Skip to main content

Django, in chains

By Jesse Williams, Special to CNN
updated 2:59 PM EST, Thu February 21, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Director Quentin Tarantino says he "wanted to explore slavery" in his film
  • Jesse Williams says Tarantino's version of slavery is wildly unreal
  • He says few films have dealt with slavery, making it important to handle subject with respect
  • Williams: '"Django" subordinates black characters, fails to illuminate slavery

Editor's note: Jesse Williams is an actor/producer who plays Dr. Jackson Avery on the TV series "Grey's Anatomy." He is a Temple University graduate and former public high school teacher. Williams founded the production company, farWord Inc. and is an executive producer of "Question Bridge: Black Males." Follow him on Twitter and Tumblr. Note: This article contains offensive language.

(CNN) -- Films such as "Django Unchained" carry with them an uncommonly high concentration of influence and opportunity. Due to the scarcity of diverse and inspiring representations on screen, Quentin Tarantino's latest movie casts a longer shadow than many are willing to acknowledge.

In a recent interview with UK Channel 4, Tarantino stated his goals and interpretation of the Oscar-nominated film's impact: "I've always wanted to explore slavery ... to give black American males a hero ... and revenge. ... I am responsible for people talking about slavery in America in a way they have not in 30 years."

Jesse Williams
Jesse Williams

He went on, "Violence on slaves hasn't been dealt with to the extent that I've dealt with it."

My personal biracial experience growing up on both sides of segregated hoods, suburbs and backcountry taught me a lot about the coded language and arithmetic of racism. I was often invisible when topics of race arose, the racial adoptee that you spoke honestly in front of.

I grew up hearing the candid dirt from both sides, and I studied it. The conversation was almost always influenced by something people read or saw on a screen. Media portrayals greatly affect, if not entirely construct, how we interpret "otherness." People see what they are shown, and little else.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



It's why my dad forced me to study and value history from an absurdly young age -- to build a foundation solid enough to withstand cultural omissions from the curriculum and distortions from the media. It's what led me to become a teacher of American and African history out of college. There is a glaring difference in outlook between those who have mined the rich, empowering truth about how we've come to be, and those who just accept that there's only one or two people of African descent deemed worthy of entire history books.

If, like Tarantino, you show up with a megaphone and claim to be creating a real solution to a specific problem, I only ask that you not instead, construct something unnecessarily fake and then act like you've done us a favor.

Vote for your Oscar favorites

"Django Unchained" is being projected on screens around the world, out of context: A slim percentage of consumers have any real understanding of what took place during slavery, one of history's most prolonged, barbaric and celebrated human rights violations. Sadly, for many Americans, this film is the beginning and the end of that history lesson.

Waltz, left, helps free Foxx from slavery, and the two team up to save the latter\'s wife in the Quentin Tarantino film.
Waltz, left, helps free Foxx from slavery, and the two team up to save the latter's wife in the Quentin Tarantino film.

This film follows a brave, cunning and fearless lead character whose name starts with a "D." Viewers of the film's trailer would think that character is Django, played by Jamie Foxx. In fact, his name is Dr. King Schultz, a German portrayed by Christoph Waltz, (spoiler alert) who sacrifices his life in the pursuit of freedom and justice for the black man. It is the white Dr. King, who after sharing a motivational tale about a man reaching a mountaintop, nobly gives his life for "black justice."

Tarantino rightly claims that the abundant use of "nigger" in the film was authentic and of the time. Of course it was. So was chattel slavery and the back-breaking manual labor that kept these massive plantations thriving.

Tarantino's plantations are nearly empty farms with well-dressed Negresses in flowing gowns, frolicking on swings and enjoying leisurely strolls through the grounds, as if the setting is Versailles, mixed in with occasional acts of barbarism against slaves.

It's the opposite of the exploration of the real phenomenon of slavery about which he boasts.

Sometimes we sacrifice accuracy for story, but these inaccuracies are completely unnecessary. How does depicting slave plantations like circus campgrounds, fit with delirious, babbling overseers wielding bull whips and overdressed rabble wandering aimlessly, further Django's truth?

The film's antagonist, Calvin Candie, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, supposedly runs one of the very worst plantations in all of Mississippi. Yet on the road he dines with his slaves, and at home, his fields are mostly empty and he only seems to have slaves in his house. Is this one of those rare slave plantations that primarily trades in polished silverware and gossip? That authenticity card that Tarantino uses to buy all those "niggers" has an awfully selective memory.

In the film's opening sequence, shackled blacks literally hold the key to their shackles and don't use them, choosing instead to trudge forward, hindered by biting chains, to kill a white man. In the third act, after seeing Django kill the Australians, the blacks sitting in an open cage neither communicate with each other or consider stepping outside of the cage.

