Django, in chains
By Jesse Williams, Special to CNN
updated 2:59 PM EST, Thu February 21, 2013
Tarantino's genre-twisting Western
Editor's note: Jesse
Williams is an actor/producer who plays Dr. Jackson Avery on the TV
series "Grey's Anatomy." He is a Temple University graduate and former
public high school teacher. Williams founded the production company,
farWord Inc. and is an executive producer of "Question Bridge: Black Males." Follow him on Twitter and Tumblr. Note: This article contains offensive language.
- Director Quentin Tarantino says he "wanted to explore slavery" in his film
- Jesse Williams says Tarantino's version of slavery is wildly unreal
- He says few films have dealt with slavery, making it important to handle subject with respect
- Williams: '"Django" subordinates black characters, fails to illuminate slavery
(CNN) -- Films such as "Django Unchained" carry with
them an uncommonly high concentration of influence and opportunity. Due
to the scarcity of diverse and inspiring representations on screen,
Quentin Tarantino's latest movie casts a longer shadow than many are
willing to acknowledge.
In a recent interview with
UK Channel 4, Tarantino stated his goals and interpretation of the
Oscar-nominated film's impact: "I've always wanted to explore slavery
... to give black American males a hero ... and revenge. ... I am
responsible for people talking about slavery in America in a way they
have not in 30 years."
He went on, "Violence on slaves hasn't been dealt with to the extent that I've dealt with it."
My personal biracial
experience growing up on both sides of segregated hoods, suburbs and
backcountry taught me a lot about the coded language and arithmetic of
racism. I was often invisible when topics of race arose, the racial
adoptee that you spoke honestly in front of.
I grew up hearing the
candid dirt from both sides, and I studied it. The conversation was
almost always influenced by something people read or saw on a screen.
Media portrayals greatly affect, if not entirely construct, how we
interpret "otherness." People see what they are shown, and little else.
It's why my dad forced me
to study and value history from an absurdly young age -- to build a
foundation solid enough to withstand cultural omissions from the
curriculum and distortions from the media. It's what led me to become a
teacher of American and African history out of college. There is a
glaring difference in outlook between those who have mined the rich,
empowering truth about how we've come to be, and those who just accept
that there's only one or two people of African descent deemed worthy of
entire history books.
If, like Tarantino, you
show up with a megaphone and claim to be creating a real solution to a
specific problem, I only ask that you not instead, construct something
unnecessarily fake and then act like you've done us a favor.
Vote for your Oscar favorites
"Django Unchained" is
being projected on screens around the world, out of context: A slim
percentage of consumers have any real understanding of what took place
during slavery, one of history's most prolonged, barbaric and celebrated
human rights violations. Sadly, for many Americans, this film is the
beginning and the end of that history lesson.
Waltz, left, helps free Foxx from slavery, and the two team up to save the latter's wife in the Quentin Tarantino film.
This film follows a
brave, cunning and fearless lead character whose name starts with a "D."
Viewers of the film's trailer would think that character is Django,
played by Jamie Foxx. In fact, his name is Dr. King Schultz, a German
portrayed by Christoph Waltz, (spoiler alert) who sacrifices his life in
the pursuit of freedom and justice for the black man. It is the white
Dr. King, who after sharing a motivational tale about a man reaching a
mountaintop, nobly gives his life for "black justice."
Tarantino rightly claims
that the abundant use of "Brotha Man" in the film was authentic and of the
time. Of course it was. So was chattel slavery and the back-breaking
manual labor that kept these massive plantations thriving.
are nearly empty farms with well-dressed Negresses in flowing gowns,
frolicking on swings and enjoying leisurely strolls through the grounds,
as if the setting is Versailles, mixed in with occasional acts of
barbarism against slaves.
It's the opposite of the exploration of the real phenomenon of slavery about which he boasts.
Sometimes we sacrifice
accuracy for story, but these inaccuracies are completely unnecessary.
How does depicting slave plantations like circus campgrounds, fit with
delirious, babbling overseers wielding bull whips and overdressed rabble
wandering aimlessly, further Django's truth?
The film's antagonist,
Calvin Candie, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, supposedly runs one of the
very worst plantations in all of Mississippi. Yet on the road he dines
with his slaves, and at home, his fields are mostly empty and he only
seems to have slaves in his house. Is this one of those rare slave
plantations that primarily trades in polished silverware and gossip?
