It is precisely because of the extant mythology of black subservience that these scenes pack such a cathartic payload. The film’s defenders are quick to point out that “Django” is not about history. But that’s almost like arguing that fiction is not reality—it isn’t, but the entire appeal of the former is its capacity to shed light on how we understand the latter. In my sixteen years of teaching African-American history, one sadly common theme has been the number of black students who shy away from courses dealing with slavery out of shame that slaves never fought back.
It seems almost pedantic to point out that slavery was nothing like this. The slaveholding class existed in a state of constant paranoia about slave rebellions, escapes, and a litany of more subtle attempts to undermine the institution. Nearly two hundred thousand black men, most of them former slaves, enlisted in the Union Army in order to accomplish en masse precisely what Django attempts to do alone: risk death in order to free those whom they loved. Tarantino’s attempt to craft a hero who stands apart from the other men—black and white—of his time is not a riff on history, it’s a riff on the mythology we’ve mistaken for history.
Oppression, almost by definition, is a set of circumstances that bring out the worst in most people. A response to slavery—even a cowardly, dishonorable one like what we witness with Stephen—highlights the depravity of the institution.
The primary sin of “Django Unchained” is not the desire to create an alternative history. It’s in the idea that an enslaved black man willing to kill in order to protect those he loves could constitute one.
Here's my verdict: Django Unchained is probably the best movie about slavery, ever.
Both movies are great. One makes you cry; the white men did something right; the country realized its mistake and began atone for it with Constitutional amendments.
The other makes your innards turn: You'll know how utterly evil, insane, and unique the practice of American slavery was and why political and legal transformations are still, today, not enough to expiate our shame.
"This movie won't leave me alone because I, too, fell in love with it. The first swoon was during the scene where King and Django have a teachable moment over beers in a saloon while waiting for a Sheriff to come arrest them."
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