Vengeance and History in Django Unchained

This is one of two reviews of “Django Unchained” by Lakefront Historian bloggers. See also ajdilorenzo’s post on the film.


Who would guess that in the past year two of the most talked about movies would be on the topic of American slavery? If you have not noticed yet Lincoln and Django Unchained deal with the history of slavery very differently. Some Americans, interestingly a select few African Americans, have decried the film as irreverent in its revisionism of slavery or paradoxically for its use of the “n-word”. I suggest that the film memorably revises the remembrance of slavery and, in particular, plays to the emotions of modern descendants of enslaved people.

American slavery remains as a stain on our history, one of its greatest philosophical hypocrisies. Slavery for many contemporary Americans is widely considered immoral and shameful yet socially irrelevant in our daily lives today. On the other hand, bring up slavery with an African American and you may get reaction ranging from ambivalence to anger to, more insidiously, shame. What Quentin Tarantino really does with his film is counteract the shame or guilt that occurs when someone asks: ‘why didn’t they fight?’ or ‘why didn’t we fight back?’ when referring to slaves. In fact, Tarantino includes that theme in his dialogue. The character Django is not the slave who is simply worked, branded, sold, and tortured (even though all of those things happen to him); he is the symbol of retribution and the Black hero who independently delivers his bloody judgment on the institution of slavery. Django is the answer to the question, at least in fantasy.

I can say that I enjoyed it but there is a historical answer to how the African diaspora responded to slavery. Despite the myth passed around during the centuries of slavery (and sometimes today) the majority of slaves were not content with slavery. Historically, African slaves fought back in their own ways from the beginning till the end of slavery. Sometimes the fighting was actually violent. It is the history of Toussaint L’Overture (icon of Haitian freedom), Nat Turner, Joseph Cinqué (leader of the Amistad insurrection), Black Union soldiers, and every house slave who covertly ground glass into their master’s meal. Of course there are many others who fought slavery without violence. The truth is there are historical figures not so different from the fictional Django, the previously aforementioned Nat Turner being the most similar. Turner, incensed with spiritual convictions, made it a mission to violently crush slavery a little over a decade after his wife was sold away from him. In August 1831, he and seventy slaves and free men killed no less than fifty-five White people before Turner’s demise. A bloodbath on par with Tarantino’s yet completely historical.

It is also necessary to briefly note that it was important to see in this film the brutality and oppression of slavery beyond the cotton field. The back-breaking work of constant labor is not focused on here but instead the common attitude towards physical, mental, and emotional torture. Tarantino indeed makes slavery appear very “peculiar”. Some scenes featuring odd iron headgear on slaves, whippings, torture devices and castration as punishment all represent historical facets of American slavery. Furthermore, the character of Broomhilda demonstrates the experiences of slaves whose families were broken and the tale of many female slaves who were subjected to constant sexual slavery. Broomhilda, in her lack of dialogue, is representative of silenced female slaves nevertheless her character consistently fights back.

By no means can Django Unchained be considered a historical film but what it did with the historic backdrop is bringing slavery back into common modern discourse. The film is demonstrative of remaining modern emotions associated with slavery. For the duration of the film we get to see the slave “unchained” and we get to feel delighted in fictional retribution, the audience is exhilarated to see the slave whip the overseer. Django Unchained deals with some of the most difficult parts of American history from slave torture to the ‘house Negro’ (the gentler form of the term). Even if you do not enjoy it, the film is saying something worthwhile about slavery in a unique and fresh way. Yet we should not forget that the most traumatic, bloodiest, complex, and dramatic events of our slave past happened in our very real nation, no script needed.

Check out more about slave resistance online:

Brief timeline of significant slave revolts in the US:

Video lecture: “The Greatest Slave Rebellion in Modern History: Southern Slaves in the American Civil War” by Dr. Steven Hahn, University of Pennsylvania:


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