Why Spike Lee was right about Django Unchained

Django UnchainedSpike Lee did the right thing in publicly taking issue with Django Unchained, the latest Quentin Tarantino movie about a freed African slave who embarks on a violent journey to save his wife.

The wife character, Broomhilda, played by Kerry Washington is monotonous to discuss for hers is a shockingly flat role. Her character serves the sole purpose of providing a backdrop in a fairy tale fantasy about an alpha male.

The main characters – Django, the German hero who frees Django, the slave owners and their house slave – are equally unrewarding to unpack firstly because, in order to make comedy out of enterprise of slavery, they are so strategically depoliticized. Secondly, they contribute so equivocally in depicting slave rebellion as a myth (when slaves most certainly rebelled) that even their fictional credibility seems farfetched.

The sub-text of Django Unchained is one which reflects US race culture at large, namely the misrepresentation of slavery as disconnected from the present day. After all, what better way to disengage from continued nuisances of racism, patriarchy and exploitation culturally than by offering a token black male superhero who exists in a vacuum and white characters that are so comical that no white American today could possibly relate to them.

Having watched the movie I felt nothing less than crushed, not by the story itself, as insensitive as it is, certainly not by the gleeful director, but by the general approval it has received from black audiences.

When we respect ourselves, we act and react in ways that are congruent with self-regard. We do not accept inappropriate depictions of ourselves because we admire ourselves as we are and not out of some delusional fantasy. We don’t accept ridiculing, condescending portrayals that reinforce negative views and that function as fodder for guilt-ridding aspirations of others under the banner of “light entertainment”.

And by the way, while the movie is not a documentary and thus has every right to practice invention, it is not quite a farce either with its references to black history facts such as Alexandre Dumas’s heritage.

There was a time when a black person in the American south could be killed simply for looking a white person in the eye, let alone by rebelling against him or her. Yet many did. I shudder at the thought of what these ancestors would make of a story that implies that they did not fight for their independence, what would the articulate and determined ancestresses make of seeing themselves portrayed as voiceless props.
Django unchanined, for all its Tarantinoesque flair, ridicules the greatest tragedy in African history and I am grateful that Spike Lee took upon himself the thankless task of repudiating the slander.


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  • http://www.afropolitaine.blogspot.com afropolitaine

    This is a single story, not THE story of slavery. Understanding that might make it easier to either enjoy it or just choose not to watch it. There were ancestresses that were powerless and props just as much as there were other that weren’t. I don’t think Kerry Washington’s role is now supposedly representative of all women during slavery given the diversity of experiences people had even within the uniqueness of slavery. It is quite possibly AN experience, neither you, Kerry, Quentin nor I will ever know for sure, but with a stretch of the imagination it’s not impossible.

    • MsAfropolitan

      Hi Afropolitaine,
      Yes, it’s only one mythical invention of a female slave, but the back story of the Broomhila character is that she is in her own right rebellious and yet her role is anything but. My point is therefore that the agency of a rebellious female slave is reduced to a muted love interest, and despite understanding creative license, and nevertheless choosing to watch the film, that one particular story wasn’t entertaining to me.

      • dola

        “The back story of the Broomhila character is that she is in her own right rebellious and yet her role is anything but.”

        The first time Django sees her again is when she is in the “hotbox” for running away. Without Django. On her own.

  • http://blogs.warwick.ac.uk/toladepo Tee

    I haven’t watched the movie yet, but I wasn’t at ease with the trailer. The media is such a powerful story-telling tool – fact or farce, the message seeps into our subconscious and shapes or reinforces what is within. This is why somehow, we need to find ways to tell our own stories, to frame our own reality, for the sake of those coming behind us.

    • MsAfropolitan

      Thanks for the comment, that’s a very important point. I am shocked at people continuosly defending this type of thing with the argument that it’s just entertainment or fiction. How often hasn’t fiction been mistaken for fact. Heck, the whole race malarkey is a splendid fiction.

      While there are many stories that still need re/telling, we are also telling our own stories, but as fate would have it, we need to actively seek them out.

  • simone elise

    sorry you feel the way you do. loved the movie. loved the concept. love the love story. me and my degree in african american history and public relations think django is fantastic. poured libations to my ancestors before i saw it…personally i think they enjoyed it to.

