Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained (2012) represents a vivid reconsideration of the American slavery experience. The director employs a range of unexpected steps to describe the U.S. past. In particular, Django Unchained follows Tarantino’s traditional narrative style, which strongly relies on the audacious interplay with genres and interactive dialogue with the audience. The movie features not only numerous provoking techniques but also provides significant insights into the then-American society’s ethics about the institute of slavery.
First of all, it is necessary to observe that Tarantino is famous for his controversial approach to cinematic art, always tending to dashing experiments and applying a mixture of genres. In such a manner, the director aspires to challenge his audience, and thus to draw attention to fundamental issues. Another important fact is that Tarantino also wrote the screenplay for Django Unchained. This detail is essential because, in such a way, the director had the opportunity to represent his own story on the screen, that is, to bring life to his narrative ideas and historical perspective.
The context of the movie is no less critical. Tarantino released Django Unchained in 2012, that is, during Barack Obama’s presidency. Thus, at the time of the movie production, U.S. national politics relied on the virtues of equality and diversity. In other words, American society was not constrained by racial prejudice as it previously was. Indeed, the psychological readiness of the audience for a reconsideration of the phenomenon of slavery strongly determined the scope of the director’s artistic possibilities and intentions. Therefore, Django Unchained is a contemporary interpretation of slavery, which extrapolates the problems of the past to the present setting. That is to say, the director had an extensive background and possibilities to contemplate the issues of equality from the modern perspective.
The main characters in the movie are former slave Django Freeman and a bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz. Dr. Schultz frees Django from slavery, and the two of them embark on an exciting journey of headhunting. Eventually, Django manages to find and liberate his wife, Broomhilda, as well as avenge their oppressors in the meantime. Hence, the film presents the historical context of the 19th-century slave-owning South. The director has chosen this particular historical period because it vividly represents how American society’s ethics about the institute of slavery has changed over time. Tarantino deliberately emphasizes the atrocities of slave-owners to challenge the viewers, to provoke resentment over the misdoings and empathy with the protagonists. The director induces the audience to ponder the issues of equality and justice. In such a manner, Tarantino ensures the strong effect of the movie.
The choice of these two characters is significant for several reasons. On the one hand, Django gradually regains self-awareness as a free man, and this is the primary driving force of the plot. On the other hand, Dr. Schultz is of German descent, and his ethical views on the phenomenon of slavery are rather progressive for the then-American society. Indeed, his respectful attitude toward Django and other slaves as to his peers is shocking for other characters thought the movie. This detail adds a comic effect to the film, as the viewer inadvertently compares the story with today’s level of society’s development. In fact, his views on the institution of slavery are very much in unison with the opinion of John Locke. In particular, the English Enlightenment philosopher considered slavery “so vile and miserable an estate of man, and so directly opposite to the generous temper and courage of our nation, that it is hard to be conceived that… a gentleman should plead for it” (Locke 7). Thus, Dr. Schultz and his enlightened views act as a catalyzer of Django’s self-development and internal evolution.
In this context, it is necessary to point out that slave-owners in the movie consider the Afro-Americans as inanimate objects, devoid of any rights and freedoms. For example, plantation owners are sincerely surprised when they see Django not shackled but riding a horse. The historical documents of that time represent slavery in much the same manner. In fact, people did not perceive slavery as unethical. For instance, the Founding Fathers regarded it as a natural phenomenon. In Notes on the State of Virginia (1801), Thomas Jefferson praised the modifications to the American law, including the intention “to make slaves distributable among the next of kin, as other moveables” (203). Hence, it was by no means dishonorable to consider a slave as a commodity rather than a human being.
Furthermore, Jefferson compared the condition of the American slaves to those of the Roman empire. He concluded that “the condition of their slaves was much more deplorable than that of the blacks on the continent of America” (Jefferson 209). In particular, Jefferson asserted that the American slaves had an advantage to “multiply as fast as the free inhabitants” (209). Therefore, the enslaved population had to be grateful for such concessions as compared to ancient Roman customs. As one can observe, the institute of slavery at that time was an integral and deeply entrenched part of a man’s worldview.
