In recent weeks, "Django Unchained" (2013) has provoked a wide range of reactions. While the film won Golden Globes for screenplay and supporting actor and has garnered several Oscar nominations, it has also provoked harsh criticism from many who believe that director Quentin Tarantino, renowned for his envelope-pushing filmmaking, crossed the line from controversial to simply racist. The truth may be somewhere in between the two. Certainly, Tarantino's films intend to challenge their audiences, so dismissing "Django" as a reductionist take on slavery-era America would be inaccurate. However, by the same token, the fact remains that Tarantino is a white man who has chosen to tell stories about struggles from a time and place in history that are not necessarily his to tell.
In a Slate magazine piece entitled, "When Blaxploitation Went West," Aisha Harris wrote that "Django" is not at all revolutionary. Instead, she argues that although blaxpoitation movies and "Django" have different purposes, "Django" continues a long and, to Harris, shameful history of exploiting black narratives for commercial gain. Harris argues that Tarantino's focus on individual-centric storytelling creates a situation in which rooting for "Django" is "rooting for his overcoming of oppression, not a collective victory for the black race." In this sense, "Django" is not a revolutionary movie with the potential to cause a sea change in how we see race relations, but rather another instance of an outsider purporting to tell a story about a painful and deeply personal chapter in the history of black America.
However, writer Jamelle Bouie cites the film's inversion of a number of tropes in Hollywood's traditional treatment of slavery, the Civil War and Reconstruction. Leonardo DiCaprio's uncouth Calvin Candie, Jamie Foxx's self-assured Django and the incompetent white vigilantes all represent inversions of traditional narratives the cultured slaveowner whose ownership of slaves is part and parcel of his genteel lifestyle, the spineless slave whose subjugation to others' wills has sapped him of his own agency and the clever white preservers of the status quo are nonentities in Tarantino's narrative. To Bouie, this represents progress.
Jermaine Spradley of The Huffington Post presents yet another angle on the discussion; he finds "Django" troubling in its irreverence and insensitivity to its subject matter. Compared to previous Tarantinto flicks, Spradley finds "Django" to "linge[r] too long in the slapstick comedy [and] subtle, buddy-flick humor," rendering its tone inappropriate. The film's reliance on extremes is similarly troubling to Spradley because its combination with the slapstick and black humor makes "Django" more entertainment for entertainment's sake than thought-provoking storytelling with entertainment value. Given the fraught history of race relations in the United States, the simple commercialization and, more to the point, the co-option of the narrative of black slavery and exploitation for profit is rightly troubling to those who truly dream of a post-racial United States.
Ultimately, the truth about "Django" may be found more in viewers' reactions than in how Tarantino himself conceived of the film as an exercise in storytelling. To thoughtful viewers, it may be possible to enjoy Django as an artistic endeavor while simultaneously appreciating that not all of Tarantino's narrative choices were entirely well-advised. In such cases, "Django" may indeed be more than a little valuable as a film. If the current dialogue in academic and critical circles starts to penetrate popular culture, which is likely to happen as "Django" gains increasing critical acclaim in the impending awards season, then "Django" may truly mark a meaningful moment in Hollywood's relationship with the fraught past and present of racial discrimination and tension in America.
However, for this to truly be the case, "Django" must continue to be discussed with an appreciation for the choices that Tarantino made in this film. Otherwise, the film will not live up to its potential as a jumping-off point for valuable and necessary discussions about appropriate ways for outside groups to discuss and profit from the historio-cultural legacies of minorities. If these conversations arise from audiences' viewings of "Django," and they can yield truly meaningful conclusions for their participants, then that alone will mark "Django" as a poignant moment in white America's relationship with the slavery narrative.