Updated: Mar 30
The first time you watched Django Unchained, did you make it all the way through? I didn't. About 44 minutes in, I pressed the pause button on my controller and thought twice. Immediately the sight of Black men and women in chains turned me off, even with the preconceived understanding that this film was about slavery. This led to my thoughts about historical inaccuracies being depicted: like a freed slave bounty hunter, and how it didn't quite make sense. But what I wondered most about, was the film’s over usage of “the N word.”
It offended me. Filmmaker Spike Lee was quoted in an interview with Vibe, saying he would not watch the film, explaining, "All I'm going to say is that it's disrespectful to my ancestors. That's just me.... I'm not speaking on behalf of anybody else." Tarantino made sure to accurately depict that part of our ugly history. I remember speaking with Black, Spanish and White friends who loved the movie, who saw it for what it was "meant for:” entertainment. They weren't surprised that I didn't make it through the film, but didn't want to partake in the reasons why.
Why saturate the film with such a negative word, taking away from an artform so well written, directed and acted? In this regard, I wondered why Tarantino hadn’t been as creative as he was in Inglorious Basterds? You see, Samuel L. Jackson defended heavy use of “the n word,” stating, "Tarantino using 'nigger' too many times is like complaining they said 'kike' too many times in a movie about Nazis.” However, actor Jesse Williams is noted saying, "These anti-semitic terms were not used nearly as frequently in Tarantino's film about Nazis, Inglorious Basterds.” He was suggesting that the Jewish community would not have accepted it. “The N word,” has been accepted and used as a term of endearment by a growing percentage of African Americans. It's associated with the culture.
Some would say it's cool to be able to say the word, that if you're not Black and get away with it, you are given a pass. Now, more than ever, it's become a word that millennials have adopted in similar endearing ways, as well as the original definition of an ignorant or stupid person. Coming from a culture that embraces a word that, when I showed my parents The Chappelle Show for the first time - it was the episode with Clayton Bigsby, the Black white supremacist - they asked me to change the channel. It was more of a demand, actually. More pressing is why is it acceptable to offend one race, even if there has been great efforts to disassociate the word from the African American culture? I couldn't get over this, so I didn't indulge in the movie.
The second time I attempted to watch Django Unchained I succeeded in my attempt. I was finally able to get over myself, and watch a lot of my favorite actors perform extremely well in a production by a director whom I don't admire, but give credit where credits due. The set, the red blood splatter on white sheets, roses, and walls. It’s good! They also perfectly captured the institutionalized hatred between slaves and other slaves, the way blacks have treated other blacks systemically, like crabs in a barrel. When our protagonist, Django, is first introduced to Stephen at Candyland, they're immediately combative. Stephen’s view of seeing a slave on a horse was a metaphor for the theme of the movie, like seeing something you've never seen before and being able to achieve that. “Freeman.”
Slaves were taught to hate one another based off skin pigmentation. Of course, jobs weren't based solely off of complexion, but it played a significant roll. It became first nature to try and drag the next slave down, which maintained divisions even though there were many efforts to unite as slaves. Django was at odds with Stephen immediately and because this had nothing to do with why he and Schultz were at Candyland, it almost put our heros’ plan at risk. Something else that needs noting: Django’s growing ego. This was a glimpse into what many call nowadays “Black Entitlement.” He was allowing his stature and mission to overcome his humanity, simultaneously forgetting where he came from.
According to Bob Hoose, a critic with Plugged In, "This flick is far more concerned with foul-mouthed Grindhouse chatter, revenge-filled rage, skin-tearing bullwhips and bullets, and slow-motion geysers of meat and blood, than in communicating anything truthful and enlightening." Let’s not pretend, this wasn't a film about slavery. It would be dishonest of me to not mention how great of a job Tarantino did recreating our country’s deep horrible history in a Spaghetti Western, not a "big issue" movie. Education through entertainment. What is really meant to entertain us in Django Unchained is violence. Slavery is just the pretext of what is meant to entertain us. Many people appreciate the level of heightened cinematic cruelty and violence Tarantino goes to in most of his films in order to open discussion on very singular concepts: the mentality of criminals in Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs, the passive misogyny in Kill Bill, the morality and immorality of mental illness in Natural Born Killers and the normalization of genocide in Inglorious Basterds. In this regard, I have always admired his consistency to treat slavery with the same pulpy eye he is known for, but whether or not this is disrespectful, is truly in the eye of the beholder. Great controversial movies invite individual perspectives from each viewer to form contrasting opinions. That’s why they’re so controversial!
