The film about slavery that the United States apparently really wanted in 2012 wasn’t Django—it was Lincoln.
Lincoln’s main cast was entirely white, even though Frederick Douglass (who is not depicted in the film at all) played a pivotal role in the historical debates at the core of the film’s narrative.
Lincoln ends with a disturbing scene in which U.S. Senator Thaddeus Stevens (played by Tommy Lee Jones) presents his black servant (played by S. Epatha Merkerson) with a copy of the freshly passed Thirteenth Amendment as a “gift.” She’s so grateful that she falls right into bed with him.
Candie’s widowed sister, genteel southern belle that she is, is responsible for delivering Hildy to King Schultz’s room for what everyone involved (except Schultz and Django, of course) expects is an afternoon of sexual favors being provided to an honored houseguest.
Gone With the Wind is perhaps the most widely revered of Hollywood’s many historically dishonest representations of the antebellum South.
Blazing Saddles is one of the tiny handful of mainstream Hollywood movies prior to Django that attempted to tackle Hollywood’s history of racially problematic representations directly.
Saddles’ political critique was vital and important, but it was also considerably softened by the film’s use of comedy as its primary weapon against racism.
Casablanca was perhaps the last major U.S. film in which a white male hero willingly sacrifices his chance to be reunited with his one true love for the sake of a larger, more noble cause.
Noel Ignatiev and John Garvey, editors of the new abolitionist journal Race Traitor, call for a minority of white folks “to undertake outrageous acts of provocation” as a way of helping to dismantle white privilege and systemic racism.
Apparently, the film about slavery that the United States really wanted in 2012 wasn’t Django: it was Lincoln. Directed by Steven Spielberg, with a masterful performance by Daniel Day Lewis in the title role, the film tells the story of Lincoln’s embattled month surrounding the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment. Both films were written and directed by white men, but—tellingly—all seven of the principal actors in Lincoln are white, while three of Django’s five principal actors are black. Lincoln also somehow manages to erase Frederick Douglass from the historical debates that led to the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, opting instead to focus on white abolitionist and congressman Thaddeus Stevens. The only black characters in Lincoln come to us as nameless soldiers, slaves, or—most troublingly—Stevens’ lover, whose only appearance in the film comes after the Thirteenth Amendment’s passage. She’s so grateful that she falls right into bed with Stevens. [open endnotes in new window]
The sharp differences in the ways that Django and Lincoln were (or were not) celebrated also tell us something significant about the sad state of contemporary U.S. racial politics. Perhaps the most obvious example of this differential treatment comes from Oprah Winfrey. In her latest television series, Oprah’s Next Chapter, Winfrey dedicated an entire episode to Lincoln, which she prefaces by telling her audience:
Two weeks later, Winfrey aired a two-part episode on Jamie Foxx, in which Django went unmentioned until the second hour of conversation. Tellingly, when Winfrey finally broaches the subject, she does so in clearly disapproving tones: “Everybody had read the script, a lot of people felt that this movie shouldn’t have been made. . . . How are you going to react when people say ‘what’d you do that for?’” Foxx responds with conviction:
Even after this eloquent defense of the film, however, Winfrey still seems unwilling to take the film anywhere near as seriously as she does Lincoln. All she can manage is the vague and awkward statement: “You can’t imagine the conversations we’re having today after seeing it.”
Meanwhile, Lincoln was widely praised, not just as a major cinematic achievement, but as a significant political intervention. New York Magazine published a lengthy list of laudatory comments on the film from a bipartisan range of politicians (Rich, 2013). Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus seemed to think that Lincoln could somehow fix everything that is broken about the U.S. government:
In this “Oprahfication” of Lincoln, the racial significance of the historical events that (supposedly) lie at the core of the narrative—the end of chattel slavery—is pushed to the side, in favor of a less threatening set of lessons: how powerful white men can protect the nation (and their own power) while keeping the culture’s major racial hierarchies firmly in place. In contrast, Django’s far more pointed lessons about the horrors of institutional racism have largely been ignored, and the film itself pushed to the margins of the “national conversation” on race (the one that we never quite seem to have) because the film is (allegedly) too controversial to take seriously—as art or as politics.
Django begins with an astonishingly huge historical gaffe: a factual error so blatant, obvious, and easy to correct that it almost has to be deliberate. After the opening credits finish, a title appears indicating that the year is 1858—“Two years before the Civil War.” And, of course, the Civil War didn’t begin until April 1861. It is possible that somehow no one connected with the film’s production knew their U.S. history well enough to have caught this basic mistake. Or, perhaps, that no one cared enough to fix it.
