Re-enacting History, Part I: As Vengeance (Django Unchained, 2012)
by Nandia Foteini Vlachou
Django Unchained, the spaghetti western directed by Quentin Tarantino about a freed black slave out to save his wife with the help of a German bounty hunter, is not a historical film strictly speaking and therefore it has wrongly been accused as historically inaccurate. The theme of vengeance is a follow-up to Tarantino’s previous fantasy, Inglourious Basterds (2009), but now the director moves to a territory dangerously close to home.
What Tarantino seems to only rehearse in Basterds (the relief of collective guilt), he deploys in Django in a more effective manner. This probably is due to the fact that slavery and its effects shaped the very fabric of American society and thus the subject is more urgently topical. The importance of the film does not lie in the depiction of the brutality, torture and sexual violence suffered by black slaves (although it certainly helps to remind viewers that the South was not exactly Gone with the Wind…), but in the possibility of catharsis for a culture that is politically correct to the point of often turning a blind eye to historical reality.
That this is so, is made obvious by the reactions against Tarantino’s frequent use of the word “nigger” in the script. The director was correct in pointing out that the accusations did not target the lack of historical accuracy concerning usage of the term in Antebellum South, but were rather stemming from a desire to “whitewash” history. This is not the first instance of “whitewashing” occurring. As the recent exemple of an edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn that replaced the racial slur with the word “slave” shows, political correctness can go the lengths of purging historical memory from its ugliest aspects. Compare recent events such as the (granted, gossip-fueled) reaction against Gwyneth Paltrow tweeting the title (?) of the Jay-Z song “Niggas in Paris” or conservative parents complaining about schools teaching white privilege, and one immediately perceives that these issues are far from settled in American society.
But even as Django explores the possibilities of engaging its audience and achieving its emotional catharsis, it demonstrates the limitations of mainstream Hollywood narrative and dominant conventions. The “agent” of vengeance in the movie is sufficient proof of that. As A. O. Scott very perceptively wrote in his New York Times review, summarizing the movie’s most significant contribution, “vengeance in the American imagination has been the virtually exclusive prerogative of white men…The idea that regenerative violence could be visited by black against white instead of the reverse — that a man like Django could fill out the contours of the hunter — has been almost literally unthinkable”. But this vengeance is ultimately the work of its director, himself a white man (even in the movie, the catalyst for the action is a white man, whose “humanizing” influence on Django is one of its most problematic aspects). Now try and picture Django directed by a black man. Can you imagine the outrage?