“DJANGO UNCHAINED”: CONTROVERSY AND MYTH
Ever since the release of the 2012 Academy Award winning film, “12 YEARS A SLAVE”, Quentin Tarantino’s 2012 film,“DJANGO UNCHAINED” has been the target of a good deal of backlash and derision. Wait . . . I take that back. The film has received a good deal of derision even when it first reached the movie theaters during the early winter of 2012-2013.
Normally, I would have dismissed these negative comments. After all, “DJANGO UNCHAINED” became one of my favorite movies for the year 2012. It also proved to be a box office hit and won two Academy Awards – a Best Supporting Actor award for actor Christoph Waltz and a Best Original Screenplay award for Tarantino. So, why am I bothering to write this article about the film? If I must be honest, I recently read a few articles about the movie. Several accused Tarantino of writing a revenge fantasy on the topic of American slavery. I also came across one or two that compared it to the recent Best Picture Oscar winner, Steve McQueen’s “12 YEARS A SLAVE” . . . to the detriment of the former film. And I found myself becoming confused and rather annoyed. And when I get pissed off – even in regard to arts and entertainment – I have a tendency to react. This article is my reaction.
One of the major complaints against the movie was its depiction of violence. Okay . . . this is Quentin Tarantino, we are talking about. I have yet to come across a film of his that did not feature violence. Many of his previous films – including“RESERVOIR DOGS”, “KILL BILL” and “INGLORIOUS BASTERDS” – featured over-the-top violence. After twenty years of this, why did so many film critics raise a stink about the violence in “DJANGO UNCHAINED”? After all, the movie’s plot revolved around American slavery, upon which a great deal of violence was used to sustain it. And the system also produced a good deal of violence from many who tried to resist it. Surely these film critics were aware of this? Surely they were aware of the numerous slave rebellions – at least around 250 of them – that had occurred in North America between the Colonial Era and the eve of the Civil War. And I am not simply referring to the more well-known slave rebellions such as the 1811 German Coast Uprising, along with those planned by Gabriel Prosser and Denmark Vessey and Nat Turner?
A good number of people also accused the movie of being historically inaccurate. Film producer-director Spike Lee put in his two cents and declared that “American slavery was not a Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western. It was a Holocaust. My ancestors are slaves stolen from Africa. I will honor them.” Perhaps Lee’s ancestors never saw the American West. But a good number of slaves and former slaves did . . . even before the outbreak of the Civil War. The movie’s opening scene featured Django as part of a slave coffle being marched across Texas to one of the slave marts of that particular state. And guess what? Such incidents happened – especially during the Civil War, when many slave owners sent their slaves west to Texas to avoid being conscripted by the Confederate government to labor on behalf of its military. Slaves who attempted to runaway were punished in many various forms – including whippings like the one endured by Django’s wife, Broomhilda Von Shaft and nearly endured by one of Spencer “Big Daddy” Bennett’s slaves. The experiences of American slaves are so varied that I find myself wondering why Lee and many like him believed that nearly all slaves had only one particular experience – that of a laborer on a large-scale cotton plantation. Was the idea of a former slave becoming a bounty hunter that hard to believe? Would these same critics have felt the same if they knew about Nancy Gooch, a Missouri slave who had accompanied her master to California during Gold Rush . . . and later became a free woman when that state joined the Union? What would they say if they knew that she and her husband eventually became well off and owners of Johann Sutter’s mill (site of James Marshall’s discovery of gold)? Would they have felt the same if they had remembered the experiences of James Beckwourth, a Virginia-born slave who became a mountain man, explorer and fur trader; following his emancipation around 1824? Considering the varying experiences of Nancy Gooch, James Beckwourth and other slaves throughout U.S. history, why would anyone believe there was only one kind of experience? Former slaves – even before the Civil War – have become social activists, businessmen/businesswomen, authors and even slave owners. So, why would the idea of a pre-Civil War emancipated slave becoming a bounty hunter be dismissed as a fantasy?
