Django Unchained: Revenge Narratives, Black Feminism and the Need for Visionary Communities
By Walidah Imarisha
To be clear: I have not seen Django Unchained. I do not want to see Django Unchained. I am, however, obsessed with reading reviews of this film, including mostly glowing Facebook posts from an astonishingly wide spectrum of individuals. Many folks, including Black folks, are framing this as a film that positively highlights Black resistance. We hunger for hidden narratives of our resistance – Nat Turner, Harriet Tubman, the Haitian Revolution are not stories told to us through the mainstream. I understand viscerally the desire to see these stories brought to life on the big screen.
However, Quentin Tarantino undoubtedly infuses his fascination with fetishization of racialized and sexualized violence in this ahistorical creation, as he does in all of his films. Even the grounding of a narrative around slavery in the framework of a traditional western conflates and distorts important historical realities – westerns are ultimately about valorizing the colonization of this country, the means of which were imperial war on Indigenous communities and nations.
Jelani Cobb’s New Yorker review, “How Accurate is Quentin Taratino’s Portrayal of Slavery in ‘Django Unchained?’” raises incredibly important questions about the responsibility of fictionalized accounts to remain true to the essence of history. While this film is fiction and therefore allowed to change specific facts and dates, the lens through which Tarantino presents slavery perpetuates standard historical narratives: the majority of enslaved Black people were docile; they participated, sometimes happily, in their own oppression; there was no organized resistance to slavery amongst Black communities; and resistance to slavery was based on a motive of revenge rather than a vision of freedom.
The reality is these narratives Taratino perpetuates have more in common with the slave owner's worldview than that of the enslaved Black folks in rebellion.
In fact, the idea that people of color’s rebellion would take the shape of revenge is one deeply rooted in white supremacist patriarchal capitalism (a phrase bell hooks uses to show the interlocking systems of domination), the same mentality that created and supported 200 years of slavery. If it is only about revenge, then our resistance narratives fit neatly into American individualism, where one man (almost always a man) is out to right the wrongs done to him, while still participating in and benefiting from a capitalist structure.
So Django cares about the freedom of himself and “his” woman, but not the collective liberation of a people. So Django can be a bounty hunter, the job description of which - exchanging human beings for money - is almost identical to that of a slave trader. So there is only Black woman I have seen mentioned by name in reviews, Django’s “woman” Broomhilda, and while she does apparently attempt to escape slavery several times, I have not seen this mentioned in any reviews; rather they portray her, like the vast majority of Black folks in the film, waiting passively for rescue, all the while being repeatedly brutally sexually assaulted for her intersecting identities of Black and woman. So her rescue is not liberation, but seemingly a transfer of ownership still rooted in patriarchy – she will be Django’s, not a white slave owner’s.
A story that was truly about the resistance to slavery would be centered in communal action. It would show the multiplicity of ways that enslaved Black people fought back and struggled every day and in every location (on the plantation, in the field, in the house, in the west, in eastern cities, everywhere), not the vilification of those who were forced to work in the master’s house. As Ishmael Reed highlighted in his review of the film, “Black Audiences, White Stars and ‘Django Unchained’”, “I don’t know where Tarantino gets his information, but some of the great orators who argued on behalf of emancipation of their fellow slaves were from the house. They had their own ways of dealing with cruel slave managers in the house. Often they used poison.”
A story truly about the resistance to slavery would use the opportunity opened by the inclusion of the sexual assault of enslaved Black women not to titillate, but highlight the shared experience across the Black community as survivors of the exploitation of Black labor, as well as the unique oppressions Black women survived (and resisted) because of intersecting identities of race and gender. As Angela Davis wrote in her book Women, Race and Class, “… when it was profitable to exploit [Black women] as if they were men, they were regarded, in effect, as genderless, but when they could be exploited, punished and repressed in ways suited only for women, they were locked into their exclusively female roles.” Davis says this raised the stakes for enslaved Black women and often meant that, contrary to standard beliefs, Black women were often the ones calling for haste in resistance and an escalation of tactics against slavery, including armed rebellion.
Raising up this often hidden history recenters the vital role Black women had as community leaders, as subversive educators, as armed guerrilla fighters, and as revolutionary organizers who understood that freedom was always the goal, not revenge.
And lastly, a story truly about the resistance to slavery would show the creation of alternative communities like maroon villages and Quilombos, where fugitive Africans as well as indigenous folks worked to envision the kind of world they wanted to live in, one based on cooperation, justice, support. It would show that these communities, based in the commonality of oppressed peoples (they took in poor whites as well), stood ideology in direct challenge to the premise of the “western,” rooted in white supremacist patriarchal capitalism.
But this, of course, is not the film Quentin Taratino wanted to create, nor was in any way qualified or capable of creating. Rather than being a film that challenges the systems of oppression that created both slavery and the continued structural injustice Black communities and all communities of color live under currently, Quentin Tarantino seems to have, ingeniously it must be acknowledged, created a film that appropriates our struggles by placing them in a familiar and ultimately safe narrative, one that does not upset individual white folks or threaten the machinations of exploitation. The fact that this film has received any positive response from Black communities (like receiving four NAACP Image Award nominations) speaks more to the absolute poverty of narratives of Black resistance, and more importantly images of visionary Black communities. This dearth has too often robbed us of our ability as a people to envision what true and total liberation actually looks like.