehicle that tarnishes black history, as too racist for its overuse of the N word, as an extreme of blaxploitation, it has brought forward a discussion about racism and slavery that was very much dormant in the mainstream media.

Though we may celebrate Barack Obama being the first African American man to be re-elected as President in the Unites States, it is easy to forget why we celebrate it and how painful this history can be. Django wasn’t a real person, neither was his blood-soaked journey, but his struggle is true to the reality of slavery that lasted for centuries, and despite the deep fictional roots of Unchained, there is much that Tarantino concealed with creativity and blood.

To clarify, it must be stressed that the centre of the movie was based on an imaginary kind of cruelty: there is little next to no historical evidence that mandingo fighting actually existed, and Tarantino borrowed this idea from one of his favourite movies Mandingo, released in 1975. It has been used as a plot device in movies for years, and though for Tarantino fans it might be evident, many have asked – if it was not a real historical fact, why use it in Django Unchained at all?

“We all intellectually ‘know’ the brutality and inhumanity of slavery, 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,” he recently declared in an interview, explaining the gore and violence in the movie. “I’m here to tell you, that however bad things get in the movie, a lot worse shit actually happened. When slave narratives are done on film, they tend to be historical with a capital H, with an arms-length quality to them.

“I wanted to break that history-under-glass aspect, I wanted to throw a rock through that glass and shatter it for all times, and take you into it.”

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In his fictional Django world, Tarantino believes to only have shown a fraction of how cruel the human race has been to themselves. As my friend Tom Wardak has noted in his enthralling review of the movie, it is important that the relationship between characters is intra-racial, not inter-racial. There is the sadistic white man (Leonardo DiCaprio), the evil black man that defends not his race (Samuel L Jackson), the good German who tends to murder white men and despises slavery (Christoph Waltz) and the black man who enjoys killing white men for revenge (Jamie Foxx).

Though Django is oppressed, he also kills many, many people (some with remorse, others with much gusto)– yet, somehow we find ourselves rooting for him. Even in the subject of slavery where it seems that wrong and right are simple, Tarantino mixes up good and bad in a huge stew and serves it to us – we might be swallowing it with a bitter taste in our mouths, but the truth is that even heroes can be murderers, and even slaves can torture slaves. Though race and slavery is the centre of the plot, Tarantino has risked speculating how it affects different people, not just the evil white man and the submissive black man. It is complex, and perhaps frightening, but it’s an amazing point to be debated.

This is nothing new. Alice Walker has conveyed this complexity before in The Colour Purple. In speaking about identity, race, slavery and segregation, Nettie points out that though African tribes are oppressed by a white colonial force there is still oppression within the tribes. And though the Olinka tribe knows of the suffering of the African American slaves, they are indifferent to the plight of their brothers and sisters. This is essentially Tarantino’s conclusion; a complication of an apparent straightforward definition of oppressed and oppressor.

Astonishing as it might seem, it is true that Tarantino left much of the cruelty from times of slavery out of his movie. He used the shocking images of mandingo fighting as an allegory of the “worse shit” that happened, but he left out many things that are worth remembering if we want to debate the issue of slavery. Sexual abuse and rape – obviously no one was ever held accountable, or ever punished for any raping of slaves as they were considered property. Working conditions, where slaves worked in the cotton fields no matter what the weather and many worked with bleeding hands. The journey to America, where death by “human crush” was common – too many people in one space resulting in suffocation. Many threw themselves off the ship, and others were dragged with dead corpses and thrown off the ship because they were chained together.

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And once in America, they were imprisoned not only by their masters but by law too. They were forbidden to learn how to read. If they were able to buy their freedom, they could be captured by slavers and sold again. Sometimes, slaves didn’t know where they were born, or hold old they were – identity was not needed for property. If you want to read more, click on the sources below.

Let’s not forget segregation continued for decades after the Civil War.

With a symbolic shot of blood splatter onto fully grown pristine cotton plants, Tarantino has awakened a much needed dialogue about the history of slavery and its effects on today’s society. Despite years of progress, Beyoncé is still photoshopped to look paler, Twitter is full of extremely racist remarks, and I have met people who say we should get over slavery because everything is bunnies and rainbows nowadays in terms of racism.

It may just be because Obama is the most powerful man in the USA that this subject has been off the table for so long. He’s the president, he is African American, so Martin Luther King’s dream is done.

Right? I don’t think so.

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Disclaimer: I am not, nor do I claim to be a specialist on the issues mentioned above. Also, I am not a Tarantino aficionado.

All photos from Webmaster’s Toolkit at Django Unchained.

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