The Truth about Slavery...
And the Truth about Django Unchained

by Carl Dix | January 20, 2013 | Revolution Newspaper |

Something important is happening. Django Unchained, a movie produced by a major Hollywood studio about slavery in the United States of America, has been seen by millions of people. In the words of its director, Quentin Tarantino, “When slave narratives are done on film, they tend to be historical with a capital H, with an arm’s-length quality to them. I wanted to break that history-under-glass aspect, I wanted to throw a rock through that glass and shatter it for all times, and take you into it.”

People in this country have been denied a true picture of the centuries of enslavement of Black people. BAsics, a book of quotations and short essays by Bob Avakian, starts out with the following: “There would be no United States as we know it today without slavery. That is a simple and basic truth.” Yet this is a truth that is hidden from most people in this country.

This truth doesn’t get taught in the schools, and it doesn’t make it onto the screens in movie theaters or in TV shows. Gone with the Wind has been acclaimed as one of the greatest American movies ever. This movie, complete with former slaves worrying aloud, “What’s gonna happen to us now” as the South with its plantations and slave masters is being defeated by the Union Army in the Civil War, was little more than a propaganda piece for the KKK. There were TV shows where those who fought to keep slavery in effect were sympathetically portrayed. (Does anyone else remember that the wisecracking, card-playing Maverick brothers of 1960s TV were ex-Confederate soldiers?)

So now you have this movie Django Unchained, aiming to throw a rock through the window of this country’s approach to an American horror. So the question is, or at least should be: Does this movie give people a true picture of the enslavement of Black people in the U.S.? Does it lay bare the reality of chattel slavery in this country, both the everyday indignities and brutality enforced on enslaved Africans and the heights of savagery that were frequently inflicted as part of keeping this setup in effect?

The answer is Yes and Yes! In the opening scene, Django is being marched from one plantation to be sold to another owner, with his feet chained together and chained to the feet of the other men being walked with him, and with chains on his hands. Later, white townspeople are shocked and horrified by the sight of a Black man on a horse.

The central story of the movie, Django striving to find his wife, Broomhilda, and free her from slavery, brings to life the reality of enslaved people having their families torn apart, children sold away from parents, wives and husbands split up, in pursuit of profit for the slave master and to punish people for not meekly submitting to the evils inflicted by slavery.

There’s the slave that Massa decides is no longer useful who gets ripped apart by dogs. Two enslaved men are forced to fight for the enjoyment of their masters, and the winner is given a hammer to bash in the skull of the guy he beat. Broomhilda is put naked in the “hot box” for trying to escape from the plantation. Django is hung upside down and threatened with having his testicles cut off. Django voices fear that Broomhilda will be made a “comfort woman,” subject to being raped by any white man connected with the plantation. You get a sense from the movie that Broomhilda is a strong woman—that she has endured a lot, that when Django arrives at the plantation, this is not the first time that she has tried to escape. But here I do have to criticize Tarantino for not really developing her or any other female character in the movie. Broomhilda, played by Kerry Washington, is an important figure in the film, but you really don’t get to know much about her, nor does she play a really pivotal role in the plot.

Throughout Django Unchained, the horrors of slavery are depicted as being as American as apple pie (complete with an early hilarious rendition of the beginnings of the KKK). Dr. King Schultz, the German bounty hunter who Django hooks up with, is sickened when he sees the slave owner’s dogs tearing a black man apart. And Django responds that the German just “ain’t used to America like I am.”

Yet there is much controversy around this film. A number of reviewers trashed it because they saw it as a disservice to Black people and their efforts to resist and overcome slavery. Spike Lee announced it would be an insult to the ancestors if he even saw it. On one level, this is silly, but on another it gets to one of the questions being raised around the film, which is: “Who is Quentin Tarantino (i.e., a white man) to be doing a film on slavery?”

I’m generally no fan of Tarantino’s films. But it’s wrong to put a jacket on him and declare him incapable of doing a film on slavery. He did a film on slavery with a promise to “break the window” on how slavery has been portrayed. So you gotta say, “Let’s see if he delivers.” And he delivered.

