The controversy regarding Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained is all over the internet. From the fight between Tarantino and Spike Lee, who refuses to see the movie because he says it’s sure to be “disrespectful of my ancestors,” to criticism of the character Broomhilda, who many say is less an attempt at a depiction of a person than a foil driving the action among the male characters.
I saw the movie. I generally seek out rather than avoid media that draws this kind of controversy because I want to know what all the fuss is about. When it comes to confrontations about race, I’m a rubber necker.
I get why those who enjoyed it did so. It’s a revenge adventure fantasy in which the bad guys are so truly awful that one can’t help but be entertained watching them get their just desserts. And, seriously, any time Southern plantation overlords are depicted as racist, sadistic, and out of touch with reality (as opposed to, say, Ashley Wilkes), I consider it a small victory.
But, though it was a fun ride, I found it troubling for a number of reasons. Ten of those reasons were laid out in a terrific Colorines piece, 10 Things Django Won’t Tell You About Slavery. The article points out that the movie fails to draw our attention to the way the slave trade and slave labor capitalized the industrialization of Europe and the settling North America, not to mention created the wealth that made American independence from England both possible and worthwhile.
Tanehisi Coates added one more reason in his response to the news that Django action figures will soon be hitting stores. Coates makes the point that the revenge fantasy put on screen by Tarantino is in fact a fantasy. One of the most remarkable things about freed Blacks is that they didn’t retaliate. In spite of the widespread belief among whites that, if given the chance, freed Blacks would bathe the South in the blood of white people, very little blood letting occurred.
Presenting the world with a revenge fantasy like Django Unchained may not merit as much criticism as Tarantino has gotten. If he’s sincere when he says he made the movie as brutal and bloody and sickeningly riddled with the “n” word and other examples of racism as he did was to force us to have to deal, then good for him. He may have missed, but perhaps he tried his level best (though those action figures seem to suggest a more cynical target).
But there’s one more thing that troubles me. It’s related to but a little different from Coates’ observation. A reason Blacks did not seek revenge is because it would have been an unrealistic, untenable, even stupid idea. That one could get away unscathed is simply not to be believed. Even if he did escape, others would have suffered in his place.
In order to get the real horror of slavery, we need to grapple with this fact. Slave revolts were unusual through most of the period, even when Blacks were often in a position to overwhelm their masters. Post-emancipation, revenge didn’t really happen, even when responding to mistreatment on such a magnificent scale with violence would have been all too sadly understandable. We can speculate that this was because Blacks of the period longed for peace in the wake of what must have been experienced as a war against their bodies and families. But, history tells us that informed self-interest might have been an even more important deterrent to revenge. In the North and the South, and for years after the abolition of slavery, when Black people crossed whites, with even so much as a bumping of shoulders or a mistimed laugh, the reaction could be brutal, arbitrary, and completely out of scale with the supposed “crime.”
Whites had most of the guns and the legal cover to do pretty much as they pleased when it came to Black people. Chain gangs, lynchings, violent white uprisings, white racist vigilantes, and extrajudicial assassinations were common, and the chilling effect kept Black people in virtual chains throughout the country and especially in the South. Django is a fictional character for a reason, and knowing that reason is necessary to understanding slavery and the persistence of its legacy of inequality in contemporary American life.