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.
However, Tarantino misses the most damning truth of slavery. Only two plantations are depicted in the film. One specialized in the sale of “fancy girls”: beautiful young women forced to serve as the mistresses or concubines of wealthy White men. The other plantation specialized in so-called “Mandingo fighting,” where slave masters forced enslaved men to fight to the death. Such matches did not exist during slavery, particularly given that young strong men were worth thousands of dollars. In fact, the economic historians at the Measuring Worth project estimate that in 1858 a single slave could be sold for “as much as $130,000 and more in today’s prices.” Slave owners were not in the business of destroying their “wealth.” The average large-scale plantation, which centered on the production of cotton, tobacco, rice, or sugar, never made it on the screen.
Slavery was not just about cruelty and barbarism, although it was cruel and barbaric on a daily basis. Slavery was not created just to satisfy rapists or sadists. It was an economic system that enriched those who owned slaves and those that manufactured the goods they produced. It was an industry that benefited elite Whites. While only twenty-five percent of White southern families owned at least one slave, the majority of slaves were the chattel of just the top one percent of slave-owning families, held in vast plantations where their children were passed down as property. The work done by slaves enabled slave masters to purchase and clear more land. The enslaved built the infrastructure of roads, bridges, and railroads, while the profits from their labor funded the westward expansion of the United States. Slave owners used their vast wealth to hold political sway over the nation, its Constitution, courts, and legislatures for decades. This wealth built banks and trading houses that still exist today. The enslaved weren’t held for show or entertainment; their labor constructed cities and built universities. Enslaved craftsmen even laid the bricks and did the woodwork for the construction of the White House.
The men and women who owned slaves were not bizarre cartoon villains or the bumbling proto-Klansmen depicted in Django Unchained. They were educated. They attended churches. And they used their education and religion to try to justify the horror that the majority of their wealth was not in land or livestock, but based in their ownership of other human beings. When we think about slavery in these terms, it isn’t as easy to laugh.
Blair L.M. Kelley is an associate professor of history at North Carolina State University; she is also the author of the award-winning Right to Ride: Streetcar Boycotts and African American Citizenship in the Era of Plessy v. Ferguson. Follow her on Twitter: @profblmkelley