  • http://newworldnubian.com New World Nubian

    Your critique is spot on. However, I do believe there is a place for fantasy in the world of creativity. I find the idea of this movie not much unlike Inglorious Bastards. There is so much misinformation in regards to slavery. As a graduate student focusing on the African Diaspora, I see that often in general conversation. Slavery is such an enduring legacy in our psyche and who we are as a people, but I think the real issue is that we need to have films that explore the breadth of slavery and its impact. More, more, and more. But, I do believe there is a place for representing slavery in a variety of ways because it was an institution of great magnitude with many nuances from place to place and plantation to plantation.

    • MsAfropolitan

      Thanks for your comment New World Nubian, I agree that there is always room for more films about slavery and its legacies. I don’t think the most important thing is who they are made by or what approach they take to tell the story (although these factors generally tend to influence the outcome), what I take issue with are depictions that are condescending, ridiculing and harmful and I believe we should all still be vigilant of these and not encourage white supremacy to camouflage as art.

  • Hmm…

    Haven’t seen the movie, but have seen clips of it and read the script which I couldn’t finish. Found it generally gratuitous. But, one thing we fail to realise (or do and choose to ignore) is any word on films like this adds to propaganda, somehow. Same thing happened with The Help. But, to what effect really?

    Steve McQueen is directing Twelve Years A Slave which is a close depiction of slavery. Who is talking about it? Django has been a buzz from its very inception and is on its way to hitting the $100m mark plus it will get oscar nods too. So, to what effect is Lee’s slander and twitter debates against it?

  • http://www.lorrikey.com Lorri

    I haven’t seen the movie, but note that when we say it’s only a movie, it depends on what perspective we choose to take. In the past, African Americans were more protective of history and how it’s presented. I think for those who disagree with the movie, it’s because they are on the side of respecting the history in light of it coming off as entertainment.
    For those who gave two thumbs up, it’s because they looked at it as 12 dollars well spent.

  • http://www.perspectives-anotherwaytoview.blogspot.com Carolyn

    It still amazes me as to some of the more startling points of view regarding the merits of this movie. I did not view it but I saw clips, previews and interviews by the stars and close family members described in vivid detail the gratuitous violence in this movie.

    There was a time when this genre was pretty popular. I remember Ken Norton an ex-boxer starring in ‘Mandingo’ and one of the scenes was similar to Tarantino’s depiction of the “pit bull fight” between two slaves. It’s only a movie as stated by some; misses the point of what we allow to assault our sensibilities.

    Spike Lee is courageous for I’ve been shocked by the number of respected bloggers who’ve given this movie fantastic reviews and have denounced him for his stand.

    Your assessment to me, is right on and you are courageous as well for the backlash on folks who don’t care to see the movie or have seen it and still didn’t like it can be daunting!


    • MsAfropolitan

      Thanks Carolyn. The pit bull/mandingo fight was one of the most uncomfortable and unnecessary scenes I’ve watched in cinema. You have an interesting catalogue of reference to draw from, would be great to hear more about these and what reactions where to them at the time.

  • Tony

    My audience was mixed–60% black and 40% white and we are in the South and everyone laughed at it.

    You must have had a mostly white and conservative audience so they took offense.

    The Big Daddy scenes were the best in the entire picture, IMO.

    Other than some absurdities(black women in the era’s haute couture swinging idly like they were Miss Scarlett)those scenes summed up so much about slavery and its hypocrisy.

    Big Daddy was the stereotypical white Southern gentlemen–the type many whites fantasize that their ancestors were.

    He is aristocratically dressed, he is surrounded by submissive slaves and he is nice to them–they are all well dressed, well fed and he is paternal to them(“Bettina, sugar…”). He is the stereotype of the “kind and gentle benevolent slave master”. He is polite to visitors with exaggerated manners. And his slaves care about Big Daddy as evidenced by the whole group of them who come with him to face Django and Schulz, who are two armed men who have killed 3 overseers.

    QT shows the flip side of the white Southern gentleman, though, in subtle and not so subtle ways.

    The dialogue shows how greedy these planation owners were and how they were nothing but dealers in human flesh and misery. Big Daddy is rude at one point but quickly resumes his facade when more money is mentioned.