"I want to do them like they're genre films, but they deal with everything that America has never dealt with because it's ashamed of it, and other countries don't really deal with because they don't feel they have the right to." -Quentin Tarantino
Richard Brody backed up the director’s claims when he wrote in the New York Times that Tarantino's, "Vision of slavery's monstrosity is historically accurate.... Tarantino rightly depicts slavery as no mere administrative ownership but a grievous and monstrous infliction of cruelty."
Django Unchained was released in 2012 as an American revisionist film written and directed by Quentin Tarantino, as a tribute to Spaghetti Westerns: a cheaply produced movie about the American Old West typically made in Europe by an Italian producer and director. In 2007, development of Tarantino's version came about while writing a book on Sergio Corbucci, the director of 1966’s Django. The star-studded cast includes Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kerry Washington, and Samuel L. Jackson. The film grossed $425 million worldwide in theaters, tripling their $100 million budget, making it Tarantino's highest grossing theatrical release. Although the movie is depicting slavery - and treading water on introducing a fictional Black superhero to mainstream audiences - the irony is: the White director and actor were winning the film industry awards. Waltz, who did a tremendous job, won several awards for his performance, among them Best Supporting Actor at the BAFTAs, Golden Globes, and the Academy Awards. Tarantino won an Academy Award, a Golden Globe, and a BAFTA Award for writing the film's original screenplay.
Having given the movie 1 1/2 chances, I figured it would make sense to watch it again with some friends, and discuss the movie afterwards to capture some real life reactions and commentary. Invoke real emotion. A close friend asked if I viewed the main character as a superhero? It hadn't occurred to me that Jamie Foxx's performance transcended the role that he was playing. A free man on a horse that looked like the Black boy in chains. The free man on a horse wielding a gun and killing outlaw White men for fun, while receiving a profit to do so. It hit home, especially at the end, when you see how empowered he makes the other slaves feel. A Black superhero slave who would do anything for his Black slave wife. A Black man standing up for his Black woman, and going to the world’s end to protect her, in a time when that beautiful kind of love was being customarily destroyed.
Reality check: filmmaker Michael Moore praised Django Unchained, tweeting that the movie, "is one of the best film satires ever. A rare American movie on slavery and the origins of our sick racist history." And still, in reality, I see no changes. All I see is Leonardo DiCaprio, Christoph Waltz and Quentin Tarantino receiving awards and accolades. It's not surprising that a film on "slavery," or anything else I've touched on in this review, or any other critic has for that matter, that the two African American leads didn't receive any awards for their roles in what was arguably the best film of the year, and one that made millions think twice. The film grossed almost 4x as much as it was budgeted for, which leads me to my last question:
Who exactly was this movie made for: Black people or White people?
Off first glance, and even after the first time watching Django Unchained in its entirety, the case could be easy to make that this was for White America, those willing to view something graphically entertaining. After analyzing and rewatching this film, speaking and listening to others who have taken similar actions, I've come to believe that this movie was made for Black America. Black love. Black superhero. Black history. Black excellence, which is quite marginalized throughout world media. What do you think?
Ali T. Muhammad
Watching movies is one of the few moments that he's able to get out of his own head and into someone else's. He believes that there is a serious educational proponent used in making and watching films. As an avid reader, he's learned to appreciate what one can get from reading books and watching movies. Westerns, suspense thrillers and sci-fi are his favorite genres, but Legends of the Falls is his favorite movie of all time, followed by Pulp Fiction, The Usual Suspects, Interview with the Vampire and Malcolm X.