Is “Django Unchained” Historically Accurate and Does it Matter?
When Django Unchained (2012) was released, it received overwhelmingly positive reviews, but it also drew some criticism. Some were bothered by the violence, others were upset by the frequent use of the n-word (109 times in total), and some others were angered by the idea of a black man killing white racists Quite a few critics were also concerned about the film’s accuracy, claiming director Quentin Tarantino took too many liberties with American history.
Quentin Tarantino is not Ken Burns. The climax of Inglorious Basterds (2009) proves Tarantino cares more about good storytelling than historical accuracy. There are a few scenes in Django Unchained that are not historically accurate. When we first meet the villainous plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), he’s having a “good bit of fun” watching a Mandingo fight. A Mandingo fight is two slaves fighting each other in hand-to-hand combat to the death.
The Mandingo sequence is a powerful moment that shows the utter depravity of the antebellum South, but it has not been proven that these slave-versus-slave showdowns actually occurred. Slaves were expensive and too valuable to “waste” in gladiator games. After all, plantation owners were businessmen, and what businessman would recklessly put his investment in harms way? So where did Tarantino get this twisted concept? Most likely from a ‘70s film called, you guessed it, Mandingo (1975) where slaves are trained to beat each other to death.
In Django Unchained, everyone is shocked to see Django riding a horse. In Tarantino’s universe, slaves are only allowed to walk on their own two feet. However, writing for The Root, Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. points out that real-life slaves rode horses more frequently than you might think. According to Prof. Gates, slaves were often used as jockeys during Colonial times. In fact, George Washington’s personal slave, William Lee, often followed the famed general atop his own trusted steed.
Some have criticized the historical inconsistency with the hilarious Ku Klux Klan scene in Django Unchained because the Klan didn’t exist in 1858, but rather was formed after the Civil War by a group of Confederate veterans. Tarantino explains that the white slave owners who wears the white bags over their heads are part of an early version of the Ku Klux Klan known as regulators.
Does is matter that Django Unchained has some historically inconsistencies? Biopics and historical dramas based on real events have a responsibility to be accurate, but there’s a huge difference between a film like 12 Years a Slave (2013) and Django Unchained. One is a real story, and one is completely fictional. Django Unchained is a spaghetti western-blaxploitation-revenge flick, not a PBS documentary. Tarantino has stated that he chose to make a film about slavery in the spaghetti western genre because “films about slavery are either Historical with a capital H, which [Tarantino] think[s] puts it at an arms distance… so we can observe the facts through a glass, and we all know the facts… or there have been films such as Mandingo (1975) or Goodbye Uncle Tom (1971), which in a lot of ways [Tarantino] think[s] are a lot closer to the truth than these History with a capital H movies.”
While Django Unchained is not as historically bound as Lincoln (2012) or Amistad (1997), the film is accurate in its depiction of southern barbarity. Stephen Marchie of Esquire says, Django Unchained is “one of the most overt attempts made to deal with the physical reality of slavery.”