Rosie Wang, Resident Blogger (’14, Columbia Law School)
Going into the midnight premiere of Django Unchained, the only real context I had was that (1) It was a Quentin Tarantino movie and (2) in Spike Lee’s opinion, it was racist. Coming out of it, I thought, “Wow, that was breathtakingly racist.” And not because of the copious use of racial slurs (which is what Mr. Lee objected to).
There’s something much more subtle and insidious in it’s portrayal of slavery: It adopts wholesale and without irony some of the worst plantation tropes and erases and reinterprets the historical narrative of black women’s lack of reproductive autonomy.
In Django Unchained, a German bounty hunter frees a slave, Django and partners up with him in capturing criminals. Django is dedicated to finding and rescuing his wife Hildy, who now belongs to a plantation owner who has male slaves killing each other for sport. It’s supposed to be okay for Tarantino to write and tell this story because it is a revenge fantasy of slaves rising up against their masters and thus subversive and empowering. However, there is a lot that goes wrong in the execution of this idea.
The black body is on sensationalistic display in a way that no white body equivalently is. Hildy is put in the “hot box” for trying to run away, and has water splashed over her nude body when she is released. Django is suspended upside down, naked and about to be castrated after his true intentions to save his wife are revealed. Nearly naked black men fighting to death appear on screen multiple times. These are fraught images because the institution of slavery viewed black women’s bodies as open for sexual consumption and black men’s bodies as threatening and open for torture. The way Django Unchained offers images of naked black bodies for visual consumption is exploitative and revels in the morbidity of the scenes, rather than aiming for historical accuracy.
With no historical background knowledge, someone watching the first scene depicting a plantation might think that a black woman’s life under slavery consisted of swinging on oak trees in hoop skirts – as long as she didn’t try to escape. In reality, coerced reproduction and rape is the way that slavery was sustained and slave owners’ wealth multiplied after the 1807 ban on the slave trade. The monetary worth of slave women being auctioned was determined by speculations on her reproductive capacity. Slave owners would pair their slaves with multiple partners and force them to engage in sexual activity without regard for any person’s consent. Slave women were especially vulnerable to sexual assault by their masters and the resulting children from such rapes were targets of violence by the master’s wife.
Harriet Jacob’s narrative of her own experience, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl describes her 55 year old master beginning sexual advance on her when she was 15. She eventually forms a relationship and has two children with another white man as the only method for escaping him. Children were often sold away from their mothers, dashing any potential of forming family bonds. Hildy is 27, and some mention is made of her role as a sex worker, but the very real reproductive consequences are never addressed. The legacy of all this is an entrenched distrust of the medical system among many black women which leads to poor health outcomes and the stereotype of not being able to be trusted to make their own reproductive decisions.