That authenticity card that Tarantino uses to buy all those "Brotha Mans"
has an awfully selective memory.
In the film's opening
sequence, shackled blacks literally hold the key to their shackles and
don't use them, choosing instead to trudge forward, hindered by biting
chains, to kill a white man. In the third act, after seeing Django kill
the Australians, the blacks sitting in an open cage neither communicate
with each other or consider stepping outside of the cage.
Review: 'Django Unchained'
In fact, in this entire,
nearly three-hour film, there are no scenes with black people
interacting, or even looking at each other, in a respectful or
If only one black person
(Django) displays the vaguest interest in gaining freedom, while the
rest consistently demonstrate that they wouldn't do anything with that
freedom, were they to obtain it, then we're not able to become invested
in them or their pursuits: We can't relate to shiftless characters.
Being illiterate, and/or brown, does not remove the ability to think, or
observe or yearn or plan or develop meaningful relationships.
Foxx's Django is the film's only black character to show interest in gaining freedom, Jesse Williams argues.
Despite the repeated
suggestions that they are similar narratives, "Django Unchained" has
little in common with "Inglourious Basterds," Tarantino's 2009 fantasy
involving a band of American soldiers taking revenge against the Nazis.
The latter's title characters choose to form a band of men who risk
their lives for a generous and creative endeavor to stop the Holocaust
completely, saving all of their people, not just one.
"Django" is just a random guy, who, to no credit of his own, was plucked from slavery by an impressive white man and led on a journey to save his wife.
"Inglourious" did not
walk us through provocative scenes of concentration camp torture, gas
chambers and ethnically stereotyped victims. Nor were Jewish characters
subjected to the indignities of being torn apart by dogs. And while we
have our trusty authenticity card out, did the Jewish people not suffer
the repeated verbal onslaught of "kike," "rats" and other grotesque
Were such words used in
"Inglourious Basterds" more than 100 times? How about 70? OK 30? 10?
Thankfully, Tarantino knew that he was perfectly able to tell a story
without such gimmicks. (He also knew the community he claimed to be
avenging wouldn't stand for it.)
Hey, remember when
Tarantino was selling those emaciated Jewish prisoner action figures
with the concentration camp tattoos? So funny and ironic and harmless,
right? No. That would have been cheap and disgusting.
Yet the filmmakers agreed to the release of action-figure slave
and slaver dolls to help promote "Django." It was an especially
offensive decision because selling slave figurines falls directly in
line with the centuries-old American tradition of desensitizing us to
the horrors of slavery with cute, palatable commodities. Tarantino
didn't invent this tacky strategy; he just dug it back up.
Opinion: Why 'Django' stirs race debate
Think for a moment of
the lengths that Tarantino went, to create a heroic triumph for his
"Inglourious Basterds." He created an imaginary scenario wherein his
characters could outwit and ultimately incinerate Hitler and his top
advisers in a movie theater. It was choose-your-own-adventure heroism to
create figures that took complete agency in the acquisition of their
freedom. A very cool idea.
Director Quentin Tarantino attends the Berlin premiere of "Django Unchained" in January.
A big reason slavery is
avoided in American storytelling is guilt. Unlike the Holocaust, when it
comes to slavery, our people were the bad guys. But we're not German,
so we can rail on Hitler and the Nazis all day without thinking
critically about our legacy.
For descendants of
slaves, and all Americans, our ovens -- the slave plantations -- are
tourist destinations and wedding venues, home to preservation societies
and guided tours. The "good ole days," when faceless black folks with
zero potential were merely quiet, collateral damage.
comprehension of slavery combined with the kind of trivialization
"Django" offers renders us ill-equipped to empathize with its victims.
This is a chicken or the egg manipulation: "Do I know nothing about the
complexity of slavery because it's not that big a deal, or must it not
be that big a deal because I'm only vaguely informed?"
None of my criticisms
would be different had the person in the director's chair been a
different color (though all widely released American films heavily
involving slavery in the United States have been directed by white men).
My concerns are limited to the onscreen material, its advertised aims
and the consequences.
We try so hard to
distance ourselves from the generations that made a business out of
systematically crippling a people and the public's vision of their
abilities and intentions. We're so different now, aren't we? We are
By popular measure, so were they.
And we deserve better, than this lazy, oversimplified reduction of our history.
(Note: Want to read more about Django? Click here for a detailed breakdown of the specific scenes that I found problematic.)