Spoilers ahead. Read at your own risk.
Will Smith made it clear recently that he passed over the title role in Quentin Tarantino's Oscar-winning revenge fantasy Django Unchained because the character wasn't "the lead."
"I need to be the lead," Smith said. "The other character was the lead!" The "other character" that Smith is referencing is bounty hunter King Schultz, played by Christoph Waltz, who won an Oscar for his portrayal of the character. ... "I was like, 'No, Quentin, please, I need to kill the bad guy!'" Smith said, spoiling the film. As a result of Smith's passing, Jamie Foxx took on the role of Django.
Waltz's character Dr. King Schultz -- and oh boy, the chutzpah of naming a German bounty-hunting killer "Dr. King"! -- does indeed finish off one of the villains in the film, and an important one. But what Will Smith seems to misunderstand is that, while Waltz's victim is the man, the real enemy is the system. Dr. King knocks down the master, but Django tears apart the master's house. Then he blows it up, too, for good measure.
With that triumphant, cathartic ending, one similar to the Nazi barbeque he gave us at the end of Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino showed us that Django's sights are set higher than one cruel, cunning slave-owner. He wants to take down the whole system, including its dependents (the owner's superficially innocent sister) and collaborators (his trusted consigliere Stephen), and as Django and Broomhilda ride away, straight-backed and proud as avenging angels, it seems like that is what they're going to continue to do.
The Passover story, which Jews the world over retell every year at this time, is also a story of slavery, freedom -- and vengeance. The ancient Hebrews, having moved to Egypt originally because of a famine, hang out, being fruitful and multiplying until a new Pharaoh gets worried about all these immigrants within their borders. Pharaoh enslaves the community and then orders their newborn sons drowned in the Nile.
Moses survives this purge (thanks to the ingenuity of his mother and his sister, and the generosity of Pharaoh's daughter, who rescues and adopts him) and ends up leading his people to the Promised Land. But Pharaoh doesn't let his workforce go without a fight, and Moses's God -- the God of the Hebrews, who will become the Israelites and eventually the Goldsmiths and Teitelbaums of today -- is only too happy to give him one. When God and Moses are done with the Egyptians, they've been plagued with blood, frogs, lice, wild beasts, some ancient version of Mad Cow, boils, hail, locusts, darkness, and, finally, the death of all firstborn Egyptian children.
When today's Jews tell that part of the story at their ritual Passover dinners, they drip wine out of their cups in sorrow for what the Egyptians had to suffer so that the Hebrews could go free. Unfortunate but inevitable, is the general feeling. When one people oppresses another, every citizen of the regime is implicated in the larger crime. It was not enough that Pharaoh be punished when his whole nation benefited from the free labor of another.
The Exodus story is well-known, arguably, thanks to power-players like DreamWorks and Cecil B. DeMille who have committed it to celluloid. The fact that Jews gather every year to retell the story, usually two nights in a row, doesn't hurt, and sure the Bible is a popular book (almost as popular as the Beatles!). But here in America, we learn our history from the movies. And while movies about the Revolutionary War, the Wild West, the immigrant experience, the Depression, the Second World War, and the swinging Sixties abound -- check out this fabulous Reel American History archive for examples -- movies about slavery are thin on the ground.
In fact, aside from a couple of earnest, clunky attempts to dramatize the Civil War era like Glory and Amistad, almost no mainstream movies depict slavery at all, let alone the day-to-day horror of of it. The most famous film set in the antebellum South, Gone With the Wind, is a shameless romanticization of Dixie as a place where slaves are as loyal, happy, and well-treated as family pets until Northerners come along to stir up trouble.
In two and a half hours, Tarantino, himself a child of the deep South, gleefully turns American cinematic history on its head. He focuses, as he is wont to do, on the evil that men do: the brandings, the beatings, the rape, the humiliation, and the fear in which slaves in America lived for hundreds of years, and cold-blooded cruelty of the upper classes who exploited them without repercussion. He gives us hot boxes and death by dogs; he makes our blood boil. He gives us a character, Django, who is part Moses and part angel of death, and then he makes us cheer the plagues visited by Django upon the Pharaohs of his day.
Django's story, however cartoonish, is America's story too. It is unique in its courage to confront us with some of the more sordid parts of our history and should be revisited often, like the Exodus, lest we forget, as my family Haggadah says, "how bitter is the lot of one caught in the grip of slavery."