A Feminist Look at Django Unchained

Last week, after watching Django Unchained with Chalupa, I had a chat with one of my favorite feminists, Slay Belle, about the movie. Here is the transcript of our conversation in which we address the plot, writing, and controversies of the film, as well as how feminists can approach the movie. (Spoilers contained within.)
Poster for Django Unchained, with the tag line "Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Vengeance."
Liz:  Anyway, let’s talk Django.

Slay: Yes, let’s!

Liz: I actually got to see it without seeing any previews beforehand. That doesn’t usually happen. All I knew going into it was the basic plot and a few of the controversies about the language and Tarantino. I got to go into it pretty much blind, without really knowing what to expect. Overall, I definitely liked it. You?

Slay: I knew a bit more about it than you did, though I didn’t have specific spoilers for the film. I’m pretty familiar with the movie genres he was paying homage too, so a lot of the movie fell into lines that I expected. I really liked the film. I think it was one of Tarentino’s most mature works and I think its more thoughtful than people gave it credit for.

Liz: I’ve watched a few spaghetti westerns before. Not many. Knowing a bit about some of the controversy, I was actually expecting it to be more ““ I don’t know ““ shocking. Or blatantly offensive. It was much more nuanced than I would have anticipated based on the conversations I read ahead of time.

Slay: Right, I know what you mean. I wasn’t bothered by the use of the n-word, which so many people had commented on I thought it was going to be like that South Park episode where they say “Shit” until a demon shows up. But what did people expect? It was a cross over blaxspolotation/spaghetti western set during slavery. What word do people think was commonly used to describe blacks?

Liz: Yeah ““ it makes sense for people to be uncomfortable with it. But discomfort doesn’t necessarily mean that it was the wrong choice for Tarantino to make. The characters used the words when referencing slaves. They weren’t going to call them “those slaves.” They weren’t going to say “black people.”

Slay: I think because it was Tarantino, it was assumed that there was a…fetishistic use of the word. But I think it was deliberate AND accurate. Right, I don’t think the average southern slave holder was overly worried about how slaves wished to be called.

Liz: Tarantino can definitely be fetishistic.

Slay: He can. I also think because he’s a white director, there tends to be some confusion between fetishize and a genuine love for the genres he makes movies in. There was an interesting interview with him on NPR about why he wanted to make a blaxspoitation film and his love of “black” culture, and he talked about where and how he grew up, and I felt like he was really honest about his interest and his love for the things he does.

Django holding a gun

Liz: Well, he certainly doesn’t have ownership of the black experience, but he does have ownership as an American over the story of the South, just like other Americans do. I read a quote of his where he talked about how he thinks Americans haven’t been willing to talk about how bad the South was because they’re ashamed, and other countries haven’t felt that they have the right to tell that story. I can see the claim that he doesn’t have the right to write the voice of a black ex-slave, but he does have the right to tell the story of the pre-Civil War South, because I think all Americans have that right to some degree. It’s part of our collective history.

Slay: Its an interesting conundrum. I can see the complaint, and I can see where its valid. But he’s right that we’re uncomfortable examining this period of our history, because we want to pretend that its over and doesn’t still cast a shadow over our culture.

Liz: One thing that struck me really hard was this was only 155 years ago!

 Slay: And the other part of that equation, is that this movie simply wouldn’t have gotten made it if wasn’t for Tarantino. I think he slipped a serious film past people who thought he was just gonna made a blowy-up-film. Right! It’s not that long ago! Not at all!

Liz: (I’m trying to have this serious conversation and Chalupa is lying in bed next to me pretending to be Jabba the Hut.) I have a friend whose opinions on movies I usually trust to mirror mine very closely, and he felt that there weren’t characters in the movie that he cared about. I was surprised ““ I certainly felt for multiple characters. Django, Schulz, certainly. Hilde as well.

Slay: Really? He didn’t even feel for Schulz? I thought everyone liked Schulz. He’s the least complicated to like, I think.

 Liz: I was surprised, too! It was a brief text conversation, so I’m going to have to pester him a bit more on that. I worried at the beginning that Schulz was going to turn on Django or something. I’m glad that didn’t happen. You know, Tarantino likes happy ending movies, doesn’t he? Or victorious endings, anyway.

Slay: I didn’t have that concern. I did think it was going to be Shulz that couldn’t keep up the charade though. And I was sort of surprised that he shot Candie so impulsively, because he seemed more careful than that. I guess I never really thought about it, but a lot of his movies do have happy endings. The later ones, at least.

Liz: I thought his shooting of Candie was out of character. More out of character was the fact that he didn’t shoot the guy who shot him ““ Schulz should have had two rounds in that gun. That was what irritated Chalupa, anyway.
Slay: I think that the whole experience of being on the plantation unwound him. He had that speech to Django when they shoot the fugitive in front of his son, but none of what he does really involves the ignoring of human suffering. He’s a bounty hunter who alleviates it by getting bad men off the streets, and in order to free Hilde, he’s got to turn a blind eye to all the ugly, ugly stuff that’s going on around him.