    Big Daddy is surrounded by slaves but notice the wide range of skin tones and that he is accompanied by girls of various shades and also some lighter brown men with guns to confront Django and Schulz. His white daughter and her mammy are with them. Ie, this is the family coming with Big Daddy because the plantation is in danger–this is both the white and black family.

    This is an allusion to the fact that Big Daddy is also probably literally a big daddy as in many of these enslaved people he sells are also his own kids(which is why there are so many shades of black people then and now). The brown men with guns are probably his sons and they are all coming to help protect Big Daddy.

    Notice also Big Daddy, this model of civility and paternalism in slavery, goes and gets up a lynch mob when white supremacy is threatened.

    QT shows you that the fancy aristocratic slaveowner was not so benevolent and could be dangerous. Types like Big Daddy did indeed found the KKK after the Civil War.

    Finally, QT literally blows this white supremacist icon away–it is Django that shoots Big Daddy for this reason.

    It was a great sequence and the part where Django kills the Brittle brothers is one of the best parts of the film.

    Please note that Django shoots one of the Brittle brothers through a page of the Bible he has pinned to his vest–the Bible was used to justify slavery.

    And also notice how Django whips the other Brittle Brother–in his case the punishment fit the crime as the typical overseer had whipped many, many black people in the antebellum South. Many black people were whipped to death with the cat of nine tails.

    Shulz then shoots the last Brittle brother and his blood sprays onto the cotton–the cash crop that doomed so many black people.

    QT was on point with the Big Daddy sequence. His only errors were historical and also the silly Blazing Saddles proto KKK sequence.

    Jamie Foxx was especially good in this sequence and Don Johnson was simply outstanding as Big Daddy–he was letter perfect.

    • Dayo

      SHoulda used the pretext of spoiler ALERT before going into your review, that being said your review is so spot on.

  • ksmooth

    I am your average mid aged black man and I thought the movie was great. A real feel good movie when I left it left a feeling of yeah we got a Black hero in the Western time… There are so few movies where a black man goes to no limit to save the woman he loves. The characater played by Kerri Washington might have been slim but they had to build up to it before she was brought into the movie. My question is if the little crybaby had made the movie would everyone be up in arms about it. I seen his last movie “Red Hook Summer” and it was garbage he was still playing Mookie, a fifty year old still delivering pizzas, so how does that promote the black man…. I may not have a degree in AA studies but I know we should have never let them make the word “NIGGER” some kind of bad thing to say. If anything we need it to remind us where we have come from, next they will say that slavery never took place. HOPE THERE IS A DJANGO 2

  • Mizani Mick

    I can appreciate the “comic-bookish” slave story with the slave emerging as a violent victor to kill ALL of his enemies. However, I was definitely offended by many historical inaccuracies. KKK scene portrayed white hillbillies who were disorganized, unintelligent, causing no real harm. This desensitizes the audience on the destruction that was caused by KKK and it gives ppl the sense that they are all so far removed from these types of ppl when in fact there were astute business man, religious leaders, doctors — white men from all class and education levels in the KKK that willfully murdered entire families, mutilated and humiliated hundreds of men, and became nightmares of many black helpless kids.

    • http://www.msafropolitan.com MsAfropolitan


      • Tony

        You do realize that they were NOT the KKK?

        KKK didnt exist before the Civil War. They represented a lynch mob or what history recalls as “The Regulators”.

        • Mizani Mick

          You’re right KKK didn’t form until after the Civil War. However, I only mispoke on the name of the organization not the destruction that was caused. These people made an oath and pledged to a mission that was to cause demise and destruction of anything pro-Black.

  • Chinyere

    There’s so much I could say about the travesty that was Django Unchained, but I won’t. I’m just going to say that NO ONE has ever made a comedy about the Holocaust…EVER, so why Black people feel this rubbish of a production was ok, is just baffling and indicative of how far we have NOT come, mentally that is.

  • http://salonediaspora.blogspot.com Jan

    “Secondly, they contribute so equivocally in depicting slave rebellion as a myth ”

    Where in the movie did that happen? o_O In fact it EMPOWERS slaves and gave them the courage to rebel. wtf?