More plausible, however, is the notion that Tarantino knew that the opening title was historically inaccurate in ways that millions of filmgoers would spot, and that he chose to keep the mistake in place deliberately. From the very start, he is signaling that he’s more interested in telling a good story than he is in showing rigid fealty to historical facts. There is historical precision to be found here, but it revolves more around Tarantino demonstrating how thoroughly he knows cinematic history than it does around capturing the realities of mid-nineteenth century southern life.
In part, Django demonstrates the depth of Tarantino’s knowledge of, and love for, the B-movie genres from which he borrows so heavily. But the film is also a lesson about the problematic history of mainstream cinematic representations of blacks, slavery, and the (antebellum) south (Marcotte, 2013). What Django underscores—brutally so, at times—is the degree to which Hollywood has spent the past century producing outrageously dishonest visions of Dixie. Django doesn’t do this, however, by presenting us with a painstakingly researched quasi-documentary account of what southern life in the 1850s was really like. Instead, it takes those old stereotypes, places them on the screen before us, and systematically shows us the social and political horrors that hide beneath their surfaces. Glamorous scenes of happy slaves enjoying the pastoral beauty of the land are merely Django’s feverish fantasies of being reunited with his wife. A lush shot of a sumptuous cotton field is sullied by a violent splattering of blood from off-screen. The perfectly mannered, aristocratic southern gentleman first appears in a private club where he is watching two slaves try to beat each other to death with their bare hands. The genteel southern belle turns out to be little more than a glorified sex trafficker. And so on.
Very few mainstream Hollywood films have attempted this sort of frontal assault on Hollywood’s history of racially problematic representations. Probably the best known (and, more sadly, probably the most recent) of such efforts is the 1974 comedic send-up of Hollywood westerns, Blazing Saddles. Most of the film’s humor revolves around the appointment of a black man as the new sheriff of the all white town of Rock Ridge: a set-up that allows for ninety-five minutes of non-stop satirical jabs at bigotry and racial stereotypes. The film fared so well upon its initial release that it was re-released six months later to help boost a sluggish summer at the box office for Warner Brothers. In 2006, the Library of Congress deemed it worthy enough to preserve in the National Film Registry. Tellingly, though, Saddles was almost never released, because Warner Brothers executives were scared that the film’s racial politics were too controversial, and that the film’s use of “the n-word” would make it box office poison. As director Mel Brooks tells the story (Davis, 2012), what ultimately saved the film was a wildly successful in-house screening of a rough cut for studio underlings, and the fact that Brooks’ contract gave him control over the film’s final cut.
Arguably, part of what allowed Saddles to succeed—and still be heralded decades later as a classic—is that it used comedy as its primary weapon against “racism.” Also, it framed the problem as one rooted in individual bigotry, rather than as a structural, institutional force that shapes the entire culture. We don’t want to downplay the degree to which Saddles, like Django, was a politically dangerous film to make. But if a film that skewers racism as gently as Saddles does was almost too risky to release, then it’s not surprising—though it is disappointing—that it took nearly forty years before another mainstream Hollywood film would dare to tackle the subject so directly again.
Many observers have criticized Django for what it doesn’t do in terms of portraying racial solidarity between blacks, or in terms of gesturing, even minimally, towards collective rebellion. And there’s some truth to be found in such critiques. Django is not a selfless martyr, choosing certain death over personal freedom because he cannot bear to leave his brothers and sisters behind in chains. Nor is he a remade Nat Turner, leading armies of slaves into open rebellion against white supremacy. His mission is purely personal (though not entirely selfish), and he is never distracted from it by even a moment of sympathetic solidarity for the obvious suffering of other black folk around him.
And that’s okay by us. At least for now. Django gives us a vision of racism as a cancer that permeates the entirety of U.S. society, top to bottom—and that is an extraordinarily rare thing for Hollywood. We can live with Django, the fictional man, getting to live out his personal revenge fantasy and ride off into the night with his one true love, because Django, the movie, doesn’t let audiences pretend that slavery was really just some sort of pleasant Gone-With-the-Wind-style costume drama after all.
