When asked about the violence of Django Unchained by a hapless reporter for The Telegraph, Quentin Tarantino refused to discuss the subject, insisting that he’s already answered questions about his depictions of violence enough. Looking back through past interviews, a pattern emerges, where every time Tarantino is asked about violence in his films, he agitatedly responds with something about how violence on-screen is “fun,” and that it has absolutely no connection to violence in the real world.
But when asked again about the nature of the violence in Django by NPR, Tarantino expounded on his view of the dual nature of the film:
“‘What happened during slavery times is a thousand times worse than [what] I show,’ he says. ‘So if I were to show it a thousand times worse, to me, that wouldn’t be exploitative, that would just be how it is. If you can’t take it, you can’t take it.
‘Now, I wasn’t trying to do a Schindler’s List you-are-there-under-the-barbed-wire-of-Auschwitz. I wanted the film to be more entertaining than that. … But there’s two types of violence in this film: There’s the brutal reality that slaves lived under for … 245 years, and then there’s the violence of Django’s retribution. And that’s movie violence, and that’s fun and that’s cool, and that’s really enjoyable and kind of what you’re waiting for.'”
When considering the film, and its scenes of intense violence, the hinge question then becomes, to what degree do I view this as a “fun,” purely entertaining film, and to what extent do I somehow owe the subject matter, the brutal treatment of African-Americans throughout the slavery-era South, the thoughtful viewing that would attach to a film like Schindler’s List?
Much the same question was asked after Tarantino screened his earlier film, Inglourious Basterds, for a room full of Holocaust survivors. The Jewish Journal asked what Amos Barshad called “The Big Question:”
“’Does this deny their suffering? Does this indeed substitute a myth of power for a reality of suffering?’ And I heard what they said, and I couldn’t be bothered to engage. Because never mind the rest of the movie: Seeing Jews ice out Nazis was a singular delight, and the only complaint we had walking out of the theater was that there wasn’t even more of that kind of soul-soothing brutality. To think that one movie could undo a half-century of grim reportage was preposterous. Let’s just enjoy this one small touch of spirit-stirring anti-history and move on.”
To apply Barshad’s view, acknowledging the historical suffering while simultaneously enjoying the revenge that Tarantino’s “anti-history” portrays, to Django is somewhat complicated. The easiest approach would be to look at the film’s violence in much the same way as Tarantino does, with a division between the historical depictions of violence against slaves, followed by the satisfying fantasy of Django’s overwrought revenge upon the discovery of his plot within the plantation house’s walls. The dividing moment seems to be marked perfectly by Dr. Schultz right before his death:
(Columbia Pictures, 2012)
“I’m sorry, I couldn’t resist.” The line could just as easily have come from the mouth of Tarantino himself. Only, instead of applying the phrase to the very Tarantino-esque carnage that follows the scene, whereby Django shoots dozens of white men in an attempt to escape, followed by his capture, sale to slave-traders, blowing up of said slave traders, and final total destruction of the plantation house before riding off into the moonlight, it seems that Tarantino couldn’t much help himself when keeping the earlier narrative of violence free from dramatization either.
The prime example of Tarantino’s overflowing of anti-history into what the audience assumes is a relatively historical first half comes in the sport of “Mandingo fighting.” Aisha Harris of Slate set out to answer the question, did this sort of slavery driven gladiator fighting actually exist?
“No. While slaves could be called upon to perform for their owners with other forms of entertainment, such as singing and dancing, no slavery historian we spoke with had ever come across anything that closely resembled this human version of cock-fighting. As David Blight, the director of Yale’s center for the study of slavery, told me: One reason slave owners wouldn’t have pitted their slaves against each other in such a way is strictly economic. Slavery was built upon money, and the fortune to be made for owners was in buying, selling, and working them, not in sending them out to fight at the risk of death.”
Does it really matter that Tarantino, following a long history in pop culture of the same sport, incorporated this rather egregious piece of anti-history as a key plot element of his movie? While as a viewer I understood that the movie was a fiction, I still found myself believing that the Mandingo fights must have indeed been part of history, and when I learned of their a-historicity, I couldn’t help but ask what other elements of the historical treatment of slaves Tarantino had created. I then found myself asking, why do you care? Why does taking a liberty here and there with historical facts really bother you?
It comes down to the fact that while I, and other viewers, were undoubtedly aware that they were watching a movie, one with a script written by Tarantino and acted out by Oscar-winning actors, we still wanted to maintain an element of reality; to feel that what we were witnessing was truthful and accurate, that by somehow acknowledging the truth of the experiences we were somehow reminded of the injustices done, that somehow we were paying tribute.
We didn’t want to be manipulated.
And that’s just what Tarantino has done in Django, and he’ll gladly admit it. When asked by Barshad just how he had decided where to draw the line with his depictions of violence, after all, he could have gone much further and still been faithful to the historical record, Tarantino responded:
“It had to be modulated, and it was something that was done through editing. There’s a painful section in the movie: It’s almost like, Django and Schultz going to the gates of hell. When they enter Greenville and pretty much until they get to Candyland, those are the three rings of hell they have to pass through. Initially the sequence with the Mandingo fight was even stronger than it is now, and the scene with the dogs was even tougher. There’s a bunch of different emotions that I’m trying in this movie: comedy, action, suspense, and ultimately a big triumph. And when I watched it with an audience I realized that I had traumatized them too much to go where I needed them to go. It’s like I cut their heads off. They grew another head, but they were still a little too traumatized to cheer with the vigor and gusto that I wanted them to. I had to modulate the sequences back.”
While we were willing to accept that the much of the violence was indeed fictive, we wanted to be able to draw that line in our minds between the violence supported by the historical record and that which owed its existence to Tarantino’s spaghetti-Western revenge narrative. By blending the two elements in the Mandingo fights, a truly crucial plot point and one which seems to suggest its own historical validity, we as viewers feel duped. Somehow the other depictions of violence are also tainted with anti-history; and while many of the instances of violence, from the hot-boxing of disobedient slaves to the killing of runaways by dogs, could probably withstand historical scrutiny, the fact that we now feel we need to conduct our own research into the historical record rather than trust Tarantino makes it difficult to entirely understand Tarantino’s purpose. Ultimately, a balance has to be struck between viewing the movie as part historical narrative and part revenge-plot Western, and I’m just not sure where to draw that line, and that leaves me feeling dissatisfied.
 For a listing of Tarantino’s statements to this effect, visit http://www.thewire.com/entertainment/2013/01/quentin-tarantino-violence-quotes/60900/.
How to cite this project: Sasha Panaram, Hannah Rogers, Thayne Stoddard. “Contemporary Film and the Black Atlantic.” Deeps, (Accessed on Date) http://sites.duke.edu/blackatlantic/