Yet another vital feature of the movie is the director’s fundamental intention to disclose the dehumanizing nature of relationships between people. The underlying message of Django Unchained “is a sustained deconstruction of the myths of the earlier benign plantation genre” (Stokes 9). For this purpose, Tarantino has chosen the spaghetti western genre, due to its traditional tendencies to depict explicit violence. Indeed, the movie accurately represents the ostentatious cruelty of slave-owners. In this context, Tarantino provides such hideous details from Calvin Candie’s plantation in Mississippi as slaves fighting to the death in the barbarian wrestling contests, tracking of runaways by bloodhounds and their perish thereon and the like. In such a manner, the film renders a devastating effect on the audience. The director emphasizes how drastically society’s attitudes toward slavery have changed. Indeed, the practices which were common in the 19th century are truly shocking for contemporary people.
Numerous other historical records contain similar depictions of the institution of slavery. For example, in The Narrative of Sojourner Truth, the narrator juxtaposes the U.S. ideals of liberty to the “slave-driving cruelty” (Gilbert 120). The author compares the slave-owners’ attitude toward their servants as “tortures of the Inquisition” (Gilbert 120). The details of slaves’ treatment are horrifying, such as “the lash to the flesh of your guiltless victim, even the flesh of a wife and mother” (Gilbert 120). Similar descriptions are provided in Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil of Slavery, including “…ensnaring, enslaving, oppressing, whipping, starving with hunger, and cruelly torturing and murdering” (Cugoano 265). Hence, Tarantino’s representation of the institute of slavery, as well as the society’s attitude toward it, fully corresponds to the historical records of the contemporaries.
Furthermore, it is necessary to observe that the director employs a deliberately unrealistic manner of narration. For instance, the movie features numerous anachronisms, such as Django’s sunglasses and hip-hop music. At the end of the film, the enslaved miraculously escape punishment and get “retribution in unrealistic fashion” (Stokes 15). That is to say, it is highly unlikely that Django and Broomhilda could have managed to escape and move safely in the context of the slave-owning South. Alternatively, the director could have applied a more realistic and thus tragic scenario of the plot development. In fact, it would be much more traditional and anticipated for the movies featuring such problems. Instead, “Tarantino’s subversion of history” renders a “disturbing effect” on the audience (Black 618). In such a manner, the director aspires to shake the viewers out of their comfort zone, drawing attention to fundamental questions discussed in the film.
At the same time, Tarantino’s choice of the movie’s genre is debatable in recent studies. For instance, Jarrod Dunham (2016) argues that the format of a spaghetti western prevented the director from representing the “human subjectivity” and profound “psychological dimension, not only of slavery but also of the continuing crisis of structural racism in the post-civil rights era” (402). Nevertheless, Joseph Winters (2018) asserts that Tarantino manages to achieve the “cinematic redemption” of Afro-American slaves (14). Indeed, the film movie provides an alternative version of the destiny of a slave, who symbolically represents the entire Afro-American population of the 19th-century South. Due to the subversion of traditional cinematic genres and techniques, the director ensures the cathartic effect of the movie.
Thus, Tarantino’s Django Unchained features vivid details and the historical context of the problem of slavery at that time. However, the director’s primary objective was not to represent an accurate course of past events, but rather to embed the viewers in the intentionally timeless and spaceless setting. In other words, the movie’s story is not limited to American history. Instead, it pertains to our present and even our future, since the problems of equality, justice, and humanistic relationships between people rise above any time limits and are eternally relevant. In such a manner, Tarantino aspires to prevent slavery from returning to modern history ever again under any possible disguise.
Black, Jack. “’You Ain’t Gonna Get Away Wit’ This, Django’: Fantasy, Fiction and Subversion in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained.” Quarterly Review of Film and Video, vol. 36, no. 7, 2019, pp. 611–637.
Cugoano, Quobna Ottobah. Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil of Slavery. Penguin Classics, 1999.
Dunham, Jarrod. “The Subject Effaced: Identity and Race in Django Unchained.” Journal of Black Studies, vol. 47, no. 5, 2016, pp. 402–422.
Gilbert, Olive, editor. The Narrative of Sojourner Truth. Dictated by Sojourner Truth (ca.1797-1883). The Author, 1850.
Jefferson, Thomas. Notes on the State of Virginia. David Carlisle, 1801.
Locke, John. Two Treatises of Government. Thomas Tegg, 1823.
Stokes, Melvyn. “From Uncle Tom to Nat Turner: An Overview of Slavery in American Film, 1903-2016.” Transatlantica, vol. 1, 2018, pp. 1–20.
Winters, Joseph. “Rescue US: Birth, Django, and the Violence of Racial Redemption.” Religious Studies, vol. 9, no. 1, 2018, pp. 1–15.