    ” misrepresentation of slavery”

    HUHH?? Where was the misrepresentation??? THAT ISH HAPPENED! Perhaps if the author lived in those times (that is if she would have been able to leave the fields or house) she would know. smh

    “white characters that are so comical that no white American today could possibly relate to them”

    Ummm…the white racist Americans? anyone? no? they wouldn’t relate? and of course they seem comical to us right now, because a lot of us understand that the thoughts they had back then were simply not true. Now we can laugh at their ignorance, that doesn’t make it false. People REALLY acted like that back then.

    “We don’t accept ridiculing, condescending portrayals that reinforce negative views and that function as fodder for guilt-ridding aspirations of others under the banner of “light entertainment”.

    Ridicule? Reinforcement? If anyone was being ridiculed it was the white characters and the slaves like Samuel L Jackson’s character that were so loyal to their masters. Man I could sit here and over analyze everything and counter every single, bloody argument, but its a damn movie. smh

    I was going to say more, but Tony said a lot already…

    • http://Www.msafropolitan.com MsAfropolitan

      Re white, cartoonish characters see also Mizani Mick’s comment about hillbillies

  • http://www.inconsequentiallogic.com Roschelle

    Interesting article and viewpoint…really initiated a wonderful exchange of ideas in the comments. I’ve not seen the movie yet. So, I have no opinion..

  • Amaka

    Mmmh… Interesting discussion. I do understand where the two fronts clash on this. What I find important is that we need to tell our stories more – in every form – to make a difference. Step out of the role of a victim. This will create a more organic ground for our image as black people to evolve.

    Quentin Tarantino’s story-telling style is that of over-simplified hero-figures. He obviously likes comic books. You will find, I am sure, many things to take offense with in his past movies. Religious, cultural, historical and political discussions have been held on them.
    This is not a clean black and white topic. The lines between right and wrong can be quite blurred. Yes, there were parts of Django that I found uncomfortable (Mandingo fight). That sh.. did happen.
    But I cannot oppose a dark comedy on Black or African history then go ahead and allow comedic relief involving Asians, American Indians, Mexicans and other peoples. All would have to be censored. I really enjoyed Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds for example.

    I rather like discussions to ensue as a response to something. It means we are thinking and as a result, growing. If we make everything politically correct, people will have no need to react, act or even think.

    • http://Www.msafropolitan.com MsAfropolitan

      Hi Amaka, thanks for this reasoning, I agree with you in terms of evading political correctness. The issue is not that the movie was politically incorrect but rather that its popularity indicates such a miseducation of slavery and rebellion among African descendants. So my piece is a critique of the uncritical response more so than the movie itself.
      I disliked Inglorious Basterds and understood why Russians and jewish folks took offense of it.

    • http://www.msafropolitan.com MsAfropolitan

      Jordan, I did not mention Tarantino’s use of the word nigger. It helps to read posts before passionately arguing against them.

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  • lizzie

    for me the film & moral of it was in the end bit – Beware of whiteman helping you out – they could make things worse.

    i didnt like the fact that all the end violence could have been avoided by a mere handshake between candieman and the german!!! in the end the german aborted his good intentions & works of liberating hilda by killing candyman . He nearly got them all killed and nearly turned django freeman into django slaveman

  • Jaakko

    Hi! I personally liked the film as an action film. The only thing I did not like were the historical errors like the presence of KKK and some other stuff. We should although remember that this movie is made to entertain people and make money just like many other movies.

    The use of word nigger really dint bother me at all. Damn it was used at that time so why not use it? It would have ridiculous if they would have not used it. On a general level I dont understand this American or Anglo-Saxon way of giving so much weight on words. Words are not important, important are actions and reality.

