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Slavery in Recent American Films: Django Unchained

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Earlier I noted that African Americans appear front and center in recent American films about the institution of slavery. Consider four recent films and their worldwide earnings: 12 Years a Slave (2013, 181M); Django Unchained (2012, 450M); Lincoln (2012, 182M); and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (2012, 137M). Why are audiences fascinated by events that occurred 150 years ago? These four films earned more than $950M. For comparison, consider The Young Victoria, a 2009 English film about the death of Prince Albert, Queen Victoria's husband in 1861 the year Lincoln assumed the Presidency. It earned $27M worldwide.

The forces that produced American slavery and the Civil War have not vanished. They confound American culture to this day. Until 1865 the southern half of the United States was developed using the muscles, minds, and souls of millions of enslaved human beings. As candid slave owners admitted, southern wealth consisted mainly of land, land that could not be tamed at minimal costs without the other great source of southern wealth, black bodies yoked in perpetual servitude. Slavery is the monstrous fact of American history that we recognize for a few moments. When our shame and guilt rise too quickly we forget. In its place are endless stories about the Civil War and white men fighting and dying in glorious battles. More importantly, slavery's role in the creation of American wealth does not match the exciting image of the United States as blessed by God, as the shining city on the hill as President Reagan said with conviction. In Sean Hannity's words, "America is the greatest, best country God has ever given man on the face of the Earth." Stephen Colbert provided a useful summary of Hannity's proposition.

In 12 Years a Slave an innocent man is rescued by the goodwill of white people who restore him to his family. A rough 20th century analog would be Martin Luther King, Jr. His mastery of non-violent confrontation and the heroism of the people of the Civil Rights Movement inspired the world. Likening himself to Christian martyrs, King spoke in Detroit, June 23, 1963, saying, "If physical death is the price that I must pay to free my white brothers and sisters from a permanent death of the spirit, then nothing can be more redemptive."

In sharp contrast Django Unchained, directed by Quentin Tarantino, portrays a combative black man, Django. He is rescued through his alliance with a canny foreigner who teaches him how to use a gun. In that narrow sense, the movie echoes the passions of the Black Panthers of the 1960s and 1970s and (some of) the insights of Malcolm X early in his militant career.

The story is straightforward: Django (played by Jamie Foxx), an American slave, has been sold away from his wife, Broomhilda (named after Brünnhilde, a shield goddess, or Valkyrie.) Dr. King Schultz, a bounty hunter, discovers Django in a slave coffle and learns that Django knows the location of the people he is pursuing. A gunfight ensues; Schultz kills one of the slave drivers and wounds the second. Django goes with Schultz and the other slaves head north.

With his customary brilliance, Tarantino makes us feel the pain of injustice, makes us ache for revenge, and then releases us through cathartic violence. After many adventures, Django finds his beloved on a plantation and schemes to free her. Lest we overlook the film's message, Calvin Candie, the plantation owner, explains why black slaves failed to rebel against their captors: they were biologically incapable. While this is insulting to any thinking person--since there were slave rebellions--it serves the comic-book fantasy that all the slaves lacked were gumption (provided by Django) and a white leader (provided by Dr. Schultz).

Suddenly, in a frenzy of righteous anger, Schultz kills Candie (played by Leonardo DiCaprio). Like old-fashioned demonstrations of nuclear fission, Schultz's single shot sets off a thousand more shots. Bodies fall everywhere. Django fights with passion and unbelievable skill. It is impossible not to cheer for Django when he kills sociopaths who have desecrated his family. In the final scenes, he slaughters countless bad guys (and a bad woman), suffers no serious wounds, and annihilates Candie's mansion. All very gratifying except we know, behind our cheering, that the enslaved and those who owned them were not cartoons.

The slaves were systematically terrorized, controlled, and imprisoned in a vast system that the South called civilization. Those who enslaved them benefited from that system. It became a way of life, a form of normalcy that elite southerners championed with pride and Christian conviction. The puzzle is not that slaves refused to rebel. They did rebel.

The puzzle, our American puzzle, is that it took a Civil War to address our shared crime and it has taken another 150 years to remember it, even if in fits and starts through the movies.

Forthcoming Book: On the Pleasures of Owning Persons: the Hidden Face of American Slavery (May 2016).