Cecil Brown, a Black author writing in Counterpunch, calls Django Unchained “a howling, empty N*gger joke played on Black people.” Brown dismisses Jamie Foxx’s portrayal of Django, agreeing with the novelist Ishmael Reed (who also attacks the movie) that “Foxx spends most of his time looking at Mr.Waltz and then looking at Mr. DiCaprio, with a puzzled look on his face, as if to say, What’s dese white folks, talkin ’bout?” To these and others who trashed the movie in reviews and accused Tarantino for treating this subject like a joke, I have to ask: WHAT MOVIE DID YOU SEE?

Other vitriolic reviews of the movie accuse Tarantino of portraying the house slave, played by Samuel Jackson, as a buffoonish Uncle Tom stereotype.

Unfortunately, reviews like these are discouraging some people from seeing the movie. But first of all, people should go to the movie and decide for themselves. And second of all, I think Brown and others are really wrong about their charges of buffoonery. The Django character is heroic as well as, at times, funny. But he is hardly cartoonish. And the house slave that Samuel Jackson plays is a complex character—committed to the interests of the master as much as the master himself is. This is not a racist stereotypical, shuffling house slave, but a character that concentrates something about the way slave owners enforced oppressive relations on the plantation in which the slaves themselves were set against each other and against their own interests.

Kimberly Ellis, another Black author, trashed the movie on Alternet. She saw it as typical Hollywood stereotypes of Black people. She points to a line by the Candyland plantation owner, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, where he says, “Why don’t they kill us?” as ignoring the role of the black abolitionists, the enslaved black people who ran away or resisted enslavement in other ways, the black people who were part of the Underground Railroad that spirited many enslaved people away from the plantations to freedom, and the black soldiers who fought and died in the Civil War to end slavery. She does say that “The gore and violence of slavery was well depicted.” But this is just mentioned in the course of a lengthy review that finds nothing redeeming about the movie. In such reviews, the actual strengths of the movie—in how it portrays the reality of slavery—get reduced to hooks to set the audience up for a joke being played on them. But, the generally true portrayal of slavery in the movie is not a hook or a setup. It’s a big part of what the movie is actually about. And the violence isn’t gratuitous and over the top. In fact, Tarantino has pointed out that slavery was much more violent than is portrayed in the movie.

The violence used to enforce the system of slavery is something the audience comes to see as illegitimate, and the violence Django engages in to get his wife and himself out from under that system comes across as justified!

Leonardo DiCaprio’s role of a slave master who supposedly “understood” the system he was a part of brought out important things about the ideological, white supremacist basis for slavery. In one scene, he dissects the skull of a black man who served his master’s family well all his life to reveal that he sees black people as genetically disposed to be servants. In this chilling scene, the pseudoscience used to justify and maintain white supremacy and slavery is brought to life. This is the scene where he poses the question, “Why don’t they kill us?” Since the movie has already depicted the violence used to keep the slave system in effect, you have already gotten a practical answer to it. But in a way, the question of the illegitimacy of the slave master’s violence and the legitimacy of violence from among the slaves is being posed.

Engaging in the controversy over Django Unchained isn’t just, or even mainly, about getting the history right. The oppression of Black people has been built into the very fabric of America since the very first Africans were dragged to these shores in slave chains. As the economic and social system in the U.S. has been transformed from chattel slavery to capitalism, to today’s intensely globalized capitalism, the forms of that oppression have also changed. But the reality of brutal oppression and the white supremacy that justifies this oppression has remained in effect. How to look at this and what to do about it is aptly captured in this “Three Strikes” quote from Bob Avakian:

“This system, in this country, in the whole history of its treatment of Black people, what has it been?

“First, Slavery... Then, Jim Crow—segregation and Ku Klux Klan terror... And now, The New Jim Crow—police brutality and murder, wholesale criminalization and mass incarceration, and legalized discrimination yet again.

“That’s it for this system: Three strikes and you’re out!

A constant of all three of these “Strikes” has been the use of violence to enforce this ongoing oppression and exploitation. Django Unchained has put before millions of people the ugly reality of the illegitimacy of the violence used to enforce slavery. And the controversy around the movie has engaged many, many people in discussing this reality and its continuing effects on U.S. society. Having done this makes Django Unchained an important, positive cultural event.


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