  • md

    Hi Minna, I absolutely 100% agree with your article. i have gone so far as to blog all Tarantinos’ movies should be boycottted until he stops using the “N” word. The “N” word has only ever had one meaning and that meaning has always been derogatory/debasement/dehumanising of black people. It was extremely disturbiing to note that the Academy Award Board gave best screen play to Tarantino for this movie. It is quite clear to me this award was telling Tarantino that he did a great job of debasing black people, yet again, in mainstream culture. I think it is time that young black people be re-educated on what their ancestors had to overcome and that the “N”word means exactly the same now as it did in the time of our ancestors. Black people need to distance themselves from those who would wish to exploit/insult/demean them all over again. I disagree with those who insist the “N” is not harmful/demeaning. this is simply not true. And I would challenge anyone who called me by the “N” word. What is also of great concern is the fact there are black actors prepared to sell their core values in speaking the “N” word in a film in order to get a film role! When a black actor is seen on the screen readily using the “N” word, that actor destabalises every young black person in that movie theatre – yes, its as bad as that. Every time a black actor takes part in the movie that uses the “N” word, he or she destabalises every black person watching that movie. Black people should support each other by going about our daily lives with a sense of positivity about who we are, where we came from and the struggle it involved. We as black people should not allow others to use us to destabalise ourselves. As black people, we must come to accept our struggle is not yet over, we still have and will continue to have a responsibility to the next generation .

    • MsAfropolitan

      Thanks for your comment MD! Struggle not over indeed as the movie demonstrated on many levels…

  • Liz

    To be honest FLIGHT movie did much more damage than Django and am shocked that Lee didnt speak up against it.

    As a black Christian i was offended by it and told the Academy what i got from the film was that black folks should not help whites out if they do they would get done for doing so with apparenty Jesus’s approval ( not true by the way Jesus gave His life for us black folks we are loved by God) ..*spoiler..the pilot that saved the passengers went to jail! even though he told the truth and was an alcoholic…* as a screenplay writer i was outraged by the script ; who sends the hero (protagonists) to jail for doing good and what is right ? ONLY racist bigots!

  • Thomas Luedke

    Spike Lee’s opinion of Django is patently illegitimate given he didn’t even see the movie. His harsh judgement of the film without having seen it is the epitome of prejudice, ironically. So regardless of what that judgement was, be it praise or otherwise, it’s worthless coming from Spike Lee’s lips.

    Your article’s criticism I’m prepared to take a little more seriously considering you actually viewed the film. Your clear problem is that you are analyzing a work of stylized fiction as if it is a documentary portrayal of its setting. It’s not. It’s a work of stylized fiction.

    Your taking issue with its portrayal of black slaves as docile and even complicit in their subjugation is, again, absurd. Most of that sentiment is voiced by Calvin Candie in his monologue near the end of the film. He’s clearly not portrayed in such a way that we’re meant to agree with his words. In fact, he’s repeatedly discredited as hypocritical, megalomaniacal, and even ignorant (“don’t speak French to him, it’ll embarrass him”) throughout the film up to that point.

    The only other evidence to support your views is the Stephen character, who defines what you believe is the whole theme of the picture, the patronizing view that no blacks rebelled against their masters and in fact were partly responsible for their subjugation. But he’s one character and people like him existed. For any group to be dominated like that there have to be people like Stephen, blacks outnumbered whites in many (most?) southern states. Jews were employed to gas their own people in WWII concentration camps. Is it offensive to all Jews to depict such a person in a work of fiction? Of course not.

    • md

      I think you are missing the point.

    • MsAfropolitan

      Hi Thomas,

      It has since been confirmed that Spike Lee had read the script so his judgement is not illegitimate as you claim.

      At any rate, my point was that in depicting slave rebellion as a myth (when slaves most certainly rebelled) even their fictional credibility seems farfetched. So my analysis was of a “stylized work of fiction”, not a documentary.
      In fact, I clearly write:

      “And by the way, while the movie is not a documentary and thus has every right to practice invention, it is not quite a farce either with its references to black history facts such as Alexandre Dumas’s heritage.”

  • paola genone

    I am totally shocked by this movie and thank you for your review and for your point of view that I deeply share. It is not receivable for me to mix the Tarantino’s clip “ironical” way of filming, those type of “documentary and historical” images of slavery, the blaxploitation references, this hero coming out of a mix of the worst rap, Sergio Leone’s characters and a model for a fashion publicity campaign… And, as you say, talking about Duma’s black origins… All this is not only superficial, but doesn’t take in any account that these kind of confused messages can be taken as “great” examples to follow by young people. This is such a stupid and ignorant movie.

    • MsAfropolitan

      Hi Paola,

      Thanks for sharing your views too. Nice to read that we are on the same page.


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