Django Unchained: Reality of Slavery
A German bounty hunter, a freed African American, and a southern plantation owner. This seems like the beginning of a bad joke, but they are in fact the three main characters of the film Django Unchained. This movie focuses on the point of view of a slave who is bought by a charismatic bounty hunter and goes on an adventure with him across the south to find his wife who is still within the slavery trade. The theme of slavery in this movie is a bit different than other slavery based movies because Tarantino really shows the brutality and horrors that slaves went through in a straightforward and somewhat witty way. Django Unchained made a big impact in the film industry when it was released, but what about it made it such an icon on the theme of slavery during the Civil War era?
The setting of the film takes place 2 years before the Civil War starts and begins in Texas. The main character, Django, starts off as a slave who is being transferred with a group of other slaves. They run into Dr. King Schultz, who addresses himself as a dentist, but in reality he is a German bounty hunter. When he purchases Django to help him find a band of brothers, Schultz tells him that he is now a free man. This part really stands out to me because it was very rare during this time for a southern white man to give an African American man his freedom so Django was very confused about how to act around a white man as a freed slave. I imagine that that was how most slaves acted at first when they were freed because they have always been trained to act a certain way around white people and now they are free to talk to them in any way they want. During this time, most people in the south aren’t used to the idea of African Americans becoming free people, so Tarantino interpreted this in another scene.
Soon after Django accompanies Dr. Schultz, they go through a small town in Texas with Django riding on a horse, which results in many shocked reactions of the white people in the town. This clip shows that scene and how the town people react when they see him riding on a horse (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nr7Qd2ql2WI). In this scene, Dr. Schultz asks Django why everyone is staring and Django replies “they ain’t never seen no nigga on no horse before” (Tarantino). Slaves generally in this era would walk as a group and be lead by chains attached to the their owners who rode on horses or carriages. The way this scene is filmed shows how even though the Civil War was going to occur soon and slavery was eventually going to die out, citizens in the south still weren’t familiar to the idea that African Americans could be equal to whites. Even though Dr. Schultz explains to people along the way that Django is a free man, people still look down upon him.
Throughout the film, there are major aspects of racism and discrimination towards black slaves and even Django, although he is a free man. To me, I think during this time southerners are so used to the idea of African Americans being treated as slaves that they don’t want to let freed slaves, like Django, believe that they are truly free or that whites will treat them that much different. Tarantino’s film depicts this with his very controversial script, which has white and black people saying words like “nigga” and “boy” in abundance. Although these words today are used in a derogatory sense and was shocking to most of the audience, it was the truthful language people used during the late 1800s. Many people criticized that the movie had too controversial of vocabulary and it was inconsiderate, but I felt that Tarantino used this bold script to show the reality of the South during slavery time. The word choice gives you an honest insight to what the culture was like and the relationship between African American slaves and their white owners. People in today’s culture seem to take this type of language use in a bad way and are too sensitive about controversial topics like this when in reality, the depiction that Tarantino presents of the slavery era was close to the reality of what it was really like. Along with the language that was used during this time, Tarantino also showed the brutality that occurred to slaves.
In today’s society, if you were to witness one person whipping another person strapped to a tree, it would call for police involvement and criminal charges. However, in the years before the Civil War, African American slaves were seen as property to most white people, which they were free to do with as they please. If slaves ever did anything to disobey or go against their owner, they would get severely punished. Many of these punishments included whipping, beating, or being tortured/neglected. In one scene in the film, the wife of Django tried to run away from her plantation and when she was caught, she was sent to the “hot box,” which was a box built in the middle of the field that was dug into the ground. This punishment required that she wore no clothes, was neglected food, and she would have to stay in the box for days. Watching this scene was a little difficult to watch, even though it only lasted for a minute or two, because I couldn’t even imagine having to endure that kind of punishment even for an hour.
Another punishment that was shown in the movie was the whipping of one of the women slaves who dropped a carton of eggs. Although she never ended up getting whipped, the screaming and pain she experienced being dragged to the tree and being strapped to it, ready for the whip, was enough to leave an idea of the cruelty they experienced for the smallest mistakes. When the man who was going to enforce the punishment explained what she had done to deserve it, he said, “She’ll never drop another egg again” (Tarantino). This line really stood out to me because it shows how easily white people were willing to beat an already miserable slave over a silly mistake like dropping eggs and how they looked at is as conditioning. This treatment of the slaves demonstrates how white slave owners looked at slaves as their property.
Most people today have an educated understanding of the Civil War and slavery through books and learning, but a real emotional understanding of what the slaves went through we get through films like Django Unchained. During one of the last scenes in the film, a southern plantation owner named Calvin Candie, who owns Django’s wife, figures out that Dr. Schultz and Django are only there to buy her and threaten them by having them pay full price or he would beat her. At this time, Candie says, “I can choose to do with my property whatever I so desire” (Tarantino). This line reveals how slave owners really saw their slaves as objects instead of actual people. Seeing slaves as property was the norm for most southern slave owners and it was rare that any white person would treat them like a free human being, which is why Dr. Schultz was my favorite character of all of them. He talked earlier in the film how he wasn’t a fan of slavery and was in favor of have slaves be free people, which was an outrageous thought in the South. The relationship he had with Django was almost that of a superhero and a sidekick because he wanted to help a former slave and fight for the underdog.
All the factors that displayed the horrors of slavery before the Civil War in this film were well put together and thought of. Unlike other slavery films, Django Unchained goes into the depth of slavery with the emotions from a slave’s point of view and the brutality they experience along the way. Although there are some scenes that are graphic and, some might say, disturbing, to me, it shows the honest reality of slaves and the horrors they faced to get to their freedom. It also shows this theme in a way that isn’t too dramatic because of the witty characters and comic relief that is shown throughout. This film became a major icon in the film industry as a slave movie because of the truthful details of the South and the slaves and their circumstances. Django Unchained is a movie that will prevail for a long time as an honest story-telling film about the horrors in the lives of slaves and how they faced their obstacles.
Django Unchained. Dir. Quentin Tarantino. Perf. Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kerry Washington. Columbia Pictures, 2012. Film.