Slavery, cinema, and sensitivity: Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained

Reviewed in this essay: Django Unchained. Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino. Starring Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, and Leonardo DiCaprio. Running time 165 minutes. Now playing in Toronto theaters.

In recent weeks, moviegoers have been treated to two radically different films about American slavery, each of them trying to unpack the burden of that violent historical episode in their own unique ways. First, there was Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, a long, pious biopic with the pedagogical feel of a Smithsonian Institute educational video.

On the other hand, Quentin Tarantino’s latest film, Django Unchained, forgoes piety and nicety all together. Tarantino tells the story of Django (Jamie Foxx), a former slave turned bounty hunter. With the help of his mentor, Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), Django seeks to rescue his enslaved wife from the clutches of a brutal plantation owner (Leonardo DiCaprio). The film is a love letter to the great Spaghetti Western’s of the 1960s and ’70s, replete with sharply timed zooms, wide panoramic landscapes, and score by the genre’s great Ennio Morricone himself.

Django‘s bounty hunters are out for revenge

This will be the first time  younger audience members have experienced the aesthetic of a Spaghetti Western. Tarantino deserves credit for injecting the aged but still compelling style with the language of contemporary cinema. The major discussion about the film has not been about Tarantino’s lovingly anachronistic style, however, but rather its treatment of slavery and race. Before the film was released, director Spike Lee declared that he would not see the film because to do so would be disrespectful to his enslaved ancestors. “American Slavery Was Not a Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western,” Lee tweeted, “It was a Holocaust.” The implication: how dare Tarantino take a subject as sensitive as slavery and make it the backdrop for his personal explorations in a lost film style.

The question should be asked: can a film replete with stereotypes of the Antebellum South, garish scenery chewing from its leads (I’m looking at you, Leonardo), highly stylized ballets of gunplay, and moments of gut-splitting humour be considered a serious take on American slavery?

The short answer: absolutely. Tarantino is not flippant enough to reduce the slave trade to a convenient background for his stylistic explorations. He is doing something far more sophisticated here and has, in his own way, launched a far more thorough critique of American racism than Spielberg’s staid epic.

DiCaprio’s vile slave owner

Tarantino spares nothing for the modern audience: lashings, hot box torture, the disgusting savagery of Mandingo fighting, to name just a few of the film’s most brutal moments. We also find skin-crawlingly vile characters gleefully presenting their racist misogyny without irony or pretense, stripped of any sense of modern day political correctness. Tarantino has boiled racial hatred down to its most loathsome physical forms and presented them to us in as loud, garish a manner as possible. The result is a history lesson that is as painful as it is necessary: the systematic degradation, exploitation, and murder of blacks by whites was, as Lee put it, a holocaust which was as vile as it is undeniable.

Tarantino’s message, that we should never again allow our society to be defined by such hatred, is a humanistic one that Spike Lee would no doubt laud. That is, if he ever gets around to seeing the film.