By Colin Woodward
Civil War scholar and blogger Kevin Levin, who is far more on top of things than I am, recently posted a link to an article on the the forthcoming film Django Unchained. It’s the latest movie from Quentin Tarantino. And while the film is set in the mid-nineteenth century South, it’d probably be wrong to call it “historical” anymore than Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds was. In the latter, American troops turned Hitler into Swiss cheese in June of 1944. That never happened, of course, but it felt good to see. Um, if you’re into that sort of thing….
Tarantino’s new film is another revenge fantasy. Judging from the Atlantic article in Levin’s link, people are already offended–in the case of the Atlantic, a black writer who has criticized Tarantino’s motives and his historical views on slavery. I’ve blogged a couple of times about thoughtful people who have a lot of bad things to say about Hollywood’s treatment of history. While I can understand such concerns, I think they are often misplaced.
Hollywood is enormously influential in shaping our view of the world. But it is not a history factory. Tarantino is not–anymore than the makers of Gone with the Wind were–a historian. He wants to tell a good story that will earn his studio a profit. He is a filmmaker, and a brilliant one at that. But it looks like Django Unchained is based more on Spaghetti westerns (why else would slaves be in the desert in an early scene?) and blaxploitation flicks from the 70s, rather than a story set in fact.
From what I can tell of the trailer, the Django character looks like a cross between Nat Turner and Jules Winfield from Pulp Fiction. I’m sure Tarantino will get enough historical details to make the film look good. But it will likely not be the kind of movie a teacher can show in an American history survey. No, Tarantino’s movies exist in some kind of alternate universe.
I hope Django Unchained is as entertaining as the trailer looks. But when it comes to history, don’t look to Hollywood.
Colin Woodward is a historian and archivist. He is the author of Marching Masters, Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army during the Civil War (University of Virginia Press, 2014). He is writing a second book on Johnny Cash.