More importantly, there’s a cruel, racialized double standard to the complaints that Django “fails” to present a sufficiently revolutionary narrative of black liberation. Hollywood hasn’t exactly demonstrated much desire, after all, to make feature films that portray anyone’s collective rebellion against systematic, institutional oppression. Sergei Eisensteinmight have been able to make that sort of thing work in the heyday of Soviet silent film (Battleship Potemkin, Strike, October), but Hollywood invariably transforms collective political struggles into purely personal battles between individuals. Class struggle gets reduced to the heroic efforts of lone individuals to win a symbolic fight against a singularly evil boss (Norma Rae). Feminism gets reduced to the heroic efforts of lone individuals to win a symbolic fight against a singularly evil man (9 to 5). Anti-racism gets reduced to the heroic efforts of lone individuals to win a symbolic fight against a singularly evil bigot (Driving Miss Daisy). So why is it that people of color—both in real life and in fiction – are routinely expected to sacrifice their personal desires and ambitions for the sake of the collective? White people who work hard and overcome obstacles to rise out of poverty are never expected to “give back” to the impoverished communities they left behind—much less be publicly excoriated for “failing” to do such a thing in the ways that people of color are (Boyd, 2003; Gates, 1997).
Similarly, one of Hollywood’s oldest and most popular tropes is the man (or, occasionally, a woman) who sacrifices everything—family, friends, career, home, etc.—for the sake of his one true love, because “love conquers all”. . . though, significantly, this trope only really gets applied to white love. Hollywood, after all, rarely gives us love stories about people of color at all, and it certainly doesn’t give us any such tales where the love in question is celebrated for being selfish and all-consuming in the way that white love routinely is. How many Hollywood films are there about white men who have somehow lost their one true loves, and where the driving force behind those narratives is a purely personal quest to rescue/reclaim those lost women, rather than a political mission to repair/destroy the broken criminal justice system, military-industrial complex, capitalist economy, or whatever systemic inequity it is that has separated the happy couple? Dozens? Hundreds? Thousands? Casablanca may be the last major Hollywood movie where a white hero willingly sacrifices his chance to be reunited with his one true love for the sake of a larger, more noble cause—and that is arguably because, for all its charms, the film functions more as a form of historical war propaganda than as a love story.
This begs the question: if Django were a white action hero, would we be having this debate at all? When Hollywood starts routinely giving us mainstream films dedicated to collective political agendas, then—and only then—can we start worrying about why more black heroes aren’t positioned as the leaders of such efforts. In the meantime, however, expecting Django to (deep breath here) rise up out of slavery, learn to shoot better than anyone else in the South, scour the countryside for his lost wife, free her from bondage, organize and lead a massive slave revolt, destroy the plantation system, and bring about an end to white supremacy across the land (you can exhale now) is an unfair burden to place on any hero—or any film.
There are people (e.g., Kaplan, 2012) who want to open up a long overdue conversation about slavery in the United States, but who insist that the proper way to do so is with sober, serious ruminations on the historical realities of slavery and its aftermath: not with foul-mouthed, blood-soaked bits of commercial entertainment. We’ve got nothing against sober, serious debates about racial politics—the nation could stand to have more of those—but we cannot fully accept this particular line of argument.
For starters, we reject the assumption that popular culture is an inappropriate ground on which to wage serious political struggles. “The popular,” after all, is one of the major sites where such battles have been waged for decades: far too long now to pretend that it doesn’t matter in this regard (Berlant, 1996; Grossberg, 1992; Hall, 1981; Kipnis, 1992; Penley, 1997; Radway, 1997; Rodman, 1996). It’s true that “the popular” isn’t the only place where such debates need to occur, and that many (though by no means all) of the necessary solutions to the problem of systemic racism need to be implemented in other spheres. But if anti-racist critics refuse to fight on this turf, then they—we—are effectively ceding it to the other side. Which, in turn, almost certainly means that we will lose those struggles. “The popular,” after all, is often the site where people’s hearts (rather than their minds) are won or lost. And we will not win the fight against racism simply by appealing to people’s intellects.
We also reject the assumption that this conversation can only take place in polite, bourgeois language and contexts. We’re not interested in chaotic free-for-alls, where everyone shouts as loudly as they can, nobody listens, and nothing is ever resolved. But the topic at hand is ugly, brutal, and painful. It demands a sense of outrage and anger—especially if we’re still struggling with the topic 150 years after the formal end of slavery—and to pretend otherwise is to diminish the scope and the importance of the problem.
Django is not a perfect film, nor is it a perfect representation of either the horrors of U.S. slavery or the realities of black resistance. But then again, no such perfect representation exists. Or could. For all of its faults, Django puts a much stronger, much more forceful condemnation of institutional and structural racism in the public eye than anything that, say, Barack Obama has managed to accomplish from the White House. We don’t believe that Django can fully resolve the political problems at stake here—that’s an impossible burden to place on any single film—but we do believe that it pushes the conversation along in valuable and productive ways.