Pop Culture, Race & Politics, Theory & Essay

10 Things I Think I Think About Django Unchained, Slavery, Nigger/Nigga, Race, And The Reaction To Django Unchained

***Although the following post is about Django Unchained, I made sure to make it as spoiler-free as I could. If you do choose to leave comments that could be interpreted as spoilers, please leave spoiler tags before you do so***

1. “War is hell, but that’s not the half of it, because war is also mystery and terror and adventure and courage and discovery and holiness and pity and despair and longing and love. War is nasty; war is fun. War is thrilling; war is drudgery. War makes you a man; war makes you dead.”

This take on the popular “war is hell” cliche is from Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, a semi-autobiographical and metafictional account of the Vietnam War, and one of my three or four favorite books. Basically, something as random, arbitrary, and complicated as being in the middle of a war is too, well, complicated to be reduced down to one adjective.

After reading dozens of historical texts and memoirs, sifting through several documentaries, and watching movies such as Roots and Django Unchanined and Amistad, I think the same type of quote could be made about slavery in the United States. Perhaps different adjectives would be used, but it’s not possible to distill a description of that time down to a single word.

I mean, anyone with a brain and/or a Black grandparent should know that Django is not an exact representation of the antebellum period. But, one historically accurate thing it does show is that the relationships between slaves and slaveowners were complicated as well.

For instance, there’s a 20 minute stretch in the movie where you witness each of the following:

A slave who, with the way she was dressed and with the way she was treated, was clearly (slaveowner) Calvin Candie’s girlfriend.

A slave who, because he attempted to escape, is sentenced to a very brutal death.

A house slave who is clearly the second most powerful person on the entire plantation.

While each were slaves, each character had a completely different relationship with their owner, and each probably had a different personal relationship with the concept of slavery. Shit was just…complicated. While the “girlfriend” and the house slave both had vastly more freedoms than the average slave, neither was actually free. (The situation with the girlfriend was especially bizarre. I mean, yea, she’s his girlfriend—and, from the looks of things, he treated her like a, well, girlfriend—but could she actually say “no?” Isn’t this—sex without consent—rape?)

With that being said, it’s irresponsible to neglect to mention that while certain movies and texts may show that certain slaves may have had a more, for lack of a better term, “benevolent” relationship with their masters, the majority of slaves were not treated with any sort of human kindness or compassion. Maybe it wasn’t “hell,” but for many, it was even worse.

2. I think Django Unchained is quintessential Tarantino. His movies are frequently homages—to spaghetti westerns, blaxploitation flicks, etc,—and mishmashes of different genres, but Django is almost an homage to himself.

Basically, if you like Tarantino movies, you will probably like Django. If you don’t, you probably won’t.

3. I think Django is my fourth-favorite Tarantino movie. (Kill Bill 1 and 2, and Inglorious Basterds would be the others) I didn’t love it—I thought it was a bit too long—but I did like it very much.

4. I think one of the many possible reasons why people who aren’t Tarantino fans aren’t Tarantino fans has to do with the fact that typical Tarantino movies frequently shift tonally in a way that can seem a bit too inappropriate. For instance, if you’re going to see, I don’t know, Precious or something, you go into the movie knowing how to expect to feel. You may laugh at the absurdity of a certain situation, but a scene designed to make you guffaw in a movie like that would just seem out of place.

Tarantino movies don’t follow that same script. And, despite the fact that I am a huge fan of his work, I can see how someone would be put off by a movie that depicts the brutality of slavery in one scene and has a slapstick scene involving the Ku Klux Klan (more on this in a sec) in the same 15 minute span.

5. I didn’t think the Klan scene was that funny. I think you can make a good joke about anything, so me not thinking it was funny had nothing to do with the attempt. It made me chuckle a little, but, I don’t know, it was more The Hangover funny—humor where you’re supposed to laugh at something because it’s supposed to be funny, not because it actually is—than actually funny.

6. I think many (if not most) of the people upset by the ubiquity of nigga and nigger in Django are upset because they feel like they’re supposed to be upset by it, not because the word actually offended them. It reminds me of the conversation surrounding Gywneth Paltrow’s “niggas in Paris” tweet last year. Despite the thousands of articles, blogs, tweets, and status message threads about it—and yes, I was guilty of making a contribution as well—I doubt many of us were actually that mad about it.

It’s almost as if we’re playing “pretend” mad so White people won’t get too comfortable. It’s kind of like how a dad gets pretend mad at a child for peeing in the front yard. He doesn’t want the kid to do again, so he’s appropriately upset and makes sure the kid sees that he is. But, he’s not losing any sleep over it, and probably thinks it’s more funny than anything else.

