Django Unchained: Representation of Race

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Django Unchained is an American film directed by Quentin Tarantino and it depicts slavery culture in the Antebellum South and the Old west but with a fictional twist by the writer and director “Quentin Tarantino”. The film stars big names like Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio and Kerry Washington. The film takes place in the year 1858, when a German bounty hunter called Schultz seeks a slave called Django and purchases him because he needs Django to help find some men with bounties on their heads. Django unchained juggles a variety of issues such as race, slavery, revenge and violence. The film has gained quite a bit of controversy worldwide and amongst critics. A lot of people have criticized the film for its depiction of slavery, the excessive use of the “N” word and exaggerated violence. Tarantino’s aim was to make an absurd satire det during the slavery era or as some people have called it a “slave revenge fantasy”. This essay will analyze the representation of race in Django Unchained (Tarantino, 2012).

Successful filmmaker Spike Lee once talked about the film when asked about it during an interview with Vibe magazine: “All I’m going to say is that it’s disrespectful to my ancestors. That’s just me, I’m not speaking on behalf of anybody else” (Lee, 2012). If we take a brief look at history, black Americans have faced torture and discrimination throughout the years in The United States of America. Discrimination was not only exclusive during the years of slavery; it still exists today. Discrimination is still present at the workplace, films and even everyday social interactions.

The representation of African Americans can be traced back to early American cinema. In early Hollywood, African Americans barely got leading roles (Angott, 2016). There were numerous American films that was deemed racist during the early twentieth century in Hollywood. The Birth of a Nation (Griffith, 1915) was a movie that promoted white supremacy, terror against persons of color, and race separation” and the idea that “black people can and should never hold positions of worth, responsibility, or power (Navarro 1388-1389). It portrays the Klu Klux Klan (KKK) as saviors of society. Birth of a Nation is a cinematic masterpiece which was ground-breaking in the film industry yet simultaneously a work of an offensive propaganda piece that revived the KKK and set society back. It is both a success and a disgrace in our culture.

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Black men and women often play the leading white Caucasian men’s sidekick since the early days of Hollywood. If we take a closer look at modern cinema today, it’s evident that the “black sidekick” role is still present in movies today. The Marvel cinematic universe is guilty when it comes to casting a black or non-white actor to play the sidekick for the protagonist of their films, Anthony Mackie is an African American who plays The Falcon in the Captain America and Avengers movies and he is seen as Steve Rogers’s sidekick. Another example would be War Machine from the Iron Man and Avengers movies played by African American actor Don Cheadle, he is also seen as a watered-down version of Robert Downey Jr’s Iron Man. Even movies like Doctor Strange, Captain Marvel and Spiderman also feature a non-white sidekick character for the protagonist.

Recently there was a public debate over the 2016 Academy Awards nominations for the lack of diversity. It was followed by the hashtag #OscarSoWhite and the boycott of awards by famous celebrities such as Spike Lee and Jada Pinkett Smith. Looking back at the past, it’s clear that racism and history has impacted the representation of stereotypical roles of African Americans in film as said in Angott’s research of the history of black cinema.

In Django Unchained we’re first introduced to Django in the opening scene of the movie, we’re slavers being transported on foot with shackles while white men rode horses. In the very next sequence, we have the white slavers bumping into Christoph Waltz’s character Dr Schultz (German man) tells the white men that he is looking to ”parlay” with them, in response the slavers don’t seem to understand the meaning of the word “parlay”, the white men then demand Dr Shultz to speak English, Dr Shultz then apologizes to the white men and says “forgive me. It is a second language”. This scene was supposed to highlight the irony of the superior and well-educated and cultured white man perception typically portrayed in movies and the lack of culture and knowledge in non-whites. Dr Shultz; a German man speaks English as a second language, yet he speaks it so well that native English speakers are dumbfounded.

Dr Shultz then purchases Django because he needs Django to point out some men who are wanted for a bounty, in return Dr Shultz agrees to compensate Django 75 dollars and a horse, which implies that Dr Shultz does not see Django as a slave but an associate of his. The following scene shows Django’s transformation from slave to a human being, Django and Shultz visits a tailor shop and King Shultz lets Django him pick whatever outfit he wants. Django then chooses an outlandish royal blue suit. The film implies that Django is not afraid of attracting attention and he is embracing his freedom. Django’s clothing choice can be related to what theorist José Esteban Muñoz called “disidentification”. Muñoz’s theory suggests that when a person from a certain culture or race defies the norm of what is expected of them, then it is classified as disidentification. In this case Django did not dress like a typical white man in the west but he chose to wear something outlandish instead. Django’s outfit attracted the attention of people and it was even a jarring sight to some of them. We see a similar logic in the work of an painter called Kehinde Wiley who would paint the African American people of Harlem in the style of traditional European art.

Django Unchained also shows a mob of white people in bag head masks that is very reminiscing of the Klu Klux Klan and it’s portrayed as comic relief in the film. The members of the lynch mob can be seen arguing among each other about the holes in their bag head masks and how they aren’t big enough to be able to see through. Tarantino mocks the act of white supremacy by making the racist lynch mob look like fools and he shows how counterproductive racism and white supremacy can be. In a sequence when Shultz and Django meet Big Daddy to hunt down The Brittle Brothers, Big Daddy isn’t pleased to see Django riding on a horse and he immediately unwelcomes them but Shultz tells him that he has 5000 things that might change his mind, which immediately captures his interests and changes his mind. Shultz then emphasizes to Big Daddy that Django is a freeman and not a slave, therefore he shouldn’t be treated as one. Big Daddy then invites Dr King Shultz into his house to discuss business and asks one of his female house slaves to accompany Django. Big Daddy tries to explain to one of his female slaves that Django is a freeman and he shouldn’t be treated as a slave but the female slave does not seem to understand what that means because she may be underexposed and may only see other Blacks as slaves by default. The female slave then tries to comprehend what Big Daddy is trying to say to her, she asks him if he wants her to treat Django like white folks, Big Daddy then replies with a “No, that’s not what I said” and he asks her to treat him like the Pecker wood boy in town called Jerry to get her to understand. This scene is supposed to be humorous and it also shows that even though Black men were free from slavery, they will never be seen an equal to a white man. This is still relevant today because certain people don’t see people from a certain ethnic group as an equal in society just because of physical appearance.

In another scene where Leonardo DiCaprio’s character Calvin Candie furiously explains to Django and Shultz using a skull of a Black Man who was a former slave that used to work for Calvin’s father. 'Why don't they kill us?' asks Calvin Candie. He explains why the African slaves he abuses do not fight back and take revenge. 'The science of phrenology,' says Calvin Candie, 'is crucial to understanding the separation of our two species.' He cuts open the back of the skull with a saw, removing a portion of the skull and pointing to an allegedly enlarged area. In African slaves, Candie says, this dimple is found in the region of the brain correlated with 'submissiveness'. For Calvin, phrenology not only rationalized slavery, it justified it. Phrenology has been debunked by modern science, the idea that a shape of a skull can influence certain characteristics was incorrect and a flawed use of science (Murray, 2013). The film doesn’t clearly state this logic as fact. The film ends with Django achieving victory ad getting his justice, Tarantino goes against racist movie tropes where black characters typically don’t make it out alive in these types of films. In conclusion, Although Tarantino film’s representation of race may be looked at as a racist film, in reality it is the exact opposite. Django Unchained shows that Hollywood is progressing in terms of the representation of race in films.

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