Liz: Great point. He was certainly unnerved. It was like he couldn’t stand seeing this one really bad guy go free, without consequences. So: treatment of women in the film? How do we approach this movie as feminists?

Django Unchained poster with Kerry Washington as Broomhilda von Shaft

Slay: Yeah, let’s talk that! I think I got the conversation a little far in front of us. I’m usually sensitive to the lack of female leading characters in movies and the symbolic virgin/savior woman who is mistreated to provide a narrative arc for the male characters, but it didn’t bother me in this movie at all.
Liz: I have a few guesses about why that might be. There’s a lot of ground to cover with Tarantino films! First, I have to say that Tarantino’s movies were first important to me when I was only just beginning to identify as a feminist. The Bride was important to me as a woman character.

Slay: Were they? I’m a bit older than you, so his movies came in at a different point in my life. I’m trying to think when he first started working women into his narratives.

Liz: Well, they were important at the same time ““ but not necessarily because of their feminist influences.

Slay: I mean, there’s women in PF, none in Reservoir Dogs, and then there’s Jackie Brown. Which is totally underrated.

Liz: Jackie Brown IS underrated. I saw Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill around the same time ““ when Kill Bill came out. I was in college, figuring out this “feminist” word and what it meant for me.

Slay: I loved that he provided Pam Grier a way back into Hollywood. I love that movie for that, if nothing else.

Liz: Pulp Fiction and Tarantino had women characters that surprised me. I think that was what was important. They didn’t feel like the women in every other movie.

Slay: I don’t think he’s an anti-woman director at all, but I think he gets slotted into that mold unfairly.

Liz: I don’t think I’d call him a feminist director by any means. I don’t think writing a feminist narrative is on his radar.
Slay: Right – exactly. He’s not interested in that, but he doesn’t give us cookie cutter women, either.

Liz: I get the idea that as much as he loves playing with genre, he also loves playing with character.

Slay: Which maybe is where pop culture ought to be going, but it’s not there yet.

Liz: And someone who really loves characters SHOULD give us good women characters, regardless of their feminist intention or lack of feminist intention.

Slay: I’m happy with that – someone who gives us good characters without being explicitly feminist about it. Which I think brings us to Hilde and her interesting position in the film.

Liz: I read someone’s comment that one of the things that was awesome about Hilde is that viewers almost never get to see a black “damsel in distress,” because black women are almost exclusively portrayed as strong, independent women. The idea being presented was that white women need rescued because white women are valuable. But in Django, Hilde is the most valuable thing in the film. More valuable than the Mandingo fighters, more valuable than the lives of all the people who died, more valuable than anyone.
Slay: Or victims. I think Hilde was in distress, but she wasn’t a victim.

Liz: I don’t know if I would go so far as to say she’s not a victim, but I don’t think her character is reduced to “victim archetype.”

 Slay: I think that’s incredibly true. When you look at what the women who are cast in that role usually look like, they’re these ethereal blondes with huge eyes. Idealized women who have no history or background and just exist to be rescued.

Liz: Liam Neeson’s daughter in Taken?
Slay: I think victim and victimized are different. She’s victimized, but she doesn’t surrender to it. Absolutely. Taken is a great example.

Liz: Kerry Washington was great, by the way.
Slay: She was PHENOMENAL in the role. I can’t believe she’s getting overlooked in review. I truly bought every bit of anguish she put on the scene. Her whipping scene made me cry. Just the look on her face, the timber of her voice. I burst into tears.

Liz: I’m not surprised. I’m not a movie crier, but that scene moved me, certainly. Oh, did I read somewhere that there were rape scenes that Tarantino decided to cut from the final edit?
Slay: This was not a movie I expected to cry during, but there’s a lot of visceral suffering. Oh, I hadn’t heard that. It’s certainly alluded to in the film.

Liz: What I recall is that he had filmed more explicit scenes but decided to remove it because the implication was strong enough. Okay, I just found an article by someone who had read the original script, and there were a few rape scenes written.

There are some 4 or 5 scenes in which the she’s, shall we say, “exposed””¦ i.e., naked; and they felt gratuitous to me; 2 in which she’s raped by white men. When we first meet her, she’s on the auction block and asked to bare her breasts to potential buyers; later, she’s chased through a hotel, through hallways, and lobbies, etc, by a slave master, completely naked, after being woken up from sleep, with a whip across her naked body; and still later, she’s locked up naked in a steel box as punishment for trying to run away.

 That obviously wasn’t in the movie we saw. I would certainly say he made the right call by not including those scenes.  