Nearly a year ago, I had commented that with the release of “12 YEARS A SLAVE”, many have compared it to“DJANGO UNCHAINED” . . . and to the detriment of the latter. Look, everyone has their own views on what constitutes a good movie. If one prefers the 2013 film to the 2012 one, fine. The problem is that I have great difficulty in accepting the view that “12 YEARS A SLAVE” is superior to “DJANGO UNCHAINED”. Film critics and many others argue that the 2013 film is superior because it is a drama based upon historical fact. The film is a historical film biography about a free black man from antebellum New York, who was kidnapped into slavery and experienced nearly twelve years as a slave in Louisiana. As for “DJANGO UNCHAINED”, it is not biopic about a historical figure. The characters in the film, including Django Freeman, Dr. King Schultz, and Calvin Candie are all figments of Quentin Tarantino’s imagination. And as far as many are concerned, there is only one way to make a film about slavery. – a story based upon historical fact.
I might as well be frank. I noticed that the plot for “DJANGO UNCHAINED” had a few discrepancies. The movie’s narrative claimed that it began in 1858 – Two Years Before the Civil War. Actually, the year 1858 is three years before the war’s outbreak, not two. Also, Tarantino made another blooper with the movie’s time setting. Django and Schultz accompanied Candie to Candyland in early May 1858 . . . at least according to a scene that featured Candie’s head slave Stephen writing out a check for supplies. It is quite obvious that Tarantino got his time frame a little off. Was “DJANGO UNCHAINED” set between the fall of 1858 and the spring of 1859? Or was it set between the fall of 1857 and the spring of 1858? Who knows? Many critics and historians made a big deal about the presence of “Mandingo fighting” in“DJANGO UNCHAINED”. So did I. Like many others, I had claimed that there was no historical evidence of this sport ever existing. Well . . . perhaps we may have all been slightly mistaken. When author Kyle Onstott wrote his 1957 novel,“Mandingo”, he must have heard about the sport called Battle Royal that originated in Ancient Rome and reappeared in 19th century United States, and put his own spin on the sports. Although the sport of Battle Royal had consisted of three or more participants, it featured gladiatorial-style fighting that would be considered very brutal. The sport had originated in Ancient Rome and resurfaced centuries later in the first half of 19th century United States. The interesting thing is that many critics and filmgoers made a big brouhaha over the historical inaccuracies found in “DJANGO UNCHAINED”. I found this attitude very hypocritical, considering that inaccuracies of this kind have been found in every historical drama I have seen, including more highly acclaimed films such as “GONE WITH THE WIND”, “LAWRENCE OF ARABIA”,“GLORY”, “THE KING’S SPEECH” and the recent Best Picture Oscar winner, “12 YEARS A SLAVE”.
But if there is one thing that truly annoys me, it is the critics’ labeling of “DJANGO UNCHAINED” as a revenge tale. The film did feature characters either attempting or achieving revenge. The character “Big Daddy” Bennett tried to get revenge against Django Freeman and Dr. King Schultz for killing the Brittle Brothers, his overseers and wanted fugitives of the law. Dr. Schultz achieved revenge against one of the movie’s main antagonists, Calvin Candie, for the death of a Candyland slave and being cheated out of $12,000. Even Django managed to achieve revenge against the Brittle Brothers, the overseers who once worked for his original owner and some of the inhabitants at Candyland. And I believe it is possible to say that he got revenge against Lara Lee Candie-Fitzwilly, Stephen, Billy Crash and other Candie henchmen, when he returned to Candyland to save Broomhilda. But his main intent was to save Broomhilda and retrieve her freedom papers. I suspect that the revenge attempted or achieved in this film were merely consequences of the main plot. After all, both “Big Daddy” Bennett and Dr. Schultz paid consequences for their vengeful acts. And despite his original intent, Django managed to achieve some kind of revenge. But in the end, I do not believe “DJANGO UNCHAINED” is basically a revenge tale.
If Django had truly been interested in revenge, he would have gone after the very man who had punished and later separated both him and his wife Broomhilda – namely their original owner, Carruthers. And yet, Django never bothered to go after Carruthers for revenge. He never even considered it. Why? Because his main goal was to find and rescue Broomhilda, before fleeing the South. Mind you, he would have never been able to achieve this without Dr. King, who offered $75 and freedom to Django if the latter would help him track down the Brittle Brothers. Django would have never become a bounty hunter if King had not suggested he become a partner in the latter’s bounty hunting operations during the winter in exchange for helping him track down Broomhilda in the South. It was not difficult for me to see that Django’s main interest during the film’s entire narrative was being reunited with Broomhilda and fleeing the slaveholding South for good.