7. I think I’ve reached a point where hearing “n-word” bothers me more than “nigger” does. (I think Sam Jackson agrees with me)

8. I think one of the most jarring things about Django was seeing slavery in “color.” As I mentioned earlier, whether through Roots or some other movies and/documentaries, most of us have seen that time period on screen in some fashion. But, while Roots (and Amistad) definitely was graphic, there’s a difference between the relatively grainy film used in something made in the 70s (and the documentary-esque feel of Amistad) and the type of picture you get with the high definition cameras used today. Django is, in many ways, the most colorful depiction of slavery any of us have ever seen.

9. I think the movie was a bit tamer than I expected it to be. Rapes and castrations are implied instead of shown, and for all I heard and read about the violence and the brutality, the violence actually seen on screen was so over the top that it bordered on camp.

Now, I’m sure some of those who have seen the movie may disagree about the campyness of the violence, specifically in regards to a scene involving dogs and another scene involving two Mandingos fighting to the death. But, both of those scenes were edited in a way that even though you definitely knew what was happening, you couldn’t really see it. (I wonder if Tarantino intended to do that or if he was instructed to by Miramax.)

Still, there were a few scenes that were particularly hard to watch, and each involved Kerry Washington’s character. Without giving away too much, she’s put through a gauntlet of dignity-erasing horrors that make you want to cringe, cry, and, well, kill.

10. I think a conversation I had a couple weeks ago shows why, despite its flaws and despite the fact that it’s not a completely accurate account of the antebellum period, a movie like Django is necessary. (Well, at least more necessary than unnecessary)

Once a week for the past four or five years, I play basketball at a local high school. It’s a regular group of 20 to 30 guys who vary in age and skill level, and many weeks I’m the only Black guy.

This particular pick up game has been going on for decades, and one of the traditions is that the guys who come gather in the coaches’ office afterwards to kick back and drink beers. (The person who’s supposed to buy the beers revolves every week. And, if you’ve gone too long without bringing a case, you will get clowned and eventually uninvited)

Anyway, Django happened to be one of the topics of conversation during one of these kick back sessions. It stayed superficial for a couple minutes—most of the discussion was just about who had seen the movie and whether they liked it—before seguing into a conversation about Tarantino movies in general.

Admittedly, I was happy that we’d left that subject. As much as I enjoy talking about the type of topics a Django conversation might touch on, I don’t want to have those conversations everywhere and with everyone. And, honestly, part of the reason why I wasn’t looking forward to a deeper Django discussion is that I generally like and enjoy being around those guys, and I didn’t want someone to express an opinion or viewpoint that would make me start to think differently about them. Perhaps that’s “wrong” in some way, but I just didn’t and still don’t see the need in introducing that dynamic there. When it comes to reliably fun pick-up basketball, ignorance is bliss.

A few minutes later, though, Django was brought up again. A guy sitting right next to me on the couch had a few questions about the movie—things he wasn’t particularly sure about—and, well, when else are you going to have the opportunity to ask a very smart Black guy about some of these things?

Now, for a moment I considered doing the “I can’t answer for all Black people” thing with perhaps a little “I’m offended that you’d even ask me that” mixed in. But, his questions (more on that in a sec) let me know he was both genuinely curious and genuinely ignorant, and with that realization came another one:

There are people—millions of people (millions of Americans!)—who literally know nothing about slavery other than it was kind of bad and it ended some time ago. And, while Django isn’t Roots, a movie created by a person as culturally relevant as Tarantino will at least spark conversations that some people would have never had.

One of the questions had to do with Sam Jackson’s character. Basically, he assumed that Jackson’s character wasn’t a slave. I corrected him. And, since he had no concept of the difference between house slaves and field slaves, I gave him a quick explanation.

Now, is it every Black person’s duty to go around educating White people about slavery and race? No. I have many hats but “African-American History Tour Guide” isn’t one of them. At the same time, as frustrating as it is that an educated man would know so little about American history that he’d even conjure that question, asking the question is better than the subject never even crossing his mind.

And, you can never go wrong when educating and/or reminding people that while some of the shit in Django didn’t happen, some—the hot boxes, the branding, the whippings, the rapes, the murders, the sell and purchase of humans, the intentional splittings of families, etc—did.

—Damon Young (aka “The Champ”)

Damon Young

Damon Young is the editor-in-chief of VSB. He is also a contributing editor for EBONY.com. He resides in Pittsburgh, and he really likes pancakes.

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