I finally saw Django Unchained. As a historian, I was reluctant to watch it. After all, to me the details matter. And after reading at least seven reviews of the film, I knew that Django Unchained bore little resemblance to a historically accurate portrayal of slavery. After all it is a Spaghetti Western flipped on its head, featuring a Black cowboy hero bent on saving his enslaved wife.
After watching the film, I can confirm that many of the details found in the film are profoundly ahistorical. While I was watching, I started to make a list of the things that were just completely wrong. I eventually got tired and stopped writing.
Quentin Tarantino has insisted that his film does probe some larger historical truths about the brutality of slavery. He’s gotten into hot water with many critics for the fact that the word “nigger” is said somewhere around 110 times.
In his review, historian Jelani Cobb wondered if the word “nigger” was use more frequently in the film than the words “he” and “she.” Ironically in the effort to defend the language, Tarantino has clung tightly to claims of historically accuracy. He asserted, “I don’t think anybody is… saying that we used the word more excessively than it was used in 1858 in Mississippi. And if that’s not the case then they can shut up.”
I wished that Tarantino sought the same kind of accuracy in his larger depiction of the institution of chattel slavery.
The film got some of the larger truths about the slave experience right. Even though the historical record reminds us that enslaved women weren’t passive and fought back against sexual exploitation (something sorely lacking in the Broomhilda character), I was touched by the performances of Jamie Foxx and Kerry Washington. Their love reminded me of the fact that although enslaved men and women were forbidden by law to marry, thousands of slave couples paid court fees to have their unions legally recognized in the years after the Emancipation.
The film also depicts the internal slave trade, where slaves were purchased by traders and then transported, most often to the deep South, shackled to one another, sometimes walking hundreds of miles. The iron muzzles, bits inserted into the mouths of slaves, and protruding iron collars were used to punish, torture, and prevent enslaved men and women from escaping. These dehumanizing artifacts are an important part of the landscape of Django Unchained.