On “Django Unchained”

Did you know that today, January 1, 2013 marks the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation?  Is it a coincidence that over the Christmas holiday, the miniseries Roots aired, the movie Lincoln is still playing in theaters, and Django Unchained was in wide release on Christmas Day?

Amidst the media frenzy that surrounded the opening of Quentin Tarentino’s latest film, Django Unchained, blossomed the usual push/pull between factions citing polar opposite views about authenticity and creative license, prolific use of the n-word, exceptionality, gratuitous violence, revenge, etcetera, etcetera…

Now, I have seen the movie and based upon (at that time) limited exposure to reviews and a lot of the controversy, I went into the theater not quite sure what to expect.  I had seen two interviews that Oprah Winfrey had done separately with Kerri Washington and Jamie Foxx.  On one hand, after listening to both Washington and Foxx speak of the filming process for them as African-Americans, and how they were so intuned to the slavery experiences and the brutality, I was expecting something a little bit different from what I saw.  At the same time, as a fan of Tarantino’s work, I was also balancing what I knew could be a blood spurting, over the top, shoot ‘em up killing spree.  So much so, I had a hard time reconciling the two possibilities.   I wanted to be prepared for what I was going to see. I had already encountered people who were refusing to see it because after watching all the episodes of Roots, they didn’t think that they could take anymore of slavery depicted on film.

The one thing I didn’t expect to do was laugh as much, or cringe as much, or want to look away as often, or see Jamie Foxx’s genitalia for that matter.  While it depicted representations of horrific treatment of slaves, it wasn’t Roots-serious all the time.  And while the audience did its fair share of laughing, it wasn’t in inappropriate places of the film.  Critics and intellectuals alike have chimed in on what promises to be one of the most talked about Tarentino films to date.  Here are some of the highlights that I have collected from around the web…

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“Jamie Foxx’s Django and Sam Jackson’s Stephen are two of the most nuanced, real, raw and entertaining black characters ever filmed. Foxx has the courage to begin his character as a vulnerable, beaten and heartbroken slave who gradually grows into an unforgettable and instantly iconic American folk hero. Jackson’s Stephen (a play on Stepin Fetchit) is easily one of the most audacious and ultimately brilliantly surprising performances of his career.”

“…Django positions an indelible black hero as the avenging angel of the great shame that is slavery. As a black man I have to thank him for that. And as a black filmmaker I’m both impressed and jealous.”

“Django is a new and important black hero. Finally a prism through which to view slavery that empowers rather than shames or defeats. Plus it makes you laugh at things you never thought possible. My son’s eleven and he’s about to see his first R-rated film.”  Trey Ellis -Novelist, Screenwriter, and Associate Professor at Columbia University for The Huffington Post

Read the Trey’s entire review here:


“It’s not quite the brutally realistic, heart-wrenching human drama of survival, love and death that it’s purported to be by some; it’s more of a mish-mash send-up of spaghetti westerns and blaxploitation cinema, with quite a lot more comedy than you might expect for a slave narrative, with the main goal being to entertain than to inform or incite. I get that it’s a nod to Spaghetti Westerns of years past, but if you’ve seen any of those films, this might just seem like a well-made spoof or knock-off of those original classics. “  Tambay Oberson, Shadow and Act: On Cinema of the African Diaspora

Read the rest of Tambay’s review here:


“The slave-turned-bounty hunter Django, who rescues his wife from slavery, is an African-American hero never seen before on the big screen. He alone is capable of the brilliance, moral courage and swagger needed to resist slavery.

And yet his exceptionality comes at a price: Unlike “Amistad’s” Cinque or “Beloved’s” Sethe, he seems to exist in a vacuum. Most of the slave characters he meets are not his equals; they are flat, naive, and as in awe of him as the audience. And they barely dent racial stereotypes.

The emphasis on black exceptionalism is not just in Tarantino’s film. It has been a problem in the post-civil rights era, one that should be defined as much by the everyday killings of youths such as Trayvon Martin as much the re-election of the first African-American president.

Instead, racial progress is too often determined by the exceptional success of people such as Barack Obama and Oprah Winfrey.”  

Salamishah Tillet is an assistant professor of English and Africana studies at the University of Pennsylvania

Read Salamishah’s full article here:


With regard to accusations that the n-word is used excessively, Quentin Tarantino has this to say in an indepth interview with The Root’s editor, Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

“Personally, I find [the criticism] ridiculous. Because it would be one thing if people are out there saying, “You use it much more excessively in this movie than it was used in 1858 in Mississippi.” Well, nobody’s saying that. And if you’re not saying that, you’re simply saying I should be lying. I should be watering it down. I should be making it more easy to digest.  No, I don’t want it to be easy to digest. I want it to be a big, gigantic boulder, a jagged pill and you have no water.”  Quentin Tarantino

Read the entire three-part interview here:


“Let me begin this review with something of a disclaimer – I am a Quentin Tarantino fan.”

“Why are people turning to a Tarantino film, expecting any kind of accurate representation of history? Or sensitivity? This reminds me of when people were mad at Chris Rock because Good Hair didn’t tackle the subject of black hair in the way they hoped it would. Consider the source and manage your expectations accordingly. Always.”

“Django Unchained is a fantasy. It is ridiculous and over the top. It’s frequently cartoonish in its violence and imagery. It is not for the faint of heart. If I had to summarize Django Unchained in four words, I’d say – Bloody. Brash. Unmistakably Tarantino.”

“Django Unchained is a genre mashup that would best be described as a blaxploitation/spaghetti western/revenge movie. It’s surprisingly sharp and funny and made me laugh out loud unexpectedly, more than once. And there were quite a few scenes that hurt to watch, made me uncomfortable, and caused me to look away from the screen due to my own visceral reaction to what was happening. It’s entertaining and problematic and difficult and gory. If you can’t do bloody movies, skip Django Unchained. When people die in this movie, the blood and guts spurt. If you’ve seen the trailer, you’ve got an idea. Blood sprays the cotton. Blood drips down the walls. There is quite a bit of blood in this movie.” – Afrobella

Read Afrobella’s review in its entirity here:


“…The film unloads a series of these reversals, from victim to predator, criminal to cop and, yes, chained, unchained, and back in chains again. With very little context or ethics, however, the twists feel more like showmanship than a coherent story. There is nothing to be gained from sanitizing our nation’s violent, racist history, to be sure, but Tarantino has shown that sensationalizing it is not worthwhile, either. That is unfortunate, because Django Unchained ultimately boils down to a tragedy in search of a point.   – Ari Melber is an attorney and Nation magazine correspondent based in New York

Read Ari’s entire review in The Atlantic here:

If you are a fan of movies set during the time of slavery that seek to tackle the issue in some way, look forward to the September 6, 2013 release of director Steve McQueen’s newest film Twelve Years a Slave.


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