I haven’t seen Django Unchained yet, and I’m not sure when or if I will. I’m not here to promote or defend Quentin Tarantino’s pre-Civil War spaghetti western about a slave turned bounty hunter (played by Jamie Foxx) determined to rescue his wife (played by Kerry Washington) from a sadistic slave owner (Leonardo DiCaprio in a Golden Globe nominated role). From what I’ve read, there are a number of gripes from critics about the film, ranging from historical inaccuracies (historians say that “Mandingo fighting” death matches between slaves staged by DiCaprio’s character never happened) to overly-elaborate plotting. However, two of the criticisms, that the film is too violent and that the N-word is overused, just don’t make sense to me.
First, let me briefly address the violence. Hello? It’s a Tarantino film! Ever see Pulp Fiction? How about Kill Bill: Volumes 1 and 2? Fantastic and graphic displays of violence, with prejudice, using a variety of film-making genres, is what he does. He’s not James Cameron, or Spike Lee, or Ice Cube, or Stephen Spielberg, and he’s never pretended to be. Adults who don’t want graphic displays of violence (I still cover my eyes during parts of Kill Bill, though I’ve watched both volumes multiple times), don’t go to Tarantino films. (And as for historical accuracy, no one has ever mistaken him for a documentary filmmaker.)
However, all that aside, I don’t see how it is possible to make a realistic movie about slavery in 1858, for an adult movie-going audience, without gory violence, inhumane acts and extensive use of the N-word. I’m speaking as a person who almost never uses the word (when I have, it has nearly always been in the context of quoting someone else), will never be comfortable with its casual use and still has strong negative reactions to its misuse and abuse. And yes, my reaction is even more visceral when the word is said by a white person. If there is a depiction of any era of American history where I expect to hear liberal use of the the word n*gger, it’s during the height of American slavery. Bloody violence and brutality, including physical, verbal, emotional and psychological abuse, were the order of the day. The subjugation of one group of human beings by another is typically horrific, rarely pretty or fit for polite company.
Some of the hand-wringing critiques of the film, especially in social media and in the blogosphere, border on the hysterical (both meanings of the word intended). For example, to say that a slavery era film set in 1858 sets the tone for random violence such as the December 14, 2012 Newtown, CT, massacre, as one critic of the film asserts, is just plain ridiculous. Does a film with a backdrop as brutal and inhumane as American slavery make for an ideal holiday flick? Perhaps not; I’m sure many viewers skipped seeing the film over the Christmas holiday for just that reason. However, would one expect to see violence and inhumane acts in such a film? Absolutely. To exclude the liberal use of the N-word and “clean-up” the violence in this context would have been an insult to our intelligence. Had Tarantino done so, we’d be taking him to task for white-washing an incredibly ugly era of American history, and rightfully so.