The past year has seen a renewed interest in history at the cinema. From revisiting historical events in Argo and Zero Dark Thirty to reviewing historical figures in Lincoln and J. Edgar, there have been a series of films bringing the past back under the microscope and into the spotlight. If there’s one film, however, that garnered greater anticipation, it’s Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained. While more of an experiment in and tribute to genre films than his previous “historical” epic, Inglourious Basterds, Django builds upon that film’s same revisionist theme and style. However, where Inglourious Basterds took aim at an infamously evil historical figure in Adolf Hitler and the Nazis, Django points the camera back upon America, for a closer look at our own tarnished history, and it exposes our past sins through a kaleidoscope of comical and disturbing scenes that only a master filmmaker could weave together. With Django, Tarantino has created a film that at once pays homage to the world’s view of America as the Wild West and also forces us to acknowledge our nation’s brutal past.
With these past two films, Tarantino examines and condemns slavery and the Holocaust, two of the worst atrocities in modern history that share a commonality: both created and then preyed upon an illusion that one race is subservient to another. It is hard to believe that this type of thinking could not only exist but could be so overwhelmingly believed that whole societies enacted and enforced laws to enslave, control, and destroy people simply because they could. They are reminders of the atrocities we are able to commit despite major advancements and the mistakes we are capable of making when we lose sight of morality and reason. As much as we would like to forget that these disgraceful and immoral acts even occurred – sweep them under the rug so to speak – we need to remember them, so that history does not continue to repeat itself.
Nineteenth century America barely resembles the country as we know it today. Large cities, commerce, innovation were not the staples of our nation; rather, in a pre-industrialized America, agriculture reigned as the center of our economy, with crops harvested on the whipped backs of thousands of African slaves, and a “Wild West” lured people with its openness and golden dreams. About 75 years after the Civil War, a war with states’ rights and slavery at its core, Hitler and the Nazis began their attempt to exterminate the Jewish people, resulting in nearly six million Jewish deaths.
We have read and learned about these horrible events concerning these two races: one reduced to a mere commodity in a trans-continental trade, the other the target of a psychotic leader’s fascist plot. However, perhaps unfortunately, never did we learn about a white bounty hunter freeing a slave and the two leading their way to kill plantation owners and slave-drivers to free the enslaved man’s wife. Nor did we come across the chapter about how one of Hitler’s right hand men (a self-proclaimed “Jew Hunter”) betrayed his leader when he encountered a gang of Jewish U.S. soldiers, allowing Hitler to die at the hands of Jews in a French theater in order to lay claim to his own fame and inconspicuously live out the rest of his life.
Those are not real pieces of history; rather, they are recent stories created around these two historical events. Unfortunately, Hitler was not actually gunned down in a theater during World War II and (at least as far as I know) there were not any white bounty hunters teaming up with slaves traveling from plantation to plantation to get their revenge. These stories were created by the quirky writer and director Quentin Tarantino in his films Inglourious Basterds (2009) and the more recent Django Unchained (2012). As are the case with all of Tarantino’s films, these contain their fair share of vulgar, violence, gore, comedy, incredible dialogue, superb acting performances (Christopher Waltz, Brad Pitt, Jamie Foxx, Leonardo DiCaprio, Samuel L. Jackson, among others) and moving scenes. He succeeds in juxtaposing history with a retro/cartoonish presentation and a sort of hip-hop style, all the while leaving the viewer both laughing and stunned at different parts of the film, which unlike how our textbooks read pertaining to these two events, have a “happy” ending.
Although his plots are far from factual, his films are set in historical eras, and thus, take on and display the events and developments of that era. Whether it is the opening scene of Inglourious Basterds in which the viewer is simultaneously mesmerized by captivating directing, dialogue, and the fact that the “Jew Hunter” (Christopher Waltz) is moments away from ascertaining the whereabouts of hidden Jews who are subsequently gunned down, or the images of scars from whippings left on the backs of Django (Jamie Foxx) and his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), Tarantino reminds us of our ruthless past. These characters themselves never existed, but unfortunately, these events did, as millions of Jews were killed and thousands of slaves were treated like inanimate objects.
So how are we supposed to view these Tarantino films, two perfect examples of historical revisionism? Many critics do not like his graphic, vulgar, controversial, and somewhat crude approach to such significant topics, which are undoubtedly characteristics of his films. However, in his parody and revision of these historical events, Tarantino does something very important: he takes the bold step, which many are afraid to take, of tackling subjects that humanity would rather forget than realize it was actually the culprit. In Django, from an imaginative and creative story-teller, emerges a genre film that plants the seed from which stem questions concerning human nature and our own actions. Tarantino brings to light these inhumane events; he creates scenes that leave one in disbelief of how awful we can act towards our own kind – people; he puts those events out there (in his own unique style) for everyone to see. Whether you enjoy his films or not, one has to admire and respect the fact that he is willing to approach very sensitive issues and, despite revising history a bit, prompt a reminder to avoid the seemingly inevitable cycle of repeating history.