*This post contains concrete details about Django Unchained that may or may not spoil your viewing experience. If you have not yet seen the film, please be advised.
When I first saw the trailer for Django Unchained I was furious. I immediately deemed it offensive and vowed that I would never see something that made fun of the greatest American horror committed against my people. Oprah’s Next Chapter interviews with Kerry Washington and Jamie Foxx finally convinced me that I needed to see the movie. *If you haven’t seen both of these insightful discussions, you should watch them.
In short, I absolutely loved the film. The sharp dialogue, painful adherence to reality, exaggerated action scenes, and the overbearing undertones contributed to one of my most enjoyable trips to the movie theater.
Before seeing the film, I read a lot of hype surrounding its use of the n-word. The word was included over 100 times in the script and carried weight with each utterance. As a young African American who does not condone the use or reappropriation of the word by anyone, I surprisingly did not have a problem with this aspect of the script. It would have been unrealistic for a film set in 1858 not to use the word so freely. Of course, seeing my people being disrespected and verbally abused on screen broke my heart, but it served as a necessary reminder of my history.
It was interesting to see the varied applications of the word throughout the film. At first, only the white characters used the word in reference to the slaves …and Django. Once Samuel L. Jackson’s character, Stephen, was introduced, the film’s complexity greatly increased. Django and his partner, Dr. Schultz (Christoph Waltz), were no longer just trying to outsmart a white slave owner. They found a new antagonist in Stephen, Monsieur Calvin Candie’s overzealous brainwashed house slave. Like his master, Stephen used the n-word to refer to other African Americans, including Django. His character highlighted the historic roles of “sell-out slaves” and to provoke thought on how the word is contemporarily used among minorities, most notably among African Americans. I was immediately reminded of the multitudes of Black people, domestic and internationally, who call their friends and brothers “niggas” in the name of endearment, while also calling enemies and perceived inferiors by the same name.
I was captivated by the intriguingly real interactions between Django and Stephen. From their initial meeting to Django’s near castration to Stephen’s eventual murder, the dynamic between these two Black men was arguably the most tense. In the film, Stephen seemed more eager to manage the plantation than his owner did. I drew many parallels between Stephen’s cruel treatment of other slaves to modern African Americans who have been trained to hate and oppress their own people. Stephen would often encourage punishments for his fellow slaves before Candie was even aware of the offense. This phenomenon remains true as many minorities internalize self-hate and silence their own voices before their enemies have to do so.
In addition to the heavy social undertones, I appreciated the hyperbolized action scenes. It was impossible for the audience not to laugh when someone got shot because of the subsequent splatters of fake blood. Each bullet sent pools of ketchup-resembling liquid into the air, diluting the anticipated gore and inciting bouts of deep laughter. The only deaths and torture scenes that were portrayed realistically were that of slaves. Many slavery horrors, all of which were based in reality, were exposed throughout the film. Tarantino devoted adequate time to each torture sequence in an effort to emphasize the seriousness of such atrocities. Scenes of near castration, allusions to rape and lynching, and “mandingo fighting” provided a somber backdrop to a hilarious plot. There were moments that I could not bring myself watch. After a scene involving a man getting eaten my dogs, I found myself mad at everyone who laughed at later jokes. I was utterly disgusted for a while, but soon fell subject to Tarantino’s irresistible humor. I left entertained and deeply sobered by the depictions of slavery that represented only a fraction of what occurred less than 150 years ago.
After Django pulled his last stunt and convinced a group of slave transporters to release him and give him a gun, three slaves were left unattended in an open cage. Instead of running towards freedom as fast as they could, all three of them stayed in the cage, still paralyzed by the same slave mentality that plagues many communities today. After the credits rolled, a short clip played for more comic relief and revealed that they were still holding themselves captive.
There are countless elements of Quentin Tarantino’s three-hour masterpiece that I admire and respect. It would be an injustice to outline all of them here. I strongly encourage everyone curious about the movie to go see it as it is unreasonable to form an opinion before watching it yourself. Django Unchained in no way disrespects or belittles what my ancestors were forced to endure. If anything, it gives viewers an unfiltered look into one of the greatest institutional crimes and provides them with a redemptive hero who fictitiously avenges irreversible wrongs.