And I cannot help but wonder why many critics and filmgoers were determined to label “DJANGO UNCHAINED” a revenge tale? Why was it so important for them to regard it as such? Their accusations reminded me of the fears that many 19th century Americans – North and South – had about freed slaves. Many of these Americans feared emancipation because they believed those former slaves would turn on their former masters and engage in indiscriminate killings of whites. Was this same fear behind the intent of many critics to label “DJANGO UNCHAINED”? Because the movie featured a black man and ex-slave killing a good number of people – especially whites – to achieve his goal of permanent freedom for both himself and his wife? Is this why the media dumped this crap on the public about it being a revenge movie?
I will not deny that Django Freeman had a vindictive streak within him. The casual manner in which he stepped upon the fatally wounded slave trader Dicky Speck after the latter had insulted him, led me to suspect this. However, Django’s killing of the Brittle Brothers was more about helping Dr. King collect a bounty (and acquire his own freedom) than any revenge . . . even if the former must have felt satisfaction in killing two of the brothers. Django and Dr. King’s violent encounter with “Big Daddy” Bennett and a group of night riders was more about saving their hides. I also suspect that Django had achieved some satisfaction in his killing of some of Candyland’s inhabitants. But I still believe the entire episode was more about saving Broomhilda . . . and ensuring that no one at Candyland would alert the authorities to her disappearance. A part of me cannot help but wonder if moviegoers and critics find it easier to swallow a movie about slavery or any kind of oppression if major non-white characters were to simply endure or resort to non-violent responses. Would they have preferred if Django Freeman had resorted to non-violent means to rescue Broomhilda? He tried . . . upon King Schultz’s advice. But the latter ruined Django’s chances with a violent display of temper that led to his own death and the re-enslavement of both Django and Broomhilda. Django, in the end, had to clean Dr. Schultz’s mess . . . with violence.
Over the years, I have noticed how the American public, media and historians are willing to glorify activists like Martin Luther King for resorting to non-violent methods of resistance against oppression. Yet, at the same, these same people, media and historians glorify this country’s violent resistance to British authority in the late 18th century. And in parts of this country – especially in various Southern states – the former Confederate States of America is still glorified for its violent attempt to break away from the United States in the early 1860s. In other words, when a violent or military resistance is led by elite white males, our country glorifies this action. When non-violent resistance is led by anyone who is from the middle or lower classes, non-white or a woman, our country glorifies this action. When violent resistance is led by anyone who is from the middle or lower classes, non-white or a woman, our society condemns this action. And for certain critics and filmgoers, Django Freeman made the mistake of resorting to violence to win the freedom of his wife and himself.
Let me repeat myself. I do not believe that “DJANGO UNCHAINED” is a revenge tale. Django’s goal in this movie was not revenge. If it was, he would have sought revenge against the character portrayed by Bruce Dern. Ironically, another movie was released near the end of 2012 – “ZERO DARK THIRTY”. What was this movie about? Namely the hunt for Bin Laden in retaliation for the attacks on September 11, 2001. “ZERO DARK THIRTY” was clearly about the U.S. government seeking revenge against Bin Laden for the attack. Even the leading character portrayed by Jessica Chastain became vengeful when another colleague and friend was killed during a meeting set up with a former terrorist. There were some critics and moviegoers who dared to accuse or criticize the movie for being a revenge tale. The mainstream media more or less avoided labeling it a “revenge flick”. Then again, I should not surprised, especially when revenge or retaliation in this film was sanctioned by society and the government. For the past victims of slavery, revenge on their behalf is not tolerated . . . even after emancipation had been achieved over a century-and-a-half ago. And especially not in a work of fiction.
As for the backlash against “DJANGO UNCHAINED”, I realize that whatever negative opinions about this movie will never change. I can do nothing about it. One could also say that this article might be a waste of time. But you know what? I do not think so. For it allowed me to express my own frustrations over the negative responses to this film. And those frustrations were born from some of the criticisms and “revenge” label that was dumped on the film. It felt good to get this article out of my system . . . even if I do not end up changing any minds.
Filed under: Essay, History, Movies | Tagged: american revolution, antebellum, bruce dern, christoph waltz, civil war, cooper huckabee, don johnson, early america, history, iraqi-afghan wars, james remar, james russo, jamie foxx, jessica chastain, kerry washington, leonardo dicaprio, m.c. gainey, mid 20th century, middle east, quentin tarantino, samuel l. jackson, slavery, solomon northup, spike lee | Leave a comment »