Django In Chains: Why Revenge Is Just For The Movies

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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.

 

4 Responses to Django In Chains: Why Revenge Is Just For The Movies

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  1. Glenn Robinson January 10, 2013 at 10:29 pm #

    There were a number of revolts from enslaved Blacks in the U.S.

    *New York Slave Revolt of 1712
    *Stono Rebellion 1739
    *New York Slave Insurrection of 1741
    *Gabriel Prosser Rebellion 1800
    *German Coast Uprising 1811
    *Nat Turner’s slave rebellion 1831
    *Slave Revolt in the Cherokee Nation 1842
    *John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry 1859

    I’m not sure if the word revenge applies however.

    • Scot Nakagawa
      Scot January 12, 2013 at 6:15 am #

      Yes, but very few acts of retaliation post-emancipation. It’s one thing to attempt to throw off one’s chains in the most extraordinary circumstances of oppression. In those circumstances, blood will be shed. After all, the first citizen militias were established to enforce slavery. But, after emancipation there was very little in the way of retaliation and I think we rarely ask the question “why?”

  2. Rosie Eisenstein January 11, 2013 at 8:48 am #

    Following up on Glenn’s comment, I think it would be worth it for Scot to read up about the Haitian Revolution and how Thomas Jefferson and his contemporaries responded to it.

    And of course, the Harriet Tubman’s. Every slave who ran away. Who “accidentally” burned the house down. Who poisoned their masters.

    I see that you are trying to challenge Tarantino’s narrative, but I think this blog entry makes some of the same mistakes that the film did in its portrayal of history.

  3. Kevin January 11, 2013 at 9:22 am #

    My problem with the narrative that Black slaves’ and freedmen’s “general perspective was ‘Leave me the fuck alone,'” to quote Coates, is that it perpetuates the false narrative that Black Americans of the time were largely passive actors, that the ones who were (nominally) free were content to be free, and that the ones who were slaves just wanted out. As history and Africana Studies professor Jelani Cobb points out in his great article (link below) from earlier this month, the real problem with this movie is that “[h]ere, as in ‘Lincoln,’ black people—with the exception of the protagonist and his love interest—are ciphers passively awaiting freedom.”

    As Glenn suggests, perhaps “revenge” is not the right word, but it is crucial we recognize the too-often ignored role of Black Americans in ending slavery. Cobb covers this more eloquently than I can, but in short: how can we make the sort of claims that Coates does, that Blacks just wanted to be left alone, when nearly 200,000 of them, mostly former slaves, enlisted in the Union army precisely to end slavery? The answer is that we cannot, and that any narrative that perpetuates this story is just as problematic as Tarantino’s film. Let’s not bury resistance reality in our opposition to revenge fantasy.

    http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/culture/2013/01/how-accurate-is-quentin-tarantinos-portrayal-of-slavery-in-django-unchained.html#ixzz2HgjK6nRV

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