Even before “Django Unchained’s” Christmas Day 2012 release, activists such as Gina McCauley of the What About Our Daughters blog predicted that the slavery oriented film would generate controversy in the African-American community. The film stars Oscar winner Jamie Foxx as a slave-turned-bounty hunter who kills the whites in his path to liberate his wife (Kerry Washington) from a licentious plantation owner played by Leonardo DiCaprio. In the film, extreme acts of violence are depicted—slaves are whipped, branded and otherwise tortured. What’s more the N-word is used repeatedly. Due to the film’s graphic imagery and language, a number of people have spoken out about the film. Director Spike Lee said that he would not see the film because he considered it “disrespectful” to his ancestors. But Lee did not elaborate about how exactly he felt the film dishonored African slaves. A number of others in the public eye, including Tarantino and Samuel L. Jackson, have been more forthcoming about their take on the film. This overview highlights the diverse perspectives about a film that has focused the nation on the peculiar institution known as slavery.
Filmmaker Tanya Steele: Django Portrayed As Exception to Rule
Filmmaker Tanya Steele’s reaction to “Django” was mixed. On one hand, she found the performances by Leonardo DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson to be phenomenal. On the other hand, she took issue with the portrayal of slaves in the film. In a piece for Indiewire.com called “Tarantino’s Candy (Slavery in The White Male Imagination), Steele wrote, “None of the slaves conspired to help Django. He was a man on an island. He was the unique Negro. The other slaves were in step with their master.” She went on to explain that this left the impression that blacks were enslaved for hundreds of years “because we didn't fight back.” She says this impression paints slavery as an institution that wasn’t so bad and ignores the fact that slaves who did fight back, such as Nat Turner, often paid the price for their rebellion with their lives. “Django was a character created by a privileged white male,” Steele says.
Quentin Tarantino: “Django” Tells The Truth
Interviewed by African-American scholar Henry Louis Gates for TheRoot.com, “Django” director Quentin Tarantino discussed the criticism the film has received for its repeated use of the N-word. “Well, you know if you’re going to make a movie about slavery and are taking a 21st-century viewer and putting them in that time period, you're going to hear some things that are going to be ugly, and you’re going see some things that are going be ugly,” Tarantino explained. “That’s just part and parcel of dealing truthfully with this story, with this environment, with this land.” Tarantino said that he would take the criticism more seriously if people said that the film used the N-word much more than it was used in 1858 Mississippi. But, he argued, nobody has told him that. “And if you’re not saying that, you’re simply saying I should be lying. I should be watering it down. I should be making it more easy to digest. No, I don’t want it to be easy to digest. I want it to be a big, gigantic boulder, a jagged pill and you have no water.”
Filmmaker Trey Ellis Calls “Django” a Surprise
Filmmaker Trey Ellis said he had concerns about “Django” when he heard about the “slave-narrative-cum-spaghetti-western.” After screening the film, however, Ellis said he was pleasantly surprised by the portrayal of slaves in the film, a perspective that clashes with Tanya Steele’s view of the film. In a Huffington Post piece called “Django Surprised Me,” Ellis aserts: “Jamie Foxx’s Django and Sam Jackson's Stephen are two of the most nuanced, real, raw and entertaining black characters ever filmed. Foxx has the courage to begin his character as a vulnerable, beaten and heartbroken slave who gradually grows into an unforgettable and instantly iconic American folk hero. Jackson’s Stephen (a play on Stepin Fetchit) is easily one of the most audacious and ultimately brilliantly surprising performances of his career.” Ellis not only gave the film high praise but argued that because of the film’s masterfulness, Tarantino had earned his “black card.”
Samuel L. Jackson: “Django” Is Just Entertainment
Samuel L. Jackson took aim at critics of the film in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. Asked if he felt the film dishonored slaves, Jackson answered, “Quentin has an affinity for writing horrible things and then making you laugh. …I think it’s dangerous if this is where you get your information from. He’s making entertainment. Hopefully, it makes you go ask questions and you Google it. If you want to learn something from a movie, go watch a documentary.”
Toure Calls “Django” Heroic
Cultural critic Toure touts “Django Unchained” as a heroic film that uniquely depicts a black love story on screen. In an essay called “Django Unchained Is a Heroic Love Story,” Toure also admires the film for depicting protagonist Django as a man filled with self-love whose dignity unsettles the white supremacists and slave owners in his midst. Moreover, Toure questions Lee’s criticism that “Django” somehow disrespects the Africans in America who lived in bondage for generations. “From the moment it was announced that Tarantino intended to do a film about slavery, many worried that he would somehow trivialize slavery,” Toure says. “Far from that, we’ve gotten an unsparing look at its horrors, from Mandingo fighting to hot boxes to facial branding to brutal whipping to all sorts of frightening headgear. Tarantino applies none of his typical campiness to slavery, never backing away from showing it as a despicable evil and enjoying its destruction.”