In Tarantino’s vision, slavery’s definitive injustice was its gratuitous and sadistic brutalization and sexualized degradation. Malevolent, ludicrously arrogant whites owned slaves most conspicuously to degrade and torture them. Apart from serving a formal dinner in a plantation house—and Tarantino, the Chance the Gardener of American filmmakers (and Best Original Screenplay? Really?) seems to draw his images of plantation life from Birth of a Nation and Gone With the Wind, as well as old Warner Brothers cartoons—and the Mandingo fighters and comfort girls, Tarantino’s slaves do no actual work at all; they’re present only to be brutalized….
Django Unchained trivializes slavery by reducing it to its most barbaric and lurid excesses. Slavery also was fundamentally a labor relation. It was a form of forced labor regulated—systematized, enforced and sustained—through a political and institutional order that specified it as a civil relationship granting owners absolute control over the life, liberty, and fortunes of others defined as eligible for enslavement, including most of all control of the conditions of their labor and appropriation of its product. Historian Kenneth M. Stampp quotes a slaveholder’s succinct explanation: “‘For what purpose does the master hold the servant?’ asked an ante-bellum Southerner. ‘Is it not that by his labor, he, the master, may accumulate wealth?’”
That absolute control permitted horrible, unthinkable brutality, to be sure, but perpetrating such brutality was neither the point of slavery nor its essential injustice. The master-slave relationship could, and did, exist without brutality, and certainly without sadism and sexual degradation. In Tarantino’s depiction, however, it is not clear that slavery shorn of its extremes of brutality would be objectionable. It does not diminish the historical injustice and horror of slavery to note that it was not the product of sui generis, transcendent Evil but a terminus on a continuum of bound labor that was more norm than exception in the Anglo-American world until well into the eighteenth century, if not later. As legal historian Robert Steinfeld points out, it is not so much slavery, but the emergence of the notion of free labor—as the absolute control of a worker over her person—that is the historical anomaly that needs to be explained. Django Unchained sanitizes the essential injustice of slavery by not problematizing it and by focusing instead on the extremes of brutality and degradation it permitted, to the extent of making some of them up, just as does The Help regarding Jim Crow.
As another condemning review pointed out, you hardly if at all see actual slaves working in fields in Django (and that it takes a White guy named Dr. King to free slaves [and even includes a scene w/ white Dr. King telling a metaphorical story of travelling to the mountaion top…])
This won a writing award at the oscars, didn’t it?
The reason for the appearance of a mustache-twirling cliched role (despite some admittedly funny, witty lines and a great performance by Sam Jackson) is, as I suggested above, the heroic-revenge generic structure. It requires a personalized villain of sorts, not a structural evil with which even “good” citizens are complicit. And what’s more personalized than the evil doppelgänger? For once, genre constraints have gotten the better of Tarantino. Thus, the film is an abysmal failure at addressing the other ensemble of questions Wilderson delineates, the prescriptive: “How does one become free of suffering? [Those] questions concerning the turning of the gratuitous violence that structures and positions the Black against not just the police but civil society writ large.” [p. 126] By giving the story a revenge motive, Tarantino reduced the suffering to a personal level, a subjective violence that one person might do to another — kill the oppressor, stop the oppression. This is a “failure,” because it applies a subjective resolution to a structural problem that was fundamentally the negation of subjectivity; “abysmal” because it achieved the biggest cathartic thrill with the killing of a black slave instead of any number of plantation owners in the film.