How Black Power Won the American West, and Why Tarantino Doesn’t Get It

“Django Unchained” is more entertainment than meaningful history.

January 10, 2013  |  

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Black abolitionists. Black outlaws. Black gunslingers of the west, south, east or north. These are the three groups of people that truly scare white Americans. And they rarely, if ever, appear on a Hollywood screen. They don’t appear in Quenton Tarantino’s Django Unchained, either.

So what do we get? A violently entertaining, rugged individualist and shallow “abolitionist” by the name of Django, a bounty hunter whose killing spree is sanctioned by the U.S. government. That would be the same government which, in 1858, maintains “the peculiar institution” of slavery as a legal entity in many states. The same government that in most circumstances would have considered Django as bounty to be captured, not the bounty hunter. But this is Tarantino’s playground.

Watch Tarantino in interviews. He’s rather cocky about the history he thinks he’s relating to Americans (which is sad, actually), so while Django is not a documentary, it’s not “just a movie,” either. Unfortunately, much critical history is lost or completely skewed in Tarantino’s telling, even when totally unnecessary. This is a major flaw in a film that is supposed to be about a black superhero turning the tables on history. The problem is, you have to know the history first. 

Let’s start with the history of the way blacks have been stereotypically portrayed on the silver screen. In the film, Monsieur Candie (played by Leonardo DiCaprio), the French-speaking owner of the plantation Candyland tells Django that he is “one in 10,000.” In his interview with Henry Louis Gates Jr. in The Root, Quentin Tarantino

This fascination with “the exceptional negro” is an old stereotype born of white supremacy. It’s another form of what we might think of as the “model minority” — the exception that proves the rule. It implies that most blacks are something very far from laudable.

There’s also a problem of white characters “teaching” black characters about their own historical circumstances. Pondering slavery, Candie asks Django, “Why don’t they rise up?”

It”s supremely offensive, as if African people had never seen, dreamt of or participated in killing a white slavemaster, overseer or other plantation worker. Perhaps Tarantino has forgotten the many enslaved people who mastered “accidents” involving the burning of crops, sheds and houses, and the house slaves who, among other things, poisoned “Big Daddy” and “Miss Ann” with their culinary marksmanship.

In the first scene, when a German dentist known as Dr. King Schultz (oh, come on) tells the others enslaved on Django’s chain gang what their options are to get free, he points out the North Star for them. You’ve got to be kidding me. What slave, captive, runaway or free, would not know about the role of the North Star in African liberation? Ask Nat Turner, Gabriel Prosser, David Walker, Maria Stewart, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth or any of the Maroons who used the star to guide their way. Ask the Africans who fled amongst the Native Americans and the ones who escaped to Mexico and later fought in the Spanish-American War, on the Spanish side.

In Django Unchained, Tarantino suggests that whites led the way for blacks to free themselves. But black abolitionists spearheaded the movement for their own freedom. It’s true that they were, thankfully, aided by conscientious whites who assisted them in various ways. But the violent revolts, the mutinies, the secret societies, the machete wielders, the forgers, the runaways, the spies, the fakers, the poseurs, the Underground Railroad leaders were overwhelming black. Let’s not forget the hundreds of thousands of blacks who joined the Union Army to “live free or die” for themselves and their loved ones.