Slay: I think that was probably the right call. The toss away reference to it is jarring for how inconsequential its supposed to be. I just wanted to talk about how Hilde fleshes out the stock “damsel” idea.

Liz: Sure
Slay: The damsel, by definition, is a passive role – that’s brought up in the story King tells about Brunehilde, that she’s waiting for someone to cross a circle of fire and rescue her. But the legendary Brunehilde is a warrior and a Valkyrie, and while she waits in that part of the tale, she’s very active in other parts. And so is Hilde. She gets sold because she tries to run away with Django in the flashbacks, but after she’s caught, she doesn’t give up. We know she tried to run away at least once more – that’s when she gets hotboxed – but there’s other allusions to her resisting her fate. Mostly off screen, but I believe they mention that she resisted becoming a comfort woman to the fighters, and from what you said in the cut scenes, she tries to get away several more times. And in the end, when the escape, she has a gun too. I thought that was an important shot.

Liz: Her reaction to the revenge of the ending is important, too. She is horrified by all of the death, but she celebrates right alongside Django. It is their shared victory.

Slay: Absolutely. And they’re shown as equals in those last shots. She doesn’t ride off on his horse. She’s not his prize. She’s his partner.

Liz: She doesn’t have much time on screen to become a character, but she sure is a powerful one.

Slay: I think a lot of that is what Washington brings to the role, but there was something there for her to work with too.

Liz: In short, why do you think you liked this movie as much as you did?

Slay: Aside from the obvious – I think the script was top notch and the leads were really, really good – I thought it was honest to how brutal slavery was. There was this whole fantasy revenge aspect to it, but all the historical stuff, the human stuff, was presented honestly and unflinchingly, which I thought was completely ballsy. What about you? Why do you think you enjoyed it so much?

Liz: Primarily, I was intrigued by the story and the characters and invested in their success. I think that was part acting and part writing. Secondarily, I think my response was similar to yours ““ I appreciated the stark portrayal of an ugly part of history. We have a few movies that show the horrors of slavery, sure, but few genre movies are willing to take a risk like exposing something like this. I appreciated that risk, and I think it paid off. I’m really glad you were willing to talk about this with me!
Slay: Thank you so much for asking me too!

Liz: Maybe someday we can go to the movies together in person.
Slay: I would love that.

This post originally appeared on Liz Boltz Ranfeld. For another opinion on Django, see Persephone Magazine’s prior review.

3 replies on “A Feminist Look at Django Unchained”

I’m not quite as forgiving of Tarantino’s fairly obvious black culture fetishizing. I didn’t exactly think the n-word usage was gratuitous, but I did think that realistically there would have been a bit more variety in terms used. The n-word was not the only derogatory term used to refer to black people in the 19th century.

I liked the movie, although I have mixed feelings about it. It’s troubling that Django would embrace the idea of being one in 10,000 when there were actually many slaves struggling to get free by any means necessary. There were multiple slave rebellions, many slaves running away, records of so-called “house negroes” poisoning their owners, and so on. I’m not a historian, but I think it might have been a slightly better movie if Tarantino had gone a little more for the truth as opposed to what he was taught in school. Because in truth, the Uncle Ruckus character that Samuel L. Jackson played was much closer to the 1/10,000 frequency than Django.

Thank you for sharing your conversation with us. And for your thoughtful look at this movie.

I really loved Django. Granted, there were many scenes in which I flinched or averted my gaze, but it’s a Tarantino film and I expected that going in.

All in all, however, I thought it was a beautiful movie (it was beautifully shot – kudos to the cinematographer and the costume and set designers). The cast was superb. And it took us back to a hideous time in our history with unflinching accuracy and brutality. A time in which blacks and women had few people to speak on their behalf, the “n” word was used without thought, and “feminism” was just on the horizon in our country. (Despite the fact that strong, powerful, brilliant women had been impacting the world since the beginning of humankind.)

I thought Kerry Washington was, as she always is, amazing. She didn’t have a lot to work with, but I feel like she really brought it. And I have an undying adoration for Christoph Waltz, so he can really do no wrong as far as I’m concerned. I think it’s accurate to say that Tarantino is not a feminist filmmaker. I have some issues with QT as a person (he seems like an irredeemable douchebag), but I think if there’s one thing he does well, it’s turning tropes and genres into something entirely new. Oh, and soundtracks. He does amazing soundtracks.

Also, Jackie Brown? That movie buys him a lot of leeway with me. It may not be earned, but I just love Pam Grier.

What do we think about the clip of Samuel L. Jackson refusing to answer a question about the use of the n-word in the movie until the white interviewer actually says the word? I generally love SLJ, but it seemed like kind of a dick move. There was no way for that interviewer to win there. He probably should have avoided asking a question along those lines entirely, I guess.

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