Review: 'Django Unchained'

In fact, in this entire, nearly three-hour film, there are no scenes with black people interacting, or even looking at each other, in a respectful or productive way.

If only one black person (Django) displays the vaguest interest in gaining freedom, while the rest consistently demonstrate that they wouldn't do anything with that freedom, were they to obtain it, then we're not able to become invested in them or their pursuits: We can't relate to shiftless characters. Being illiterate, and/or brown, does not remove the ability to think, or observe or yearn or plan or develop meaningful relationships.

Foxx\'s Django is the film\'s only black character to show interest in gaining freedom, Jesse Williams argues.
Foxx's Django is the film's only black character to show interest in gaining freedom, Jesse Williams argues.

Despite the repeated suggestions that they are similar narratives, "Django Unchained" has little in common with "Inglourious Basterds," Tarantino's 2009 fantasy involving a band of American soldiers taking revenge against the Nazis. The latter's title characters choose to form a band of men who risk their lives for a generous and creative endeavor to stop the Holocaust completely, saving all of their people, not just one.

"Django" is just a random guy, who, to no credit of his own, was plucked from slavery by an impressive white man and led on a journey to save his wife.

"Inglourious" did not walk us through provocative scenes of concentration camp torture, gas chambers and ethnically stereotyped victims. Nor were Jewish characters subjected to the indignities of being torn apart by dogs. And while we have our trusty authenticity card out, did the Jewish people not suffer the repeated verbal onslaught of "kike," "rats" and other grotesque terms?

Were such words used in "Inglourious Basterds" more than 100 times? How about 70? OK 30? 10? Thankfully, Tarantino knew that he was perfectly able to tell a story without such gimmicks. (He also knew the community he claimed to be avenging wouldn't stand for it.)

Hey, remember when Tarantino was selling those emaciated Jewish prisoner action figures with the concentration camp tattoos? So funny and ironic and harmless, right? No. That would have been cheap and disgusting.

Yet the filmmakers agreed to the release of action-figure slave and slaver dolls to help promote "Django." It was an especially offensive decision because selling slave figurines falls directly in line with the centuries-old American tradition of desensitizing us to the horrors of slavery with cute, palatable commodities. Tarantino didn't invent this tacky strategy; he just dug it back up.

Opinion: Why 'Django' stirs race debate

Think for a moment of the lengths that Tarantino went, to create a heroic triumph for his "Inglourious Basterds." He created an imaginary scenario wherein his characters could outwit and ultimately incinerate Hitler and his top advisers in a movie theater. It was choose-your-own-adventure heroism to create figures that took complete agency in the acquisition of their freedom. A very cool idea.

Director Quentin Tarantino attends the Berlin premiere of \
Director Quentin Tarantino attends the Berlin premiere of "Django Unchained" in January.

A big reason slavery is avoided in American storytelling is guilt. Unlike the Holocaust, when it comes to slavery, our people were the bad guys. But we're not German, so we can rail on Hitler and the Nazis all day without thinking critically about our legacy.

For descendants of slaves, and all Americans, our ovens -- the slave plantations -- are tourist destinations and wedding venues, home to preservation societies and guided tours. The "good ole days," when faceless black folks with zero potential were merely quiet, collateral damage.

America's minimal comprehension of slavery combined with the kind of trivialization "Django" offers renders us ill-equipped to empathize with its victims. This is a chicken or the egg manipulation: "Do I know nothing about the complexity of slavery because it's not that big a deal, or must it not be that big a deal because I'm only vaguely informed?"

None of my criticisms would be different had the person in the director's chair been a different color (though all widely released American films heavily involving slavery in the United States have been directed by white men). My concerns are limited to the onscreen material, its advertised aims and the consequences.

We try so hard to distance ourselves from the generations that made a business out of systematically crippling a people and the public's vision of their abilities and intentions. We're so different now, aren't we? We are civilized.

By popular measure, so were they.

And we deserve better, than this lazy, oversimplified reduction of our history.

(Note: Want to read more about Django? Click here for a detailed breakdown of the specific scenes that I found problematic.)

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Jesse Williams.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Mon September 1, 2014
Carlos Moreno says atheists, a sizable fraction of Americans, deserve representation in Congress.
updated 12:25 PM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Democrats and unions have a long history of mutual support that's on the decline. But in a time of income inequality they need each other more than ever
updated 12:23 AM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
William McRaven
Peter Bergen says Admiral William McRaven leaves the military with a legacy of strategic thinking about special operations
updated 12:11 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
updated 1:24 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
updated 9:06 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
updated 11:16 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
updated 10:34 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
updated 10:43 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat August 30, 2014
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
updated 9:30 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT